This…. Is World English
April 30, 2011 1 Comment
I had the pleasure of listening to Robin Walker at IATEFL a couple weeks ago during his excellent talk on pronunciation, during which he addressed the fascinating topic of national and regional accents. He made many well observed points, one of which was that for communicative clarity it isn’t really necessary to adopt or parrot a specific “brand” accent, such as RP or General American.
His talk reminded me of when I started working for CNN in 1994, in London, at the time when it was sometimes still referred to as the “Chicken Noodle Network” because of its perceived provincialism. This was no doubt fueled, in Europe, by the fact that most of the network’s news readers and journalists at that time were still American. Shortly thereafter, CNN International got a new President, Chris Cramer, formerly the head of newsgathering at the BBC. Within days of his appointment, he set about transforming the look and feel of the international channel, bringing in not just British presenters but Australians, Canadians, Indians, Pakistanis as well. The early morning Asian news bulletin was fronted by local journalists based in Hong Kong; our mid-morning European news bulletin was co-presented from London and Berlin by, respectively, Fionnula Sweeny from Ireland and a German journalist with impeccable English, Bettina Luscher; and Charles Hodson, a London-based business journalist and an Englishman, was given more prominence in the evening business bulletin. We of course had Christiane Amanpour, the Anglo-Iranian reporter, filing stories from the world’s hot spots; and we even had a Puerto Rican weatherman and a Portuguese sports journalist.
Of all the “new blood” journalists transforming the image and sound of the channel, the one whose English I found to be the clearest, most neutral and most precise was that of Ralitsa Vassileva, a Bulgarian based in Atlanta of all places. Very soon, our viewing figures (and advertising business) began to rise; cable and satellite operators no longer treated us as a marginal channel; and the quality of guests coming in to the London studio for interviews jumped several notches. It was a wonderful place to work in those days; a perfect example of “world English” not interpreted as some neutered form of “globish” but rather composed of a rich kaleidoscope of English flavored by national accents, both native-speaker and non-native speaker. CNN International’s output is, still today, one of the best examples of clear, precise English unburdened by a consciousness of place or national identity, and is is this form of English which, by good fortune, many of today’s current and future world leaders and decision makers have grown up with. There will always be a place for regional accents, of course, and they are important in different ways (more cultural than linguistic), but to me the fixation of RP vs. GA and debates over which should be taught seem, increasingly, to be an anachronism from another era.