Where can you go with your English major? Almost anywhere. Just ask Jena Habegger-Conti (’95)…
I attended Taylor in the early ’90s when the world seemed on the verge of something very big and new and exciting: globalization! In all the excitement of becoming a global citizen I embarked on a semester in Latin America, signed up for a summer in Singapore, and couldn’t say no to a J-term in England. After graduation I was off to England again, and then Canada, and then Norway. Globalization meant the breaking down of national borders. I could go anywhere, live anywhere. But I have since begun to suspect that the passport to the world has only been valid for some of us.
At least in part, my real ticket to worldwide citizenship is the privilege of English, and in particular, of native speaker English. I am, by birth, an expert (I acknowledge this while simultaneously cringing).
I am often asked to “språkvask” – a Norwegian word that translates literally as “language wash.” This means I “correct” the written English of my Scandinavian colleagues before they submit an article or book to a publisher. While some of this work involves correcting language errors, my main task is to ensure that the style conforms to the standards of either British or American English. In other words, I erase all evidence of the author’s true identity and turn him or her into a native speaker. On the one hand this is an easy job for me; I simply ask: Does this sound right? On the other hand, it causes a great deal of anxiety, not about globalization, but about the cultural imperialism that crouches behind it.
Last year I traveled to Helsinki, Finland to present a paper titled “Translating English into English.” My point was to shed light on the growing debates surrounding what is and is not considered as “standard” English in the world of academic publishing.
Present in the audience was Dr. Harish Trivedi, a professor at the department of English at the University of Delhi. He jokingly pointed to one of the sentences on my hand-out that did not make sense (as luck would have it). Dr. Trivedi, a good-natured and spirited man, then asked, “Does it make me a native speaker when I can correct a native speaker’s English?”
Dr. Trivedi was born in India, a country which has two official languages: English and Hindi, both of which he learned as a child. He studied in the UK and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf. Nevertheless, he does not consider himself a native speaker, and asked me if he could send me an article for “språkvasking.”
“We Indians use too-long sentences for Westerners,” he complained.
It is common practice for publishers to require that an article or book be read by a native speaker prior to submission, but what on earth does “native” mean in this world of travelers and migrants?
My husband and I are both Americans and we moved to Norway with our son when he was only two. We speak only English at home, but our son’s is colored by Norwegian idioms and syntax: “Can you screw on the lights?” he’ll ask, and smile gleefully while saying, “That hears fun out!” Will he be considered a native speaker, or a speaker of ESL? Or as someone who doesn’t speak any language properly?
These are questions I ponder as I teach Norwegian students who will go on to be teachers of ESL, and I wonder what English as a “global language” really means.
I welcome responses from those of you studying or working in the field of English.
Jena Habegger-Conti (’95) lives in Bergen, Norway with her husband and two children. She is employed as Associate Professor of English at the University of Stavanger and is also a writer and freelance copy-editor. She shares her experiences of trying to make an always-foreign country “home” in her blog Uprooted.