The Very Heart of English?1
Reflections on culture, fluency and the native speaker’s head*
by Zsuzsanna Ardó
Longman. The dictionary that reaches the parts other dictionaries cannot reach.2
The LDELC claims
DELC—i.e. The Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture (Longman, 1992a) can, if we are to believe claims made about it in the DELC information leaflet, get to "the very heart of the English Language" (Longman, 1992c) 3 (sic) and "into the head of the native speaker." The definite articles followed by singular noun forms alert the careful reader: there is no place for ambiguity or plurality here. There is "the English language," or even "the Language," we can get to the heart of. There is also the native speaker, perhaps even the Native Speaker, whose head we can peep into, courtesy of Longman Publishers.
These biological metaphors translated into linguistic message communicate that, as far as Longman is concerned, there is clearly (?) a norm for the language (the English) and a model for the speaker (the Native Speaker). But what is this norm and model? Which English and which native speaker? The DELC is diachronic in its approach and yet, since it limits its corpus mostly to the 20th century (Summers, 1991:8), most classics of English literature, including Shakespeare and the father of English Dictionaries, Samuel Johnson, certainly would not qualify as native speakers since today they would probably have to consult the DELC more frequently than non-native speakers of English. And which culture? Although the DELC claims to provide equal coverage of British and American culture, in fact the regional target percentages according to Della Summers (1991:8) are unequal: 50% British and 40% American. And that leaves 10% (!) for Other Regional English varieties, such as "Australian, Irish, and African" (Summers, 1990:8)—in this order and not mentioning, for example, English in India, Hong Kong and so on. The 10% to 90% ratio suggests, does it not, a value judgement on the assumption that "British (and to some: American) English is superior to the local variety." (Greenbaum.1990:81). Clearly, some native speakers are a pinch more native than other natives, let alone non-native speakers of English.
The native speaker's head
Well, let us see. Apparently, you can get to the very heart—whatever that means—of the English Language only with a slight detour via the native speaker's head. As you may readily appreciate, this is not such good news for non-native speakers of English. The trouble is, it seems, that since non-native speakers of English—such as most English teachers and translators/interpreters—have to make do, like it or not, with heads of their own. Thus they cannot possibly achieve fluency in English: no native-speaker head, no access to the heart of the English language and therefore no fluency—or so goes the verdict by implication in the DELC info. 4
There is nothing very much to have a native-speaker-head-envy about, judging by the cultural content of the DELC. All the same, this predicament of not having the right sort of head is no small matter, to say the least. It has many implications concerning the "mystique of the native speaker" (Ferguson & Kachru, 1982). One is professional: teachers or translators without native-speaker head cannot really be top quality however well qualified and experienced. As one of the respondents (non-native) of my survey put it with impeccable (native-like?!) English, which paradox demonstrates in itself the absurdity of the mystique: "At best, I can be second best." (Ardó, 1992). Another implication is economic: gatekeepers are conveniently confirmed and happily justified to continue discriminating in favour of native heads. "I am afraid we have to insist that all our teachers are native speakers of English. Our students do not travel half-way round the world only to be taught by a non-native speaker (however good that person's English may be)." (Illés, 1991; italics mine). It is however, the psychological implication which may be the most destructive of all. This is a predicament which is biologically fixed—it cannot be resolved (unless with a head transplant?), and in effect is fatal. Fatal, since it seems to be a genetic deformity, a "birth deficiency" stigma for all non-native speakers of English. The students of these poor invalids obviously cannot but be hit even harder. Unless...
Unless... those of us not blessed with a native-speaker head, or even the Native-Speaker head, rush out and put ourselves, at an arguably modest expense, on the life-support system of the Longman DELC! Then, with enlightenment on the current (and not so current) trivia of British and American life, with luck, we may be able to trade in our own somewhat second-rate (since positively non-native) head for a native one. Thus we may rest assured we are on the right path to the nirvana of native-speaker fluency.
Beyond any shadow of a doubt most non-native-speaker English teachers will be relieved, or even thrilled, to secure a copy of this book which promises so much. (Can you hear the crowds clamouring—"Yes, this is what we need. Finally.")
And, undoubtedly, it will sell and sell.
What is more, the DELC is quite likely to acquire some sort of gospel status: the "word" of the native speaker. The handy, (large) pocket-size native-speaker substitute—don't leave home without it! 5 Almost like the real thing.
Almost, but not quite. This particular gospel lacks permanence. This product of the ELT industry and myth-making machinery is a highly perishable one. There is perhaps nothing as short-lived as trivia which in turn has implications for the shelf-life of the DELC.
Therefore there seem to be two, perhaps disturbing, implications to consider.
The first one is commercial and has to do with marketing psychology.
Once the customer is hooked on the false sense of security provided by the head of the native speaker in the form of the DELC, sitting snugly (and chances are less smugly than the full body version) on his or her desk, in all probability s/he will be an instant buyer of the updated versions of these security boosters. And will continue to do so.
This means that there will be reliable mega-markets of non-native teachers and students of English addicted to the DELC. Add to this already massive market the not insignificant number of expatriate natives who would thus hope to ensure their native head is still the real thing. And then there is the not quite 100% native speaker who may have to consult the DELC on various soap opera characters to satisfy the non-native hunger for "fluency" in English.
All in all, we have got a particular product with an extremely brief shelf life but endless production line, generating an ongoing perceived need on the part of the consumer and therefore revenue for the publisher at the same time.
Envisage, however, the upshot of this process, for a change, from a professional point of view. This is the second, potentially more sinister aspect to consider.
Now this has to do with the sort of assumptions made about the learning process and the educational value a dictionary, such as the DELC, may have and who for. Furthermore, I would suggest, it also concerns fundamental notions of what ELT/TESOL is, or rather should be about. And this in turn brings up questions about the psychology of self-respect and insecurity. And how what counts as knowledge is sanctified; how fluency is mythologised. The insecurities about the fluency and the identity of advanced students of ELT/TESOL, including translators and teachers, seem to have been undermined rather than removed by this dictionary.
If we are to take the argument of the DELC information material about fluency to its logical conclusion, then it follows that even an approximation to fluency is a distinctly pathetic aspiration for an "outsider." The eager anglophiles who take great pains to acquire these elements of "fluency" to emulate the native speaker may quite easily find themselves acting upon hard-earned (albeit second-hand) knowledge which may well be soon out of date and no longer valid. This, in turn, will mark their speech less native-like, not more.
The Royal Family of ELT
It is also clear that ELT has moved yet another step further away from professionalism: knowing and teaching what Coronation Street may mean is not a question of either linguistic or pedagogic competence. It is neither a question of training or experience, nor of education. It becomes a hereditary question: it is based on being born into circumstances which favour fluency. Rather like into the Royal Family, you are quite simply born into fluency.6 Nay, not even that shall suffice. You also have stay in it and remain a loyal member of it, immersing your royal self in and accumulating "knowledge" which is ephemeral, arguably subculture-specific, and not otherwise of any particular value.
The conscientious, committed translator or teacher are bound to feel their worst fears confirmed. Not only is achieving "native-like" fluency, as some like to call it, an uphill struggle with no apparent end in sight, but in fact this elusive notion (Rampton 1990), these (royal) castles-in-the-air, is inaccessible to all but the equally elusive native speaker.
Fluency, then, cannot be acquired and maintained in the non-native head. Fluency, in this aristocratic definition of the Middle Ages, cannot be "appropriated," if you will, from the native speaker. It remains, for good, the privilege and birthright of the Native Speaker. (Phillipson, 1992; Widdowson 1992) The contents of this "royal fluency" can be inspected in the DELC, quite like Hampton Court and Windsor Castle. In the final analysis, the acceptance of this particular notion of fluency as asserted by Longman 7, leaves but one option, whether reluctantly or otherwise, for the self-respecting ELT student and non-native teacher striving for fluency.
And this scenario means that the non-native speaker, however advanced, is reduced to strategies such as collecting rows of native-speaker heads. Better still, s/he can subscribe to an (infinite) series of the DELC which promises to provide a sort of comforting substitute. And there will always be a new, fully updated version to look forward to and polish one's fluency with.
But is this indeed what fluency is all about?
The DELC is prescribed for advanced learners of English; it guarantees "that all the definitions are easy to understand"8. Now one of the questions to ponder is to what extent the prescriptive aspect may interfere with the descriptive nature of the work. 9 Since a learners' dictionary is designed so as to have a simple, direct and user-friendly language, its language is defined by its prescriptive purpose, as indeed it should be.
As the C indicates in the acronym, the DELC is also a dictionary of culture however. Now, culture is not a straightforward concept to define by any means. Rather it "is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language... mainly because it had now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought." (Williams, 1983:87). Nevertheless, we can probably concur that, whatever it is, it represents complex worlds of multiple meanings and subtle nuances.
Therefore can the prescriptive purpose of easy simplicity and the descriptive content of subtle complexity ever be successfully reconciled at the level of language? How can a dictionary cum encyclopedia for learners treat the highly complex interrelationships of language, cognition and culture?
Rationale for selection
Yet it is not just the nuances that seem to be somewhat problematic in the DELC. Some of the problems concern, it seems to me, the rationale for selection (Summers, 1991).
One may wonder why, for example, Saddam Hussein features in this dictionary of English Language and Culture, but Salman Rushdie, controversial British writer does not, although the word "fatwa" has become part of the English lexis due to his "Satanic Verses"? "Hampstead" has made its way into the DELC but not "St John's Wood," the home of many famous artists, writers, of the Abbey Road Recording Studio (not in the DELC) made famous by the Beatles and visited by flocks of overseas visitors (many of them potential DELC users!), and the home of course of Lord's, the HQ of cricket, "the most important cricket ground in Britain" (DELC, 1992), that most potent symbol of English culture. Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Body Shop yes—Holland and Barrett, Ikea, Cranks not. Black Monday yes—Black Wednesday (that broke the pound) not. Just how reliable is the selection criteria, I wonder, that include Boulez, Britten, Schubert but not Bartók, Berg and Schönberg? How come Penguin and Virago are entries, Longman is not?
If neither Hegel, nor Heidegger is included, I understand; should both be excluded, I do not say a word. But why is Hegel included, and Heidegger is not? And what exactly is the informative or pedagogic, linguistic or cultural value for learners of English to know that the three (!) first names of Hegel were "Georg Wilhelm Friedrich"? Whereas the popular British historian, A.J.P Taylor, features only with his initials, which only Taylor's contemporary natives, who normally referred to him with his initials, will appreciate; the non-native dictionary user will not see the reason for this inconsistency. Would not it be more culturally relevant to indicate, however briefly, that hegelianism has to do with a dialectic view of things? Or could it not be at least cross-referenced to the entry "dialectic" where actually Hegel is mentioned?
The variety of entries in the DELC is remarkable and indeed impressive. And yet, of course, there are bound to be many words you will not find if you make your business to use the DELC, as it is suggested in its publicity material, to "read between the lines." Just to mention a few: DHL and Swiftair, low boy and canterbury, apple cheeks and digital sex, BBS, Squidgytapes and Camillagate. 10 What makes one wonder is that, for example, both of these last words have featured very prominently, and repeatedly, in all forms of English speaking media, and have been much discussed and joked about by native speakers. So do you need to know these "valuable" pieces of information to understand the jokes and references to them? Yes. But would this be, at the same time, a criterion for native fluency in English? If so, tough luck—they do not feature in the native head offered by the LDELC.
The language of the explanations given is indeed simple and easily accessible. Must be granted, the Longman DELC team was working in a particularly volatile historical period when almost every day geographical boundaries were arranged and rearranged, with labour-intensive and complex cross-referencing implications for the lexicographers, however computerised they may be. It must have been tremendously difficult to cope with it all—small wonder if entries are sometimes not quite as informative as they could be. For example: "Moscow is the capital of the former USSR..." but there is no mention of Moscow actually being the capital of Russia and part of the CIS.
Whose prejudice is it, anyway?
The DELC is a difficult, "interdisciplinary" genre: partly dictionary, partly encyclopedia. This raises the issue of the principled decision-making for evaluative comments—and the problem of inconsistent treatment of various entries. Why is Audrey Hepburn "an actress of great beauty" whereas Katharine Hepburn is simply "an American film actress"? And again: who took upon the judgement to evaluate Prague as "the capital city of Czechoslovakia (already out of date—surely a "former" missing), a port and industrial centre with many beautiful buildings" and Vienna as "the capital city of Austria, famous as a music and cultural centre"? 11. In stark contrast to both of these evaluative entries, Budapest is, apparently, neither beautiful, nor famous as a music and cultural centre, in the Longman lexicographer's eyes at least. It is simply "the capital and largest city of Hungary, on the Danube river."—a factual, geographical comment without value judgement. Generations of millions of DELC users may conclude from the way information is highlighted in these entries that Vienna and Prague may be, for example, preferred locations to Budapest to learn more about or visit. Such a comparison of entries of identical categories—capital cities of similar size and significance in Central Europe—may give an interesting insight into the prejudices of the lexicographers. It may also be explained with the computer database used by the lexicographers. But the computerised corpus was selected by the lexicographers; what is fed into the computer to constitute the final corpus as their point of reference is in fact defined by their view of what English culture is. Should their particular definition be accepted, then the DELC in turn, may be a reflection on how "English Culture" views these cities, the "heart" of these respective cultures and, inherently, the people who live there. In any case the problems of inconsistency and discrimination remain and beg the question: whose value judgements will the dictionary users potentially assimilate and spread in their relentless search to emulate native fluency? What may be the long-term implications of a widely used "Bible of English prejudices" with no balances and context?
But instead of how the English see others, let's see how they see themselves in the DELC. The term "Ulster Unionist" you can look up but not, perhaps significantly, its counterpart cause so prominent in Ireland and relevant to English culture: the Irish Nationalist. "Falls Road" is listed as a Catholic area but should not the political affiliation, i.e. that Falls Road is the heartland of Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland, be also mentioned for the dictionary user to be able to make sense of that entry? Similarly, the entry for "Shankhill Road" does not mention its symbolic value: that it is the heartland of the Protestant, working classes. The entry for these two significant areas in English culture read almost word by word the same, as if to pre-empt criticism. Word by word, except ... except Catholic is mentioned, Protestant is not, and there is no mention of them being working class areas. The question is: how can one interpret these entries about English culture in any meaningful way with such randomly sketchy information provided? Is not "reading between the lines" about the interrelationships of bits of information? Does not any level of understanding have to do with cross-referencing isolated references in your mind? Surely, these items should have been fully cross-referenced to each other and the respective paradigms (Unionists and Nationalists, UDA, UVF and UFF). Ulster Unionism is defined in terms of Northern Ireland but there is no corresponding entry for Nationalist or Irish Nationalist in the context of Northern Ireland with reference to the Catholic community. The "Nationalism" and "Nationalist" entries enlist Welsh, Scottish, Basque and Chinese nationalism but, crucially, no reference to Irish nationalism. Could this perhaps be a slight sanitization of English Culture where should one leave a bag unattended in the tube, it is quite unlikely anyone but the security police will touch it for fear of a nationalist bomb inside it?
To read between the lines of a culture, it is not enough to know who Maradonna, Madonna and the Madonna are. When one has to look up who these cultural cult figures are, one arguably does not become more part of that particular culture. In fact, having to consult the dictionary about something that the target community takes for granted, may just confirm the dictionary-user's sense of alienation. The process of text decoding with a dictionary may in fact create a feeling of being an outsider to the culture in which these entries carry significant meanings. And even if one comprehends the meaning per se, it is far from being the end of the decoding process. To access the actual message, it should be surely crucial, should it not, to be able appreciate how they are referred to—for example, approvingly, or just the other way round?
Notwithstanding the concerns outlined in this article, the DELC undoubtedly makes fascinating reading, and one which is more often absorbing than irritating. It is, at its best, an entertaining encyclopaedia of mostly contemporary popular symbols, mythologies and yes, trivia and ephemera.
Prejudice & Trivial Pursuit
That is, then, I would argue, what it should have been published as in the first place instead of trying to be something it cannot be and attributing qualities to itself which are theoretically so questionable. It should perhaps simply be marketed as what it is and what it is good at. It should also be packaged and advertised as such, something like: "Encyclopaedia of English Popular Culture." Or: "The Essential Trivial Pursuit for Non-native Speakers of English." Or even: "The Longman Dictionary of Anglo-centricity"!? It well may be closer to reality, more manageable in size and easier to update. Might sell even better?
Such a product would not be less but more to the credit of its publishers. This especially holds considering that the idea at the "heart" of this dictionary is genuinely innovative, imaginative and quite daring.
In fact the original idea is so good, it is almost self-evident and leaves one wondering why it has not been done before—similar works by other publishers are bound to follow. Longman, thus, is to be congratulated for thinking bravely, taking the plunge, and stirring the somewhat stagnating waters of ELT by recognising a need and taking the risk of trying to respond to it.
However, some of the very important theoretical and practical questions outlined above remain and should perhaps be seriously considered for the second edition which is no doubt already in the making. Why is it that an excellent idea had to be blown out of proportion and paraded under false pretences? Why is the quality uneven and how about the inconsistencies? Why is the visual material of a female illustration editorial team heavily male dominated? The list could go on... but most importantly: why, oh, why could we not have been spared the ideology of native-speaker heads cum heart-of-English in the promotional haze? The short answer may be that Longman does indeed know how to reach audiences other dictionaries cannot reach: by tapping a (mis)conception rooted in psychological insecurities and theoretical ambiguities.
The long answer, however, concerns the continuing, considered debate of the complex interrelationship of the kind of issues this article engages: fluency, culture and native-speakerism.
© Zsuzsanna Ardó
* First published by TJ Vol 5 No 1 2001
I would like to thank Henry G. Widdowson for discussions relevant to this article.
1 Reference to the text of the Longman information leaflet on the Dictionary of English Language and Culture (1992).
2 Author's allusion to the beer advertisement slogan of the Dutch beer company Heineken which makes a detailed entry in the new Longman dictionary: "Heineken. The beer that refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach." Longman DELC (1992:613)
3 See Note 1.
4 The DELC is claimed to give the "full explanations of the cultural allusions and connotations needed by advanced students to achieve fluency in English." (Longman DELC info leaflet.) From this assertion it follows that you cannot achieve fluency without full understanding and knowledge—or perhaps even emulation—of the target language.
5 Reference to the American Express slogan which also finds its way to the Longman DELC.
6 The particular love-hate obsession of the British public with their Royal Family distinctly reminds me of the type and the quality of the relationship between the native (British in particular) and non-native speaker teachers in ELT. I elaborate on this issue in more detail in Ardó (1992).
7 See Note 1.
8 See Note 1.
9 Personal communication: I am grateful to the Research Seminar Group, Institute of Education, University of London for this particular point.
10 For the benefit of those readers who wish to take a few steps towards "native fluency":
DHL and Swiftair: rapid mail services widely used in business, especially to overseas. DHL is the largest private international courier service and delivers usually overnight; Swiftair is part of the Royal Post Office;
low boy and canterbury: pieces of furniture—table and holder for music scores;
apple cheeks: according to the Sunday Times, George Soros (famous Hungarian born American financier and philanthropist, not included in the DELC) has those cheeks apparently;
digital sex: according to NHS information leaflets, it is a form of sex with fingers or toes whereby AIDS can be spread;
BBS: Bulletin Board System—a database system where messages and data can be transferred via modem;
Squidgy tapes: alleged recordings of intimate telephone discussions between the Princess of Wales and her alleged close male friend who calls her Squidgy;
Camillagate: alleged recordings of intimate telephone discussions between the Prince of Wales and Camilla, his alleged close female friend.
11 Italics and italicised text in brackets are mine.
Ardó, Zsuzsanna (1992) "Professional status and the status of the profession" Unpublished ms.
Bowers, Roger. 1992. "Memories, metaphors, maxims, and myths: language learning and cultural awareness," ELT Journal 46/1: 29-38.
Ferguson, Charles. (1982) "Foreword" and Kachru. Braj. "Meaning in Deviation: Toward Understanding Non-native English Texts." The Other Tongue: English across Cultures. (Ed. Braj Kachru). Oxford:Pergamon.
Greenbaum, Sidney. (1990) "Standard English and the international corpus of English." World Englishes, 9/1:79-83
Illés, Éva. (1991) "Correspondence." ELT Journal, 45/1:87.
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Phillipson, Robert. (1992) "ELT: the native speaker's burden?". ELT Journal, 46/1: 12-19
Rampton, Ben M. H. (1990) "Displacing the 'native speaker': expertise, affiliation, and inheritance." ELT Journal, 44/2:97-101
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Williams, Ray. (1983) Keywords. Flamingo