I often use this blog to write about my dirty little secrets. Today‘s secret is not that secret, though. If you have a good look at my CV, you might have already gotten an inkling of it: I actually like to give talks. I like to talk at conferences, of course, but I also love to do science slams, popular science talks or to prepare science workshops for teenagers. I love to use language as a tool to share what I know, share what I don‘t know, and share why both of it matters to me.
The better I get at giving talks, the more I enjoy them. So, while I am not „bad“ at giving talks (I even won a small sience slam last year), I fathom that I can get better – and that I might enjoy it even more if I do. This is why I joined Toastmasters, a rhetorics club that gives me plenty of opportunity to practice and to get feedback from folks who have spent years practicing the art of giving feedback.
There are Toastmasters clubs all over the world, correspondingly there are Toastmasters clubs in a large variety of languages. But even within countries, in major cities, there will be clubs in different languages. Frankfurt sports German and English ones, but there are also French ones in other cities, and I‘ve also seen one or two that offer Polish. [If you happen to know any other-language-clubs in Germany, please let me know.]
The attendance of these non-German clubs tends to be pretty diverse. Last meeting, we had English speakers from the inner circle (e.g. USA), speakers from the outer circle (e.g. India), and speakers from the expanding circle (e.g. Germany). All joined in their purpose to improve their public speeking skills.
Feedback at Toastmasters is divided into several types. There are appointed feedback givers who comment on overall performance, focusing on things like structure, voice, body language, etc. There is the ah-counter, who focuses on, uhm, well.... counting hesitation marks, and gives feedback exclusively on the frequency of those. And, last but not least, the grammarian.
Throughout the meeting, listen to everyone’s word usage. Write down any awkward use or misuse of the language (incomplete sentences, sentences that change direction in midstream, incorrect grammar or malapropisms) with a note of who erred. For example, point out if someone used a singular verb with a plural subject. “One in five children wear glasses” should be “one in five children wears glasses.” Note when a pronoun is misused. “No one in the choir sings better than her” should be “No one in the choir sings better than she.” (Link)
This role description seems to assume that native speakers (or very proficient speakers) speak to an audience of native speakers (or very proficient speakers). How does the role, though, look in a context where English is not a native language for the majority of speakers, and where the level of language proficiency might differ significantly between individuals? It will look different, for certain.
Now, since different people take over the grammarian position each week, it can happen that a non-native speaker comments on the grammar of native speakers and non-native speakers alike. A highly unusual situation - usually, it is the native speaker who judges grammaticality, usage, style... How does a non-native speaker give feedback on grammar and related issues to a native speaker? Or, when giving feedback to a non-native speaker, deal with the presence of native-speakers in the room, the traditional judges of target language use?
So far, I have seen two ways to deal with this conundrum. I‘ll call it "the descriptivist" and "the sub-expert". The descriptivist started off with a statement on language change, roughly „if we all make the same mistake, they won‘t be mistakes anymore, they will be grammar rules“. This way, he established a community of language users, without differentiating between native and non-native speakers. The sub-expert, on the other hand, first described his level of expertise in the English language (which was quite impressive!), and then subjugated his own level of expertise (and, it was implied, that of other non-native speakers) under that of any native speaker present. This was done in the introduction, and then again later, when he asked about a specific usage – but only addressed his question to the native speakers in the room.
Joining Toastmasters will propably be great for my ability to give talks. I guess it will also be great for my understanding of English as a lingua franca, the role of the native speaker, and English in the expanding circle.
Now, let‘s hope I don‘t get nominated as grammarian of the week any time soon ;)