Copernicus: Nobody is Special in Today’s English Speaking Universe


Nikolaus_Kopernikus_2The Copernican Principle – named after the 16th-century Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus – says that there are no ‘special’ observers. In other words, we can explain how the universe works without assuming that the Earth, or anywhere else, occupies a central or special position.

I’m an English teacher (I’ve taught in Argentina, the Congo, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and the UK) but my degree is in astrophysics. Students occasionally ask me if there is any connection between the two fields, and I think there is: the Copernican Principle can be applied to the English language.

Five hundred years ago, English was spoken by about three million people, and the centre of the English-speaking universe was London. Today, the language is spoken by two billion people – and nobody occupies a central or special position.

In the global village of the 21st century, students are generally not learning English because they want to talk to British people, or Americans, or other native speakers. Instead, they are learning English because they want to talk to Chinese people, and Germans, and Brazilians, and the rest of the world’s non-native speakers – who outnumber native speakers by three to one.

In many ways, English has become more like a tool than a language. Richard Pooley, a cross-cultural communication consultant, tells the story of how Korean Air decided to award a contract for flight simulators to a French company instead of a British one.

“When the Koreans were negotiating,” he says, “they found it much easier to understand the French. They thought to themselves: our pilots have to understand the training they’re going to be given, and it’s going to be given in English. And we understand the French speaking English better than we understand the British.”

How can we help students to thrive in this Copernican universe? A lot of the listening material available to English teachers and students tends to feature native speakers. The aim of this “Copernicus” column, here in EFL Magazine, is to share great examples of non-native speakers and give students more exposure to what English sounds like in different parts of the world.

We would love to hear your suggestions: do you have any favourite examples of non-native speakers using English that students might find interesting, helpful or inspiring?

Here’s one of mine: it’s a two-and-a-half-minute presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by Yuki Ota, a Japanese fencer.

The IOC was meeting 18 months ago in Buenos Aires to choose the host city for the 2020 Olympics. Ota, who won a silver medal at the 2008 and 2012 Games, was part of the team representing Tokyo.

“I’m not very good at English, but I needed to make a powerful and successful presentation,” he remembers. “So I practised very hard to make the sentences into my own words, and kept saying to myself, practice makes perfect.”

You can watch – and enjoy! – his presentation here (it begins at 30:09):

There is a transcript here (on page 15):

Image: Jan Matejko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Graham Jones says:

    P.S. Anyone based in Japan will also enjoy the bit of the video at 25:56 🙂

  • This is a very interesting post, Graham. I particularly like the parallel you draw between the Earth-centred view of the universe and the NEST-centred view of ELT. Yet as I am sure you know, attitudes can be very hard to change. 60 years after the beginning of the civil rights movement in the US and despite the many victories, studies show that stereotypes still persist in the subconscious – even among well-meaning liberals who are actively against discriminations of any kind. The same is true with gender equality; everybody agrees that men and women are equal and yet women are still underrepresented at the top. As far as the ELT world is concerned, you say that NNS outnumber NS by 3 to 1 (and I have even come across even higher ratios). Now let us have a look at the EFL Magazine Site Authors. I counted 54 people, out of whom (if names are anything to go by) about 43 are NESTs. Hmmmmmm……

  • Philip Pound Philip Pound says:

    Thanks for your comment Nick, your point is well taken. I’m actually right now discussing an article on the issue of NNESTs. Why not improve the balance and contribute something? I’ve just checked out your site and I’m impressed. I’m putting it in our directory.

  • Indeed, today the English language has truly established itself as a language the predominant reason for learning which is to interact primarily not with its native speakers, but with other non-native users (who, according to recent estimates, actually outnumber NSs by a ratio of 4:1; cf. Crystal 2006, Seargeant 2012).

    The aim of lingua franca interactions is communicative efficiency, which is achieved by accommodating to the interlocutor. This is different from grammatical correctness. Such trademarks of ELF interactions as redundancy addition, (over)regularisation (e.g. of morphological patterns), code-mixing and switching, self- and other-repetition, paraphrase, lexical innovation and L1-influenced coinages may all in many cases be arguably more effective and appropriate than the established ‘standard English’ forms and lexical items, such as for instance weak forms or idioms. Using an idiomatic expression requires familiarity with its meaning and appropriate context of use on the part of both the speaker and the hearer. In the case of ELF users, this shared knowledge cannot be taken for granted, and replicating conventional NS idiomatic behaviour (whether by native or non-native users) can inhibit rather than facilitate communication. Using idiomatic expressions in ELF communication may make it additionally difficult also because the receiver will tend to deconstruct non-transparent idioms and focus on the semantics of the component parts.

  • As Nick rightly remarks above, the orthodox normative orientation towards a native-speaker baseline, with the assumption that the only valid goal of learning English is conformity to NS norms and that progress and competence should be evaluated against this benchmark, are still widespread and entrenched. The recent change in discourse about ELF has not gone hand-in-hand with a corresponding change in the content of courses or tests – even in the descriptors of language proficiency included in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the European Language Portfolio (despite partial competence being a desirable goal in both), and in task-based language teaching, performance is still being measured with reference to static NS norms of complexity, accuracy and fluency. For a demonstration of how the way clerks had been taught English at school resulted in real-world problems for migrants, see e.g. Guido’s (2008) study of miscommunication between Nigerians and Italian immigration officials.

  • Thank you for your kind words Philip. I have to say I am relieved that you took this comment in a positive way – sometimes people get defensive. Yet my intention was not negative; honestly I have been really impressed by how enthusiastically so many of our NEST colleagues have embraced our cause (see for instance Marek Kiczkowiak’s ‘teflequityadvocates’ blog).
    Re contributions, yes, I would be only to pleased to send you something. If you are looking for articles related to NESTs and NNESTs in ELT, I have contributed two posts to Marek’s blog (‘The Halo Effect’ and ‘The Magnifier’) and if you like any of them, I am sure he would have no objection to you sharing them here. Alternatively, I could write something else – perhaps a brief outline of 4 factors which contribute to the current imbalance in the field.
    Still, it would be a pity if NNESTs were only or mostly associated with NEST – NNEST equality debates. My field of special interest is Psychology and ELT. If the EFL Magazine editors find this topic interesting, I would be only too pleased to contribute.

  • Philip Pound Philip Pound says:

    Hi Nick, I’m glad to get the feedback. It was actually Marek I was corresponding with when you posted your comment. Send me a mail at Feel free to connect on LinkedIn etc. I look forward to it.

  • Graham Jones says:

    Many thanks for the comments, MichaÅ‚ 🙂 I’ve just enjoyed reading the intro to your book “Productive Foreign Language Skills for an Intercultural World”. As you say: “The past two decades have created both quantitatively higher and qualitatively different demands for foreign language skills…”

  • Graham Jones says:

    And thank you very much, Nick (and I loved the “Happiness and ELT” post on your blog). It would be great to have you as part of EFL Magazine!

  • Graham,

    There goes one example of English being used by a Brazilian speaker of English in a song. She is from Bahia (northeast of Brazil). The rhythm is from Brazil, but the language is not.

    Moreover, the series “Mind your language” on is of very good use.
    There are some clichés and sterotypes involved; that is how they make humor in it, though.

    I have already successfully used both videos with ss.

  • Graham Jones says:

    Claudia Leitte, great example 🙂 Thank you, Caio!

  • Aigul Janse says:

    This is sooo true. I’m glad I came across the link to the EFL magazine on linkedin yesterday. I’ve been reading a lot of articles for the last 10 hours, and yours, Graham, I’ve found the most inspiring so far. I originally come from Russia where I taught Business English to employees of different financial institutions. Six years ago I moved to the Netherlands and I’ve been teaching English at secondary schools ever since. To my surprise, all these years I’ve been constantly confronted with the British English requirements/standards. I always have to justify my accent , which happens to be American, the usage of “gonna” or “wanna”, the textbooks which do not say “Cambridge” on them etc. I find it really hilarious sometimes even ridiculous. I keep telling my students that we are all learning a so called “International English”, the one that you’re gonna use in order to be able to get your message across around the world! Unfortunately, this is a battle I am fighting at the moment but I’m so glad I’m not the only one who shares the same ideas as I do. Thank you all, gentlemen, for your interesting comments to Graham’s article! Kind regards, Aigul

  • Graham Jones says:

    Hello Aigul, I hope all’s going well over there in the Netherlands. Thank you so much for sharing your story – that’s a perfect example!

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