NNS English and authenticity in popular culture

With an increasing amount of English interactions around the world taking place between non-native speakers (I tried to find some stats on this, but couldn’t get a credibly concrete answer – Crystal’s figures are well out of date by now), it’s surprising how little this is depicted in the media and popular culture we (well, at least I) consume.

I’ve just finished watching the film “Victoria” and apart from the brilliant acting and incredible artistry by German director Sebastian Schipper (the whole 138 minute movie was filmed in one single take), the most striking thing (for me as an English teacher!) was the dialogue. The film is set in Berlin with a lot of the dialogue happening in German, but the titular character is a Spanish cafe worker (played by Spanish actress Laia Costa) who doesn’t speak German. This means that the bulk of the film takes place in English spoken between a native Spanish speaker and native German speakers (the central German character is played by German actor Frederick Lau). The dialogue is littered with glaringly obvious, but inconsequential grammar and lexical mistakes that would make many a proscriptive language teacher wince (“I’m scaring”, “the car won’t go on”), that for me only enhance the movie and serve to make it as realistic and believable as possible.

The interesting point about the film is that it was completely unscripted, which not only emphasises the realistic manner of the speech between the actors (I couldn’t find any footage of Frederick Lau speaking English in real life to see how much of it was ‘acting’, but judging from Laia Costa’s answers at the press conference for the film launch, the English she speaks in the film seems to be exactly how she speaks English in real life), but raises all kinds of questions about authenticity in the representations of English in the media that we consume.

Pinner and Lowe (2016) (hello!) astutely make the connection between authenticity and native-speakerism in the ELT industry, highlighting the issues of authority, culturism and cultural capital as the main strands that perpetuate the negative myth of the native-speaker teacher as the only true authentic model of English. I would argue that the same issues that affect NNS teachers can be extrapolated out into wider society and the representation of non-standard varieties of English in art and culture. I like to think that we’ve moved on at least a bit from grotesque caricatures of NNS English in the vein of Manuel in Fawlty Towers and films like “Victoria” are a good sign that we are moving away from non-standard English in art and media as a fetished exotic other (culturism) as exemplified by the highly objectified and inevitably ‘foreign’ Bond girl.

The encouraging thing for me about a film like “Victoria” is that it that it turns the notions of authority, culturism and cultural capital on their head, showing that the less standard the English, the more authentic it becomes. If the two main characters had spoken with perfectly polished California accents it would have been just another cheesy Hollywood movie. Or, if they had displayed an exaggerated non-standard accent, but had magically obtained perfect grammar, fluent diction and a command of idiomatic English, I think that would also have reduced the credibility of the film for the audience (not to say that NNS can not or should not have these qualities of course!). By allowing the actors to be themselves and to uninhibitedly show off their own (completely valid) dialect of English they give authority to world Englishes, resist culturism and make a mockery of the idea that only art produced by Inner Circle countries can have cultural capital.

In terms of the usefulness of this for the classroom, I know I’ll be using this film in the future to provide a positive role model for students (not that I actively want them to make grammar mistakes of course!) to hopefully give them confidence and to show that the standard US/UK model of English is not the only authentic voice. I hope that future screenwriters and textbook publishers will take inspiration from this kind of positive example so that in the future it will be possible to have scripted movies and learning aids that are able to be this authentic without mocking or ‘othering’ the NNS English interactions that make up the vast majority of the English that is spoken around the world every day.

Reference

Lowe, R.J. & Pinner, R. (2016). Finding the Connections Between Native-Speakerism and Authenticity. Applied Linguistics Review 7 (1), 27-52 (Link)

 

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3 thoughts on “NNS English and authenticity in popular culture”

  1. Interesting stuff! One of my favorite things about working in California now is the extent to which NNS status is normal, and even prized. Quite a contrast from Japan, where many heads of departments here would probably be turned away from eikaiwa jobs once their NNS status was known.
    On authenticity, I agree with the authors of that article (one of whom I recognize from the TEFLology podcast) that the term really holds many meanings, some as simple as “conforms to stereotype”. I really think we should abstain from using the term as the risk of being misunderstood is quite high.

    Like

  2. Thanks for the quick response!

    That is very interesting to hear that NNS are more accepted in the US than in Japan. I wonder if that is down to general acceptance of diversity or is the fact they are ‘prized’ another side to what is seen as positively “authentiic”?

    And, yes, I think you are right about the term itself, I should have put “authenticity” in inverted commas in this article!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Luke, I am afraid I saved this link and almost a year later I am finally getting round to checking it! Fascinating piece, I actually mentioned Arnie and Bond Girls and the attractive ‘foreign’ accent in a talk I gave recently… A very interesting angle.

    Like

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