International English

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

International English is the concept of the English language as a global means of communication in numerous dialects, and the movement towards an international standard for the language. It is also referred to as Global English, World English, Common English, General English or Standard English. Sometimes these terms refer simply to the array of varieties of English spoken throughout the world; sometimes they refer to a desired standardisation. However, consensus on the terminology and path to standardisation has not been reached.

Historical context

The modern concept of International English does not exist in isolation, but is the product of centuries of development of the English language.

The language of England came to dominance throughout the island of Great Britain during the Middle Ages and in Ireland during the 18th century and, especially, the 19th century. In the modern era, printing led to the gradual standardisation of English, and particularly the use of the prestige dialect of the English ruling classes.

The establishment of the first permanent English-speaking colony in North America in 1607 was a major step towards the globalisation of the language. British English was only partially standardised when the American colonies were established. Isolated from each other by the Atlantic Ocean, the dialects in England and the colonies began evolving independently. The differences between American English and British English were then magnified by choices made by the first influential lexicographers (dictionary writers) on each side of the Atlantic. While spellings such as "center" and "colour" had been common in both North America and England since the time of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1755 greatly favored Norman-influenced spellings. On the other hand, Noah Webster's first guide to American spelling, published in 1783, moved sharply away from the Norman-influenced spellings. The difference in strategy and philosophy of Johnson and Webster are what gave rise to the main division in English spelling that exists today.

In the 18th century, the standardisation of British English was more settled than it had been in the previous century, and this relatively well-established English was brought to Africa, Asia and Oceania. It developed both as the language of English-speaking settlers from Britain and Ireland, and as the administrative language imposed on speakers of other languages in the various parts of the British Empire. The first form can be seen in New Zealand English, and the latter in Indian English. The term Commonwealth English refers to these groups of English dialects.

The English-speaking regions of Canada and the Caribbean are caught between historical connections with the UK and the Commonwealth, and geographical and economic connections with the U.S. In some things, and more formally, they tend to follow British standards, whereas in others they follow the U.S. standard.

More recently, American English has become predominant as the preferred version of English in many countries that previously either had no preferred form, or preferred some variant of British English. Since World War II, for example, Japan has generally used American English.

The ebb and flow between the standardisation of the language and its diversification have been ever present throughout its history. The flagship of the former is intelligibility and practicality, while the latter has cultural autonomy and flexibility.

Methods of promotion

Unlike proponents of constructed languages, International English proponents face on the one hand the belief that English already is a world language (and as such, nothing needs to be done to promote it further) and, on the other, the belief that an international language would inherently need to be a constructed one (e.g., Esperanto in Chinese is generally just referred to as "shijie yu" or "world language"). In such an environment, at least four basic approaches have been proposed or employed toward the further expansion or consolidation of International English, some in contrast with, and others in opposition to, methods used to advance constructed international auxiliary languages.

  1. Laissez-faire approach. This approach is taken either out of ignorance of the other approaches or out of a belief that English will more quickly (or with less objections) become a more fully international language without any specific global legislation.
  2. Institutional sponsorship and grass-roots promotion of language programs. Some governments have promoted the spead of the English language through sponsorship of English language programs abroad, without any attempt to gain formal international endorsement, as have grass-roots individuals and organizations supporting English (whether through instruction, marketing, etc.).
  3. National legislation. This approach encourages countries to enshrine English as having at least some kind of official status, in the belief that this would further its spread and could include more countries over time.
  4. International legislation. This approach involves promotion of the future holding of a binding international convention (perhaps to be under the auspices of such international organizations as the United Nations or Inter-Parliamentary Union) to formally agree upon an official international auxiliary language which would then be taught in all schools around the world, beginning at the primary level. While this approach allows for the possibility of an alternative to English being chosen (due to its necessarily democratic approach), the approach also allows for the eventuality that English would be chosen by a sufficient majority of the proposed convention's delegates so as to put international opinion and law behind the language and thus to consolidate it as a full official world language.

Modern global language

There is a distinction between English as spoken as a native language around the world (for example in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and as a non-native language spoken as a national (for example in India), regional or global lingua franca.

A second distinction is made between those countries where non-native or semi-native English has official or historical importance (special significance, for example, in Pakistan and Uganda), and those where it does not (for example, in Japan and Peru).

In the terminology of English language teaching (ELT), we have:

  • English as a native language (ENL), also called first language (L1).
  • English as an additional language (EAL) or English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), which can be divided into:
    • English as a second language (ESL) in an environment where English has a special significance, also called second language (L2).
    • English as a foreign language (EFL) in places where it has no special significance, also called third language (L3).

For further information, see English language teaching.

English as a second language might refer either to acquisition of the language in India, where it is a prominent regional lingua franca, or the acquisition of the language by a speaker of another language in a predominantly English-speaking country (a Brazilian living in Barbados, for instance). It may not be an individual's actual second language, but perhaps third or fourth. Roger Nunn considers different types of competence in relation to the teaching of English as an International Language, arguing that linguistic competence has yet to be adequately addressed in recent considerations of EIL.

In the context of language teaching, English as an additional language (EAL) usually is based on the standards of either British/Commonwealth English or American English. English as an international language (EIL) is EAL with emphasis on learning different major dialect forms; in particular, it aims to equip students with the linguistic tools to communicate internationally.

Varying concepts

Universality and flexibility

International English sometimes refers to English as it is actually being used and developed in the world; as a language owned not just by native speakers, but by all those who come to use it.

Basically, it covers the English language at large, often (but not always or necessarily) implicitly seen as standard. It is certainly also commonly used in connection with the acquisition, use, and study of English as the world's lingua franca ('TEIL: Teaching English as an International Language'), and especially when the language is considered as a whole in contrast with American English, British English, South African English, and the like. — McArthur (2002, p. 444–45)

It especially means English words and phrases generally understood throughout the English-speaking world as opposed to localisms. The importance of non-native English language skills can be recognised behind the long-standing joke that the international language of science and technology is broken English.


International English reaches towards cultural neutrality. This has a practical use:

"What could be better than a type of English that saves you from having to re-edit publications for individual regional markets! Teachers and learners of English as a second language also find it an attractive idea — both often concerned that their English should be neutral, without British or American or Canadian or Australian colouring. Any regional variety of English has a set of political, social and cultural connotations attached to it, even the so-called 'standard' forms." — Peters (2004, International English)

According to this viewpoint, International English is a concept of English that minimises the aspects defined by either the colonial imperialism of Victorian Britain or the so-called " cultural imperialism" of the 20th century United States. While British colonialism laid the foundation for English over much of the world, International English is a product of an emerging world culture, very much attributable to the influence of the United States as well, but conceptually based on a far greater degree of cross-talk and linguistic transculturation, which tends to mitigate both U.S. influence and British colonial influence.

The development of International English often centres around academic and scientific communities, where formal English usage is prevalent, and creative and flowery use of the language is at a minimum. This formal International English allows entry into Western culture as a whole and Western cultural values in general.


The continued growth of the English language itself is seen by many as a kind of cultural imperialism, whether it is English in one form or English in two slightly different forms.

Robert Phillipson argues against the possibility of such neutrality in his Linguistic Imperialism (1992). Learners who wish to use purportedly correct English are in fact faced with the dual standard of American English and British English, and other less known standard Englishes (namely Australian and Canadian).

Edward Trimnell, author of Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One (2005) argues that the international version of English is only adequate for communicating basic ideas. For complex discussions and business/technical situations, English is not an adequate communication tool for non-native speakers of the language. Trimnell also asserts that native English-speakers have become "dependent on the language skills of others" by placing their faith in international English.

Appropriation theory

There are also some who reject both linguistic imperialism and David Crystal's theory of the neutrality of English. They argue that the phenomenon of the global spread of English is better understood in the framework of appropriation (e.g. Spichtinger 2000), that is, English used for local purposes around the world. Demonstrators in non-English speaking countries often use signs in English to convey their demands to TV-audiences around the globe, for instance.

In English language teaching Bobda shows how Cameroon has moved away from a mono-cultural, Anglo-centred way of teaching English and has gradually appropriated teaching material to a Cameroonian context. Non Western-topics treated are, for instance, the rule of Emirs, traditional medicine or polygamy (1997:225). Kramsch and Sullivan (1996) describe how Western methodology and textbooks have been appropriated to suit local Vietnamese culture. The Pakistani textbook "Primary Stage English" includes lessons such as "Pakistan My Country", "Our Flag", or "Our Great Leader" (Malik 1993: 5,6,7) which might well sound jingoistic to Western ears. Within the native culture, however, establishing a connection between ELT, patriotism and Muslim faith is seen as one of the aims of ELT, as the chairman of the Punjab Textbook Board openly states: "The board...takes care, through these books to inoculate in the students a love of the Islamic values and awareness to guard the ideological frontiers of your [the students] home lands" (Punjab Text Book Board 1997).

Many Englishes

There are many difficult choices that have to be made if there is to be further standardisation of English in the future. These include the choice over whether to adopt a current standard, or move towards a more neutral, but artificial one. A true International English might supplant both current American and British English as a variety of English for international communication, leaving these as local dialects, or would rise from a merger of General American and standard British English with admixture of other varieties of English and would generally replace all these varieties of English.

We may, in due course, all need to be in control of two standard Englishes—the one which gives us our national and local identity, and the other which puts us in touch with the rest of the human race. In effect, we may all need to become bilingual in our own language. — David Crystal (1988: p. 265)

This is the situation long faced by many users of English who possess a 'non-standard' dialect of English as their birth tongue but have also learned to write (and perhaps also speak) a more standard dialect. Many academics often publish material in journals requiring different varieties of English and change style and spellings as necessary without great difficulty.

Dual standard

Two approaches to International English are the individualistic and inclusive approach and the new dialect approach.

The individualistic approach gives control to individual authors to write and spell as they wish (within purported standard conventions) and to accept the validity of differences. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, published in 1999, is a descriptive study of both American and British English in which each chapter follows individual spelling conventions according to the preference of the main editor of that chapter.

The new dialect approach appears in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Peters, 2004) which attempts to avoid any language bias and accordingly uses an idiosyncratic international spelling system of mixed American and British forms (but tending more to American spelling).

Non-U.S. English

Sometimes International English is used to refer to a general standard that is based on English as spoken in the British Isles and most Commonwealth countries (as opposed to American English). Whereas the majority of English non-native speakers use American English, some people argue that the standard of most English-speaking nations other than the United States, the Philippines, and Liberia is based on British usage. They thus contend that the term "International English" should refer to a standard that is largely British. Indeed, until World War II, British English was the primary reference point (or, for non-English-speaking nations, the dialect of English taught as a foreign language) in all Commonwealth countries (except Canada, also influenced by the U.S.), and former British colonies: South Africa, Egypt and many other countries in Africa, the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh), portions of Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand), as well as Hong Kong, all Middle Eastern Countries except Israel, and most of Continental Europe. After World War II, some of these regions began shifting towards a preference for American English, in part as an indirect consequence of the economic and cultural influence of the United States. The shift towards American English was particularly rapid in the case of Eastern Europe, for reasons that might partly be political.

The putative international flavour of this variety of English is argued to depend on three factors:

  1. It is standard in far more countries around the world than U.S. English. (Though see next for a different opinion)
  2. Many academic publications outside the United States use the conventions of the Oxford University Press.
  3. This standard of English has official status in the United Nations and the European Union, and it is used as the basis of English-language testing by the International English Language Testing System ( IELTS).

The so-called "Americanisation" of Australian English — signified by the borrowing of words, terms, and usages from North American English — began during the goldrushes, and was accelerated by a massive influx of United States military personnel during World War II. The large-scale importation of television programs and other mass media content from the US, from the 1950s onwards, has also had a significant effect. As a result, Australians use many British and American words interchangeably, such as pants/trousers or elevator/lift.

International English is also sometimes used in this manner in the computer industry. The Linux community, and other open software groups use the term Commonwealth English instead, usually in giving users a choice of spellings or wordings for messages. But the English language choices given are in fact normally only between American English and British English with -ise spellings, the latter being called International English or Commonwealth English. Finally, it is worth noting that Microsoft's Encarta has different versions for American English, Australian English, British English, and Canadian English (which does not exhaust what could be provided).

U.S. English

While some use the term "International English" to refer to a standard based on British English, others use the term to refer to a standard based on U.S. English. These people argue that, in part because of the international influence of American culture, the overwhelming majority of non-native speakers use American vocabulary and pronunciation. Moreover, they argue that the majority (though not the vast majority, as is the case with vocabulary and pronunciation) of non-native speakers prefer the American spelling system. Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Russians generally use American spelling; Japan, the Koreas, the Philippines, and most South American countries use American spelling, and many in Europe use American spelling (though this is changing as the UK's influence over language questions in the EU continues to grow).

The putative international flavor of this variety of English is argued to depend on three factors:

  1. It is the standard in more countries around the world than British English. (Though see above for a different opinion.)
  2. Standard or not, it is the language actually used by a majority of non-native speakers. (Though see above for a different opinion.)
  3. Most academic publications around the world, especially publications in the humanities, use the conventions of the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association, or Harvard University Press.

Another reason that U.S. English is often referred to as "international English" is normative. That is, advocates of English spelling reform contend that American English is more suited to international use by non-native speakers. After all, they argue, this was the whole point of Ben Franklin's and Noah Webster's spelling reforms: for example, when someone learns the adjective rigorous, he or she can determine the noun form simply by removing the suffix. This, along with other changes in spelling adopted by the U.S., they contend, is why American English (or some variant thereof) should be made into an international standard. (Note, though: spelling reform advocates mostly agree that British punctuation is better suited for international use than American.)

Regions and countries that tend to use American English in teaching and publishing include much of East Asia (especially Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines and mainland China, although largely excluding the former British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore); the Americas (excluding the other former British colonies of Canada and those in the Caribbean); and, in Africa, Liberia.

International organisations

There are three major English varieties used as standards by international organisations:

British English with Oxford Spelling (-ize)

Spellings: centre, programme, labour, defence, cooperation, organize, recognize, but: analyse
IANA language tag en-GB-oed, this standard is based on the Oxford English Dictionary

Examples of organisations that predominantly adhere to this standard are:

  • United Nations system ( UN, UNESCO, UNICEF...),
  • World Trade Organization ( WTO),
  • International Organization for Standardization ( ISO),
  • International Electrotechnical Commission ( IEC),
  • International Telecommunication Union ( ITU),
  • World Health Organization ( WHO),
  • International Labour Organization (ILO),
  • International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA),
  • Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries ( OPEC),
  • South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation ( SAARC),
  • International Criminal Police Organization - Interpol,
  • International Committee of the Red Cross ( ICRC),
  • WWF - The Conservation Organization,
  • and Amnesty International.

British English with -ise

Spellings: centre, programme, labour, defence, co-operation, organise, recognise, analyse
Language tag en-GB, the official standard of the UK government.

Examples of organisations that predominantly adhere to this standard are:

  • North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO),
  • European Union (EU),
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD),
  • Commonwealth Secretariat ( Commonwealth of Nations),
  • Caribbean Community ( CARICOM)
  • Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States ( OECS),
  • International Olympic Committee ( IOC),
  • Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA),
  • Transparency International
  • and Greenpeace

American English

Spellings: centre, program, labor, defense, cooperation, organize, recognize, analyze
Language tag en-US, used by the U.S. government.

Examples of organisations that predominantly adhere to this standard are:

  • International Monetary Fund (IMF),
  • World Bank Group,
  • Organization of American States (OAS),
  • North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Secretariat,
  • Modern Language Association (MLA),
  • World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)
  • International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC)

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