Broken English

Andrew Sachs as Manuel
Andrew Sachs as Manuel, the Spanish waiter in BBC TV's Fawlty Towers. Keystone/Getty Images

Broken English is a pejorative term for the limited register of English used by a speaker for whom English is a second language. Broken English may be fragmented, incomplete, and/or marked by faulty syntax and inappropriate diction because the speaker's knowledge of the vocabulary isn't as robust as a native speaker. For non-native English speakers, grammar has to be calculated rather than naturally conjured, as is the case for many native speakers.

“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English," says American author H. Jackson Brown Jr. "It means they know another language.”

Prejudice and Language

So who speaks broken English? The answer has to do with discrimination. Linguistic prejudice manifests itself in the way that speakers perceive different varieties of English. A study published in the International Journal of Applied Linguistics in 2005 showed that prejudice against and misunderstandings about people of non-Western European countries played a role in whether a person classified a nonnative speaker's English as "broken." This study polled undergraduates and found that most people were inclined only to call the speech of non-native speakers, excepting only European speakers, "broken," (Lindemann 2005).

What Is 'Correct' English?

But to deem someone's English as abnormal or poor is not only offensive, it's incorrect. All ways of speaking English are normal, and none are inferior or less than others. In American English: Dialects and Variation, Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes note, "[A] resolution adopted unanimously by the Linguistic Society of America at its annual meeting in 1997 asserted that 'all human language systems—spoken, signed, and written—are fundamentally regular' and that characterizations of socially disfavored varieties as 'slang, mutant, defective, ungrammatical, or broken English are incorrect and demeaning,'" (Wolfram and Estes 2005).

Broken English in the Media

It doesn't take a scholar to see prejudice in the portrayal of Native Americans and other non-white people in movies and media. Characters that speak stereotypically "broken English," for example, prove that systemic racism and linguistic prejudice often go hand in hand.

Unfortunately, the act of belittling or mocking someone—especially immigrants and foreign speakers—for their speech has been around in entertainment for quite some time. See this trope's use as a comic device in a sample from the TV show Fawlty Towers: 

"Manuel: It is surprise party.
Basil: Yes?
Manuel: She no here.
Basil: Yes?
Manuel: That is surprise!"
("The Anniversary" ​1979)

But advances have been made to fight these attacks. Opponents of establishing a national language for the United States, for example, argue that introducing this type of legislation would be promoting a form of institutional racism or nationalism against immigrants. 

Neutral Usage

Hendrick Casimir's take on it in Haphazard Reality: Half a Century of Science contends that broken English is a universal language. "There exists today a universal language that is spoken and understood almost everywhere: it is Broken English. I am not referring to Pidgin-English—a highly formalized and restricted branch of B.E.—but to the much more general language that is used by the waiters in Hawaii, prostitutes in Paris and ambassadors in Washington, by businessmen from Buenos Aires, by scientists at international meetings and by dirty-postcard pictures peddlers in Greece," (Casimir 1984).

And Thomas Heywood terms that English itself is broken because it has so many pieces and parts from other languages: "Our English tongue, which hath ben the most harsh, uneven, and broken language of the world, part Dutch, part Irish, Saxon, Scotch, Welsh, and indeed a gallimaffry of many, but perfect in none, is now by this secondary means of playing, continually refined, every writer striving in himselfe to adde a new flourish unto it," (Heywood 1579).

Positive Usage

Pejorative though it may be, the term actually sounds nice when William Shakespeare uses it: "Come, your answer in broken music; for thy voice is music, and thy English broken; therefore, queen of all, Katharine, break thy mind to me in broken English: wilt thou have me?" (Shakespeare 1599).

Sources

  • Casimir, Hendrick. Haphazard Reality: Half a Century of Science. Harper Collins, 1984.
  • Heywood, Thomas. An Apology for Actors. 1579.
  • Lindemann, Stephanie. "Who Speaks 'Broken English'? US Undergraduates' Perception of Non-native English." International Journal of Applied Linguistics, vol. 15, no. 2, June 2005, pp. 187-212., doi:10.1111/j.1473-4192.2005.00087.x
  • Shakespeare, William. Henry V. 1599.
  • “The Anniversary.” Spiers, Bob, director. Fawlty Towers, season 2, episode 5, 26 Mar. 1979.
  • Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation. 2nd ed., Blackwell Publishing, 2005.