E is for ELF

3 04 2011

Alistair Pennycook's plenary, TESOL 2011

At last month’s TESOL Convention in New Orleans the topic of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) (and/or English as an International Language (EIL) or Global English), was definitely the flavour of the month. There were plenaries by both Alistair Pennycook and Jennifer Jenkins, plus talks and colloquia by the likes of Andy Kirkpatrick, Ryuko Kubota, and Ramin Akbari, all on aspects of ELF or EIF – or both.

This last was interesting because, as a representative of the expanding circle – i.e. those parts of the world where English is neither spoken by the majority as their native language, nor granted the status of an official language – Akbari made a good case for rejecting the ELF model in places like, for example, his native Iran.  His reasons were partly political: the suggestion (coming typically from inner circle academics) that expanding circle teachers should ‘lower the bar’, and show greater tolerance of ‘non-standard forms’ (otherwise known as errors) would  – he argued – serve simply to perpetuate the second-class status of expanding circle English, its users forever condemned to speaking a sort of pidgin of the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ variety.

But more interesting – to me, at least – was his argument that ELF represents a case of ‘linguistics applied’, whereby the insights from researchers and theorists drives classroom practice, rather than the other way round, as would be the case if the needs of teachers (and learners) were allowed to inform the research agenda. We have already seen this happen with corpus linguistics, where discoveries at the level of language description are incorporated into materials and syllabi, un-predigested, as it were, and bearing the hallmark of authority as examples of ‘real English’.

There’s little doubt that the widespread use of English as a form of communication between non-native speakers is influencing the way people speak it. The problem comes when this sociolinguistic fact is invoked by proponents of ELF to argue the case for new curriculum goals, different materials, a different methodology, revised standards of accuracy, and so on. (Or so, at least, is the perception). This is ‘linguistics applied’.

Akbari argued that – from a pedagogical point of view – the case for ELF raises more questions than it answers. For a start, if you remove or otherwise discredit inner circle norms on the grounds that they are no longer relevant, by whose standards are learners to be judged? If the standards are those of other (successful) ELF users, what qualifies as success,  and where are these standards codified? And what kind of pedagogy should you adopt? How, for example, would you model pronunciation? Finally, how do you deal with the expectations – and aspirations – of both teachers and learners, who may well feel disempowered if the goal-posts are shifted? For Akbari (and many others, I suspect) ELF is all theory and no praxis.

Of course, in one sense the problem goes away if you re-construe the goals of instruction as being those that are defined by the learner and driven by the learner’s needs, rather than being predetermined by the curriculum designer or the coursebook writer.   If you take an ESP approach, for example, and, start off by identifying the kinds of contexts the learner is going to operate in, with whom and for what purposes, using what kinds of texts and registers, at what degree of intelligibility, in combination with what other languages, and employing what kinds of skills and strategies, you don’t have to label the goals as EFL, ESL, ESP, ELF or EIL – or anything! Leave the labelling to the sociolinguists!

You say tomahto, I say tomayto...

Put another way, if we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.

It is the learner, in the end, who must decide what code best serves his or her needs, and what is achievable in the available time and with the available resources. For most learners, the arguments as to what constitutes the global variety are academic. As an article in a recent TESOL Quarterly put it, “To learners in developing, resource-poor EFL settings especially, it matters very little who says tomahto and who says tomayto.  Knowing the word tomato is achievement enough” (Bruthiaux, 2010, p. 368).


Bruthiaux, P.  2010.  World Englishes and the classroom: an EFL perspective.  TESOL Quarterly, 44/2, p.368).



64 responses

3 04 2011

It seems a lot of linguists and teachers harbour the notion that Standard English is an unrealistic goal, that’s not even worth achieving anyway. I think the opposite. I can’t stand that sterile and contrived VOA-style Basic English. Give people the real language where you can with at least some semblance of the cadence and idiom of English. What’s the point in education if you just plod along taking the low hanging fruit, never challenging people?

I read and replied to a blog post recently by a guy who advocates doing away with even the basic structure of English syntax. I thought it was a ludicrous idea. In the same vein as Ramin Akbari, I pointed out that it actually has the opposite effect of what he intended. It holds people back. I think good teachers focus on both accuracy and fluency and they weight the balance in favour of the latter, but only just.

3 04 2011

TEFL 101, Re your distaste for VOA-style simplified language: I humbly submit all the wwh-questions regarding your own efforts to learn an unfamiliar language. Combined with plenty of exposure to whatever form of English you like, the VOA-style version opens meaningful opportunities for students to explore content and language simultaneously. If I were actively learning a new tongue, I’d be grateful for a resource like that.
Personal example: Just learned a tiny bit of Arabic from a cabdriver, but only because he repeated it endlessly on the phone to someone else & confirmed my guess later. If I wanted to move beyond “smattini”? (“You know?” Or “Did you hear me?”) I’d mix eavesdropping with simplified Arabic every day. Smattini?

4 04 2011

Perhaps I was being a bit harsh on VOA. They do provide interesting content but my point is that concepts like Basic English and Globish are flawed formats for language learning. That’s why they are not used everywhere. These dumbed-down varieties are restrictive, plodding and childish in tone. When people progress above an intermediate level then they certainly need a wider and more challenging scope of language to work within.

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Lest it be understood that I was advocating teaching some privileged variety of English, let me hasten to add that I’m not against the notion of grading or teaching ‘core language items’ in advance of less useful or less frequent ones. I’m just not convinced that there is codifiable variety called ELF. Or, even if there is, I believe that, in the end, it is the learner’s syllabus that should determine the nature of our interventions. As Dave Willis put it:

“In helping learners manage their insights into the target language we should be conscious that our starting point is the learner’s grammar of the language. It is the learner who has to make sense of the insights derived from input, and learners can only do this by considering new evidence about the language in the light of their current model of the language. This argues against presenting them with pre-packaged structures and implies that they should be encouraged to process text for themselves so as to reach conclusions which make sense in terms of their own systems”. (Dave Willis, A Lexical Approach, in Bygate el al: Grammar and the Language Teacher, 1994)

4 04 2011
James Quartley

Scott, you’re right there is no codified variety. ELF is more of an umbrella term or concept of language use in the world. If world use of English is analysed, we can learn some of the different, perhaps innovative, ways that speakers use the language. However, this represents a massive undertaking, regardless of computing power at our disposal. And, of course, language doesn’t stand still, so the job of cataloguing and analysing would never stop. The possible codification of ELF would always lag behind current use, leading some to rightfully question ‘what are we doing?’.

More importantly, if such a thing would be achievable, we are likely to be left with a narrow set of codified example items (just look at coursebooks for plenty of current examples of limited language) that could lead some to teach/learn only those, as relevant. Then we’re back into arguments, similar to those for ‘best method’ (Prabhu et al) that have raged for years, with people rejecting and supporting with equal vigour.

So learner’s agenda looks imminently sensible and a rightful re-focus of our energies.

12 04 2011

Hello Scott,
We met during a module on OxfordTefl this year.
I think it really depends on the level that we are teaching. When learning a new language, at first simple and easy structures are the easiest thing for a student to understand and learn. Especially from everyday situations outside a classroom.
I think that we as teachers should give to our students not just a standard notion of the English language but maybe something more. Of course, this is probably easier to do with certain levels and groups.
I was reading a debate on how course books are structured and some were arguing that the topics they have are always the same, as well as the language they offer. It is true that sometimes they don’t give students the opportunity to expand the language but if we as teachers are able to challenge them more by integrating materials and topics to the learner’s syllabus (which the learners can decide on), then some new English can come out. Of course, I don’t mean by inventing a “new form of English” but by offering learners some more in depth structures and vocabulary.

13 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

HI Tatiana,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree with your point that, if the learners are given some say in deciding not only the content of their lessons, but the goals of the teaching-learning process, then the issue of ‘which English?’ tends to fade away. Or, at least, it becomes the learner’s dilemma, not the teacher’s.

3 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“if we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.”

Absolutely Scott. It all depends on their goals, not the linguists.

English teachers, being of different nationalities, will always end up showing some bias towards their own familiar language conventions. They need to acknowledge this bias in order not to let it become too much of a ‘standard’ in the general classroom.

3 04 2011
Marijke D

About the argument of theory driving teaching, don’t we already do this in the classroom every day?

We are constantly making decisions about what our learners “need” to know and what they simply should be able to recognize. We make amendments and additions to coursebook material constantly, based on our perception of its relevence to our learners. We often guide them toward mastering one version of, say, polite questions, and being able to understand the others if they hear them. This is often a decision based on the level of the learners, and can be added to as they progress, but not always.

The problem comes when we as teachers make these amendments to material based solely on our perception of what is more difficult to learn, rather than what is perhaps more common usage (regardless of difficulty). In our desire to help students, we may be unconsciously perpetuating this “second class” you mention.

Think of how many teachers (myself included) approach the use of slang and swear words — good to recognize, but risky to use, and riskier to teach. Are we not doing the same thing, relegating learners to knowing when they are being insulted, but not having the tools to return fire? Second class, indeed.

I completely agree with the difficulties of standardizing a curriculum for ELF purposes, and I think we need to consider the negative effects of marginalizing learners to the camp of never-quite-fluent. However, ELF is increasingly becoming a learner goal in itself – where learners are most interested in being able to communicate their ideas. This does not reject the need for accuracy, but perhaps not the need for so many varieties to communicate the same basic message.

It’s true that as teachers, these considerations need to be driven by the needs, goals and motivations of our learners. Perhaps ELF need not be a fully developed curriculum or approach, but rather a set of guidelines (perhaps corpus-driven?) to help teachers identify what language would be well-suited as a focus for an ELF learner, rather than casting in the dark for what we “think” is most useful, and unintentionally limiting our students’ abilities.

3 04 2011

Do you think ELF has communicative shortcomings? I mean to express ideas with real precision and influence requires a competence in vocabulary, grammar, complexity and register which is only really present in the standard variety.

3 04 2011

I think teach the learner and not the language is just semantics. How can you not teach the language? The key is to teach the learner where they are. Starting from their functioning level, their practical requirements and their environment.

Somebody said you have to push against something hard if you want to improve. The core product that is being distributed (taught) should be as consistent as possible because the natural erosion of all the other “real life” factors will change it anyway. If the starting point is somewhat uniform then the end point may be intelligible. Otherwise we end up with a world full of unrecognizable dialects that might as well be different languages.

That’s my two cents worth.

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

I agree, Nelson, with your notion of ‘push’ – analogous to Merrill Swain’s concept of ‘output + 1’, perhaps. But pushing the learner to go beyond the limits of their present competence need not imply the existence of a target lexicogrammar, need it? That is to say, we can push learners to be more effective communicators without always referencing a specific language variety. Or does effectiveness imply, at least to a certain extent, accuracy – which DOES assume kind of standard?

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Perhaps ELF need not be a fully developed curriculum or approach, but rather a set of guidelines (perhaps corpus-driven?) to help teachers identify what language would be well-suited as a focus for an ELF learner.

Fair point, Marijke (and thanks for your thoughtful comment). I agree that a corpus of effective lingua franca text (both spoken and written) would be a useful resource (and these are being developed as we speak), but a corpus is only texts, and doesn’t give much help in terms of the discourses of which those texts are the trace, hence it would be difficult to know if – and in what conditions – those texts DID achieve their desired goals, and to what extent, therefore, they offer learners and teachers exploitable data.

Maybe, better than supplying a list of items (and see my previous blog on the Core Inventory, which deals with the problems of at leats one kind of list) is a set of skills and strategies for dealing with the pragmatics of intercultural communication. After all, it’s not language varieties that are intelligible, so much as the people who use them. Classroom practice in effective communication, irrespective of the variety – or even of the language – being used might be the best preparation for such interlingual, intercultural interactions.

3 04 2011

Teaching the learner and not the language is a laudable goal.

But in a syllabus-driven, coursebook-based non-Dogme teaching environment (i.e. virtually everywhere) teachers have to make choices about how best to use the limited time that they and their students have.

In this regard, I recently had a conversation with a conference speaker about the usefulness of teaching the schwa. Do learners need to be able to pronounce it to function effectively in English? Do they even need to be able to hear it given the millions who do not pronounce it?

Of course we do not want our students to be ‘second-class learners, but neither do we want to make the wrong choices about useful learning goals.

3 04 2011

With respect to the importance of the schwa, something that might be of interest would be to do a comparative study of, say, New English File and Global.

In NEF, students completing the Listening Comprehension exercises would doubtless be helped by being sensitised to the schwa, as almost all the speakers (actors?) are Brit natives. I’m not sure the same would be true for the listenings in Global.

4 04 2011

My understanding of [ə] is that it is the easiest sound to make. It’s the middle vowel and the problem is that among learners whose native language has fewer vowels than English, sounds tend to get approximated towards it.

Pronunciation is clearly an issue. More communication breakdowns occur because of non-standard pronunciation, not grammar. Learners do need to pass benchmarks although they don’t need to sound like they went to Eton, unless they really want to. And I think this is the real point. Sometimes it’s not about what the learner wants, it’s about what the learner needs. If you ask learners what they want, they might want to go to sleep or take the day off or quit the course altogether. Sometimes teachers need to push people a bit for their own good.

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Glennie. For more on the subject of the pronunciation of ELF, there was a thread on this topic a little while back (and inevitably, some of those same issues will be recycled here): E is for ELF (and the Phonological Core). But it would be interesting to compare the use of schwa in non-native English varieties – I notice that the VOICE (Vienna-Oxford Corpus of International English) does now have a limited number of audio files accessible online: http://www.univie.ac.at/voice/

3 04 2011
Simon Greenall

Thank you, Scott. This is a very acute and extremely useful summary of where we seem to be today, and I’m grateful for the report and your own take on Ramin Akbari’s presentation. However well meaning and inclusive the intentions of ELF might be, I’m aware that in the countries where I work most often these days, I’d be sent home if I proposed any standardization based on ELF beyond general awareness-raising.
I got slightly lost in the logic of your sentence, ‘There’s little doubt that the widespread use of English as a form of communication between non-native speakers is influencing the way people speak it.’ because there seems to be something of the chicken-and-the-egg about the statement. But maybe that’s my problem. I like Marijke D’s suggestion about ‘a set of guidelines (perhaps corpus-driven?) to help teachers identify what language would be well-suited as a focus for an ELF learner.’

Finally, I wonder if the integration of ELF is achieveable in non-western contexts and/or in contexts where the learner either does not know or is not allowed to formulate their language learning requirements. The latter would cover most school age learners around the world, whose needs are defined not by themselves, but by outside authorities such as ministries of education or exam bodies, and as such would cover the vast majority of language learners.
Really useful, thank you again.

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

I got slightly lost in the logic of your sentence, ‘There’s little doubt that the widespread use of English as a form of communication between non-native speakers is influencing the way people speak it.’

Just to clarify, Simon: all I meant was that language change is a function of language use: the way people use language (including their purposes, contexts, modalities and interlocutors) inexorably (and sometimes suddenly) changes the language – this was commented on in the previous thread on ‘aspect’, for example, where so-called stative verbs like ‘love’ are being increasingly used with progressive aspect. Likewise, the language variety that some call ELF is a product of the increased use of English in communications between speakers who don’t share a mother tongue.

This reflects a complex systems view of language change: as Diane Larsen-Freeman is fond of saying, “you change the rules by playing the game”.

And I think you’re right: there IS something chicken-and-eggish about it!

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Simon, not sure if this will shed any more light on the matter, but, by chance, I read this in the latest ELT Journal, which arrived today: “ELF is both form and function; besides, by performing certain functions it is appropriated by its speakers and changed in form. In other words, form seems to follow function and start a circular phenomena of variation and change” (Cogo, A. 2008. ‘English as a lingua franca: form follows function’. English Today 24/3). This is quoted in a piece by W. Baker and J. Hüttner, in response to an earlier critique of ELF.

More interestingly, in the same article they quote Seidlhofer and Widdowson (2009) to this effect: “It may turn out that what is distinctive about ELF lies in the communicative strategies that its speakers use rather than in their conformity to any changed set of language norms”.

This reflects my own view (expressed elsewhere in this thread) that ELF is really a kind of pragmatic competence, context specific and negotiated, and not easily codified in terms of discrete linguistic features.

(The Seidlhofer and Widdowson quote comes from a paper they wrote called ‘Accommodation and the idiom principle in English as a lingua franca’ in K. Murata and J. Jenkins (eds) Global Englishes In Asian Contexts: Current and Future Debates. Palgrave Macmillan).

3 04 2011

It seems that ELF has been around for years, lots of research but I’ve never heard of anyone actually teaching ELF in the classroom. Do students aspire to a quick and easy version of English, where ‘attention to detail’ such as articles, prepositions, and third person /-s/ (to name but a few ELF features) can be dismissed so long as the desired communicative effect is achieved?

I’ve never met any such student. Who would want to place their trust in a teacher who glossed over such basic errors, especially if there was a high-stakes English test coming up!

3 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“About the argument of theory driving teaching, don’t we already do this in the classroom every day?”

Yes and no. The point is not about constructing or using theories per se, but how much language-learning should be standardized and pre-organized in a teaching context. In my opinion, every learner is a ESP learner. Whilst it is obviously useful for teachers to have some reference points with regard to grading language to suit the level of the learner, it is probably not advisable, generally speaking, to teach according to any kind of rigid prescription of WHEN certain language features are to be taught.

There was a discussion on the blog recently about how best to think of and label the English verb forms. I suggested that it would be helpful to just label the three verb forms ‘1st, 2nd and 3rd’ instead of the common ‘present, past and past participle’ because the 2nd form very often is used to express politeness or indirectness or hypothesizing also. Someone responded by saying, well, the 2nd form name is OK because we usually teach the past simple first in a course – later the learners can realize the other uses of the verb. I wouldn’t have any kind of strict sequencing of language points like this. It all depends on the learner’s communicative need as to when the learn to say things like ‘I went shopping yesterday’ or ‘would you like a drink?’. Even the so-called 2nd conditional can be introduced according to communicative need, rather than which page it is in the bloody coursebook.

3 04 2011

I will never forget the day when a student in my class said, “You’re lucky, you were born in America and you already speak English!”
I really do think that we need to rethink the US and THEM dichotomy that the non-native vs native speaker paradigm exerts on the world today. It leads the world right down the road of linguistic ownership and gatekeeping.

Certainly there must be standards, or else English would lose its communicative value and decline in importance. But, don’t you think speakers in the so called ‘outer-circle’ are aware of that? Over time, if English can maintain its role in the world as a language worth learning for international communication, it will have to reach homeostasis.

But in a world where there are more and more people will begin to learn English earlier and earlier, the inner-circle must expand to be inclusive rather than exclusive – which I would argue, is how they are now. Doesn’t an expanding view of the reality of English use in the world call for some reassessment of methods? Most of the teaching of English by ‘native-speakers’ (regardless of context – EFL/ESL) does enforce a monolingual paradigm on the classroom- How humanistic is that?

I also think that the widening demand for tests of English is saddening. Especially since these tests are produced by two countries only – the US and the UK. This is a form of linguistic imperialism and gatekeeping of the worst kind! http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_ryan_ideas_in_all_languages_not_just_english.html

3 04 2011

Written discourse is an absolute minefield in this respect.

My Spanish students constantly refer to ‘we’ in their writing and use expressions like “We can say that” to begin sentences. And they do that when, for example, writing formal documents like reports. It’s a direct importation from a more subjective and ‘long-winded’ Spanish style.

In response to this continual reference by the author to himself (‘we’) and this ’empty’ language, the students are told “Get to the point and stop referring to yourself. Who is this ‘we’ anyway? This is not good English style.” Well, it’s true that it’s not good style as defined by native speakers of English and that is important if the student in question is writing for a native speaker audience or trying to get an article published in an English speaking journal.

But what if the student’s writing is not for a native speaker or such a journal? What if it were for a consortium made up of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian first language speakers? ‘English style’ suddenly ceases to become an issue when the norms of that style are not known or shared by our readers or are irrelevant to them.

3 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

I’ve had this also and it makes you take stock a little. But then again, I’ve also heard my learners say how unlucky there were not to have had the opportunity to learn English when they were still kids. It would have been easier to learn, they say.

As for the Patricia Ryan talk, to be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed. Whilst I very much agree that when it comes to access to education, there is an unfortunate ecomonic power at play here, excluding many people from what is a western-dominated system, I have some misgivings.

She talks about the risk of there being only 600 languages in the world in the coming years. Only 600? I know that our cultures are tied to our various languages and we should think carefully all the political and economic forces at play here, but just how many languages does the human race need? Is 600 not enough?

And, really, if my grandparents spoke in a local language that is now incomprehensible to me, am I really at a loss for expressing my identity with the ‘new’ language I’ve inherited?

And what if the word ‘computer’ is adopted into Italian or Polish, for example… should we be encouraging theses nationals to think of their own word instead of importing one? I mean, how far should we take this?

Perhaps I should be more sympathetic, but I can’t help thinking that as the world becomes more connected and people are gradually coming together to work for more social justice, it is unavoidable that many languages are going to die or become transformed.

4 04 2011

I imagine if you were the speaker of the 601st language, you might argue that 600 languages is not enough. I don´t think much is to be gained by taking a utilitarian approach to the issue: how many languages do we need? Less than 600? Right! You lot over there! Talk XXX from now on!

I don’t see the point in laying down principles for this kind of thing. It’s a bit like Canute trying to hold back the sea. Languages come and go . Some die. Some are killed. Your response as an individual will depend on whether you think this is a good or bad thing. Whether or not we are coming together to “work for social justice” is a moot point!

As for ELF, why shouldn’t it exist? Because we are trying to help the learners reach for the stars? Really? If so, can’t this be done by focusing in content rather than the language it is being taught in? It’s worth pointing out that many languages use an artificially-created standard that will be accessible to a wider reach of speakers.

The problem with ELF, as I see it, is that it doesn’t exist so we are tilting at windmills. At least, there is nothing more tangible than a concept for me to consider. I don’t know what gets left out or left in, so I can’t really opine. Or is it another emergent phenomenon? In which case, are we just being asked to be tolerant of the idea?

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Delpha wrote: I also think that the widening demand for tests of English is saddening. Especially since these tests are produced by two countries only – the US and the UK. This is a form of linguistic imperialism and gatekeeping of the worst kind!

I’d be interested to know if English language tests are being – or have been – developed in outer or expanding circle contexts that accommodate the notion of English as an International Language, rather than either the inner circle model or a purely local variety? What price a TOELF rather than a TOEFL??

9 03 2012

telc-language-tests http://www.telc.net (based in Germany) develops tests in 10 languages, mostly European ones. Only one of these (albeit one of the two most important ones) is English.
What kind of circle they belong to? I don’t know about that, though.

3 04 2011

posts should never be made before the morning cup of tea…

4 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

“Put another way, if we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.”

Let me now put it another way: the learner is the language, and the language is the learner.

About the standard dilemma:

-English as a Lingua Franca or “Frankly, English as a Language”.
-English as an International Language or “Inter-English as a National Language”.
-World Englishes or “UNICEF Englishes”.

Scott: if one of your Spanish students came up systematically with words like “tomateishon”, would you acknowledge some sort achievement -lexical creativity- because this is the code that best serves him?

4 04 2011

How is the learner the language? How is the language the learner? I can see meaning in the sentence teach the learner, not the language, but I’m afraid that the learner is the language seems rather bereft of sense to me.

It seems as if you don’t subscribe to the notion of ELF, but I’m not quite sure why not. If somebody used the word “tomateishon”, I think that communication would probably begin to falter. Put into an international setting, for example my classroom, I can almost imagine the confusion and withdrawal from conversation. So, I doubt that the word would be allowed to stand.

On the other hand, TOM-ah-too would probably work. If it caused difficulties for comprehension, I think I’d point out the alternative -and more widely accepted- pronunciation. I might even use the words, “That’s not how it’s said…”

It strikes me that ELF’s opponents are against it because it is equated with dumbing down. I’m not sure how much this says about them and their view of the new social order. Perhaps nothing. But it does seem like a particularly dumb argument. Isn’t ELF more about focusing on the communicative element of language and being able to assess how successful communication was – despite the language being used?

I’m sympathetic to elements of Akbari’s argument – ELF does seem rather like a chimera. But as for defining the standards, who does this any of the time? Should we accept American English as a valid variety? Many people might only have their tongue near their cheek when they say, “NO!” Did speakers in the USA have a debate about dumbing down when it was decided to change the spelling of such words as color or lite?

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Nice, J.J. Your reformulations of the buzz terms certainly give pause for thought. It also reminds me that someone (Michael Lewis, I think) sneeringly dubbed “English as an International Language” as “English as an Intermediate Language”. I think, though, for many learners that IS the case, and an intermediate language may not necessarily be a bad thing, so long as it ‘inter-mediates’!

5 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

How would English-speaking students respond if you told them that what you teach is “Spanish as a Lingua Franca”, that at the end of the program they are going to get a Certificate in Advanced Spanish as a Lingua Franca?

What does that mean exactly? Spanish with an accent? Spanish which incorporates borrowings from the Sub-Saharan, Chinese, Romanian, and Ecuadorian communities?

I think that opinions change if we switch perspectives from our L1 to our L2, or from our L2 to our L1, don’t they?

5 04 2011
Fiona (@fionamau)

I hope this appears in the right place! I’m responding to J.J. Sunset’s comment:
“What does that mean exactly? Spanish with an accent? Spanish which incorporates borrowings from the Sub-Saharan, Chinese, Romanian, and Ecuadorian communities?”

ELF isn’t about borrowings! That’s where pidgins and creoles come from, and is quite a different matter. It has a lot more to do with common denominators and, I suspect, about how the human brain processes things, irrespective of linguistic or other culture. Have you ever seen those round robins with a message written with the letters within each word muddled up? One went round a couple of years back, showing that if you muddled the letters one way, reconstructing the message was painstakingly difficult, but if you did it another way, retaining letter chunks, it was incredibly easy – does that ring bells? Well, ELF is more like that in that there are certain common ‘errors’ that really don’t affect message significantly, like, say, pronouncing ‘th’ as ‘z’ “He is ze most important person here” as opposed to shifting the word stress, which can affect message “He is the most IMpo(r)tant person here”… That doesn’t mean there’s a ‘French’ borrowing in the comprehensible version. (Speaking of French, another example would be the two Clouseaus/Clouseaux: Sellers mispronouncing ‘room’ so it sounds like ‘rheum’ or something has far more comic effect than characters pretending not to understand Martin’s mashed ‘hamburger’, which is still perfectly clear despite his mashing).

Consequently, I think there IS value in defining the communication hinderers and unhinderers if such things are then used to support syllabus design, where such a thing exists and is used, in the same way that COBUILD and subsequent corpus linguistics driven projects debunked myths about vocabulary, and presumably functions etc as an off-shoot (that dreaful question “How old are you?” seems to have disappeared from most ‘Unit 1’s that I’ve seen in the past few years – “Hi, my name is Fiona. I’m 47. How old are you?”…. ), but the problem comes, or will come, when decision takers decide that these priorities or linguistic descriptors ARE the syllabus. That is something ‘we’ should resist if the technocrats make moves in that direction. I reckon.

By the way, re your ‘Spanish with an accent’ comment, and viewing things from another perspective, I was at a party last Friday, and there was an Englishman standing with another group of people. The people I was with said to me “That’s (Fred) over there. He’s Irish or English…” and from his Spanish he was clearly southern English HOWEVER, he was also totally comprehensible – after his 15 years in Spain, he speaks ‘Spanish with an accent and without a complex’ and everyone understood everything he said. Communication unhindered. Lingua Franca.

4 04 2011
Evan Frendo

The notion of ELF is key in business English teaching, where it has never been about the language, but about giving the learner the tools to do the job. Perhaps we all need to move away from a focus on form and lexis to a focus on effective and efficient communication. And this depends on really understanding the context and the needs of the learners, and the target discourse, rather than some predetermined notion of what type of English is better, or what is right or wrong. Correctness should be defined by what works in a particular situation – it is relative, not absolute.

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that, Evan: you sum up much more succinctly what I tried to say to Marijke and others above. But I still have a niggling question regarding accuracy: if accuracy is (re-)defined as being something like ‘a close approximation to a prototypical way of saying something’, does that (a) allow us to accommodate accuracy into a model of communicative effectiveness? and (b) remove the assumption of standards or norms implied in the notion of ‘correct English’?

As an interesting footnote, I do proofread all the comments on my blog, and try to edit out, or correct, typos and other infelicities, like ‘it’s speakers’, rather than ‘its speakers’, and ‘accomodate’ rather than ‘accommodate’. What does that say about my supposed tolerance of error?!

4 04 2011

The trouble with inner-circle standard English is that it was arbitrarily decided upon without any sense of logic for the language, mere on what seemed to be a sensible choice at the time.

Round about the early 1500s London (and its environs) was a bustling center of trade, commerce, banking, education and culture. As the written word was becoming popular due to new-found accessibility, the decision to normalize the grammar of the language was based on what was being spoken by those in this small area. Hence, we were stuck with the apparent logic of the ‘to be’ subject verb agreements. Plenty of English people were saying ‘I is’ and ‘I be’ then and still do today. It’s a shameful aspect of English that such forms are regarded as being backward or uneducated. This is also why we’re able to say ‘she won’t’ while ‘she don’t’ is considered illogical. The German language speaking nations have much less reverence for the standard form and greater acceptance of dialects. This is a problem particularly affecting English.

So, why enforce this arbitrarily dictated system? Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to form a more user-friendly ELF? Why not accept that what we label ‘learner errors’ may merely represent the way that the language develops in an outer-circle country or region?

Having said that, L1 speakers unknowingly learn the ELF as well as their dialect of the language and are able to deal with both. This is something rarely focused on beyond the ‘Are we teaching American or British English’ issue. Anyone know of any research on whether L1 speakers acquire their regional dialect first and the lingua franca later, if at all?

4 04 2011

In my opinion it goes back to the two words I used earlier: precision and influence. Precision because latinate words in English can be used to imply a more formal tone and they lend exactness to the concept denoted. Latinate words and more ‘fancy’ forms are not as appropriate or congruent in a more Anglo-Saxon dialect.

Influence matters for even more sociolinguistic reasons. If you are able to code-switch up from a regional dialect or sociolect, then you can more easily form relationships in business, academia and society. I know some people don’t like the idea having to be upwardly mobile but that’s the elephant in the room none the less.

An interesting story related to this is the origin of RP which developed as a geographically neutral solution to the need for public schoolboys to forget the provincial places they came from. If you spoke with RP, no one could tell if you went to Winchester or Gordonstoun, merely that you went to a public school and therefore you belonged to a class separated from the hoi poloi. I think the opposition to a standardised ELF comes from the fact that unfortunately, it would serve as the opposite of this.

4 04 2011
Fiona (@fionamau)

Why would anyone actually want to teach ELF as a language? Surely that’s not what it’s about ?

Given that ELF is more about noticing what features make or break communication than about telling anyone what they should teach, perhaps the observations of Jennifer Jenkins et al and, here in Spain, Robin Walker can be used as a lower parameter of what ideally learners should be aiming for. As you say, and as learner-centred, dogmetic, non-tree-hugging humanistic teacher I believe, the learner should be allowed to decide what s/he needs/wants, and by extension decide how high up the ‘how perfect I want my English to be’ scale s/he aims to go. However, if we say that scale goes from 1-10, ELF could be around the 7.5 mark. Meaning that 7.5 would be the lowest recommendable aim. Using ELF to say ‘OK, but you need to get at least to here to communicate efficiently’.
I don’t think a teacher, or at least a conscientious teacher, would set out to deliberately teach students without prior consultation towards a 7.5, just as although when I was at school 51% was a pass, our regular school teachers never taught us just enough to get 51%. On the other hand, private classes after school in a subject a student was weak in might well have been aimed at getting the student just over the 51% mark because that was what the student had paid for, for whatever reason. Without consultation, in a ‘normal’ class, you as learner would assume you were being given the chance of opting for the highest – otherwise, you’d feel cheated, short-changed, conned… WITH consultation, you might actually say ‘look, I just need to pass this thing – that’s what I want you to give me’.

Secondly: rather like the technology debate that dogged the dogme list a while back, does the fact that ELF exists or has been created/invented/labelled mean that you have to use it in your classes? Has anyone at any point said ‘You must all teach ELF?’ Surely as well as being about what learners want, it should also be about the teacher? After all, we are also one of the people in the room. I’m not happy with most technology, it can be little more than clutter, unless its use is totally justified, and likewise, I’m not happy with much of ELF, unless its use is totally justified. However, just as sometimes technology MAY be justifiable in a lesson of mine, so may an aspect of ELF. To date, that has purely consisted of the pronunciation priorities identified by Robin Walker for speakers of Spanish, and more than in class, in creating and writing a general English course. Where an editor or co-author includes something like, say, pronouncing the ‘ing’ ending or an initial ‘f’, something pretty much nowhere on the list of ‘muddles that break comprehension’, I use those priorities to argue for a more useful focus. Guidelines, as someone (Glennie?)) suggested above.

Finally, the whole ‘should we teach to a high level of near-native proficiency or ELF’ thing must stick in the throats of non-native teachers, don’t you think? Apart from existing subtle differences anyway, how would you feel if you’d studied a language for years and years, done teacher training and maybe a masters degree, accumulated ten or twenty years teaching experience, and then some decision maker comes along and says ‘hey, there’s this new thing called ELF, you only need to teach 75% of this stuff, skip the rest’. Professional and personal pride, self-esteem, a sense of ‘who I am and what I do’ must surely come into play.

I think ELF is like hoodies. They’ve been around for a while, they’re what some people want to wear, and others consider a bit too ‘street’, dressing down. If you wear one in a social situation, you’ll be decent, but you won’t impress overly in certain contexts. I wouldn’t force anyone to wear one, and I wouldn’t want anyone to oblige me to wear one, even though I own one, unless it was for a specific and justified reason, like sport or when my bathrobe’s in the wash.

Yes. That’s it. ELF is an ELT hoody.

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Fiona, for that well-crafted and thoughtful comment. I can’t do it justice at this late hour, but you are right that good teachers always pitch their teaching at a point slightly beyond the learners’ present level of competence — the sort of i + 1 idea. However, (and I know you were speaking partly metaphorically) I’m not sure if you can talk about language learning quantifiably, i.e. as if it were simply a matter of accumulating ‘discrete entities of knowledge’. That is to say, the notion of there being such a thing as 75% of linguistic proficiency, as opposed to 100% or 50%, is simply not a viable construct (although test-designers would wish it were so). This doesn’t invalidate your argument, not least your point that some teachers might feel cheapened ‘teaching ELF’, but it somewhat misrepresents the implications of establishing “an ELF standard” — it’s not about teaching less of anything, necessarily, but about teaching differently, because the predicted contexts of use will be different. Does that make sense?

5 04 2011
Fiona (@fionamau)

Good morning, Scott! (warning: I’ve been up for hours, but not had coffee yet….)

Re “I’m not sure if you can talk about language learning quantifiably, i.e. as if it were simply a matter of accumulating ‘discrete entities of knowledge’.”

Um, well, yes and no. Not in the studies of linguists specializing in language acquisition and the theory of ELT you can’t, and not in discussion between teachers who are keen and passionate about what they do, have strong, human values etc and believe in The Learner as well as The Teacher. BUT in your average classroom – not TEFL classroom, English Language classroom – and probably your average coursebook or government designed syllabus it is totally quantifiable. You know how syllabus design goes, at the nitty-gritty, school student level. It doesn’t go ‘students capable of getting the week’s shopping; students able to talk about their politicial views;…’. It goes: grammar: present simple; present continuous; present continuous with future use;….. / vocabulary: adverbs of frequency, comparatives, superlatives…. / functions: like + ing (likes & dislikes), would like (ordering food in a restaurant)…’ And that’s what millions and millions of teachers teach.

English as a School Subject is not the same as English as a Living Language, and it’ll take a very looooong time for those of us who believe in the latter to shift those of them who believe in the former from the rooms along those corridors of power. CLIL is probably helping nudge that shift along, and next generation blended learning courses for schools will too, but it’ll be slow slow slow.

In my heart I agree, no, language is not quantifiable, but my eyes and experience of staffrooms, classrooms, and mainstream education as teacher, learner and mother, tell me otherwise.

And that is why I sincerely hope that the technocrats and marketing departments don’t get hold of ELF, or it’ll morph downwards, like so many other good ideas from our field. You yourself, or, say, Robin may get invited to advise governments and draw up recommendations, all very laudable, but then there’ll be someone who says “Ah, but what teachers want is….” and your recommendations’ll get repackaged as ‘English as an Intermediate Language’, as someone has said elsewhere in this debate, and yippee, easier for students to learn ‘so we’ll move up the success-in-language-learning-league tables’.

Cynical? Moi? I guess it’s time for that coffee.

4 04 2011
Robin Walker

I absolutely agree, Scott, that teaching the learner is more important than teaching the language, but what a shame that to say this you had to give so much space to a talk that was given by a speaker who has misunderstood ELF in a number of ways.

The first these is ‘deficiency’ linguistics – in other words, the idea that ELF is a tolerated but defective form of standard English, with ‘standard’ meaning native-speaker English.

As we all now know, ELF is the English that is developing amongst non-native speakers as they go about their personal and professional lifes. However, as they communicate with each other through English, non-native speakers are actually shaping the language to fit their needs. They are doing this through the very same mechanisms of language change that are part and parcel of language use, and which native speakers are party too all of the time. In this respect, ELF does not condemn NNSs to speak a pidgin. Rather it gives them the same right as all language users, which is the right to modify langauge through use.

Secondly, ELF is not linguistics applied, and anybody who has followed its development through attending ELF talks or conferences or by reading ELF publications, will know that ELF researchers are at pains to point out that the mere fact that a piece of language can be described does not automatically mean that it should be taught. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Henry Widdowson insist on this point. Corpus linguistics is not per se a justification of pedagogical practice, so ELF and EFL agree here.

As to revising standards of accuracy, I don’t think ELF does that when it accepts dental stops, for example, as a correct possible pronunciation of ‘th’ (as opposed to the RP dental fricatives). There are a very significant number of NSs who use dental stops for this digraph, starting with the Irish, so here ELF is asking for parity – the right for the NNS to do what the NS is allowed to do.

So ELF raises questions? Is this anything new? Did the the work of applied lingustics that led to the notional-functional vision of language leave us indifferent? Did it give us an ‘off-the-peg’ answer to what to do in class on Monday? Were we born using a communicative approach to ELT? Of course ELF raises questions. And many of us are really glad ELF raises questions, because without questions there is a real danger that we stagnate.

All of this said, nobody in ELF has suggested, nor is suggesting, that anybody who wants to follow a NS model and strive for a NS goal should be disuaded from doing so. Quite that opposite. But before ELF arrived on the scene there was only one ‘legitimate’ goal; the default setting was EFL as determined by native speakers. Now learners have a choice.

Robin Walker

4 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Robin.

The reason I gave so much space to Akbari’s argument is that, for me at least, it was not one I had heard argued quite so forcefully from this context — i.e. the expanding circle context. (Although it’s true that Jennifer Jenkins, too, also documents a lot of resistance to the notion of ELF in her book English As a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity (OUP, 2008) and a lot of this resistance comes from non-native teachers of English). And is it significant that — on this blog at least — there hasn’t been a single voice coming from that constituency, arguing either for or against ? (That may just say something about the readership of this blog, of course).

I suppose it’s the perception of ELF — as an imposition, even a threat — that I find curious. In the end, it seems to boil down to the pedagogical treatment of error, which may be something that many teachers believe is intrinsic to their professional competence, even credibility. Once you problematise the notion of error, by making it — as Evan points out — relative, and not absolute, questions about methodology inevitably arise.

Of course, we have been treating error as relative for a long time now — the communicative approach is associated with a much greater tolerance for error. But I think that, for many teachers (and possibly many non-native ones), this tolerance has been ignored, due to the nature of the local educational culture, perhaps. And this insistence on accuracy is a condition exacerbated by the examination-driven educational paradigm in which we increasingly work.

The other reason I gave space to Akbari’s argument is that I do think there is a way out (and that the argument is largely academic), so long as we are prepared to defer to the learners, and adopt an ESP approach to course design and methodology. Drawing up a syllabus of ELF characteristics and teaching it, in the absence of any attempt to diagnose or predict the learner’s purposes and contexts, would simply be replacing one list with another, and would not necessarily provide a close fit with the learners real needs. (Although I do think that, if you were to identify the needs of many – probably most – learners, you would find that these would fit into the lingua franca model. But the starting point should be the learner, not the model).

4 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Here is reknowned economist Ha-Joon Chang giving us a nice example of how to communicate effectively in the west using, not American or British, but Korean English pronunciation.

Oh, and I can atest that his writing communicates effectively also!

5 04 2011

“…would simply be replacing one list with another…”

Well said Scott – this reminds me of your article “Grammar, Power and Bottled Water”. ELF seems to be yet another way of commodifying the language enabling it to be used prescriptively as opposed to descriptively.
It all seems, as Akbari points out, to come back to power and who has the right to “own” a language. ELF may look like its devolving power back to NNESs, but this is still only as it is described by “experts”: “by claiming ownership of grammar the applied linguistics departments assert their influence over the the industry that trades in that commodity”.
It all reminds me of the old boy scout joke about helping the old lady cross the road, and getting hit with her umbrella as she didn’t want to in the first place!

9 04 2011
Dennis Newson

1. Scott writes: ” if we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off”. Of course I go along with that, but would want to add: “If parents and the authorities that be allow one to teach what we gather from the students is what they want to learn.”
2. Scott also mentions Jennifer Jenkins and it is she, I think, who convincingly argued that in many Englishes it just was not worthwhile spending a great deal of time and energy getting learners to use the 3rd. person singular /s/ /z/ -when it is communicatively redundant. But you try selling that idea to many groups of teachers and learners. They appear to think they are being short-changed. They want to teach and learn “real” English – and that includes the 3rd. person singular.

9 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Dennis. Just to re-iterate a point made earlier: it’s probably a hopeless task to try and codify the linguistic features of ELF, whether phonological, grammatical or lexical. For one thing, it’s a moving target. For another, it’s probably less a ‘code’ than a ‘practice’. That is to say, it is a species of communicative event that takes place between speakers who don’t share a mother tongue, but it will always be shaped by the nature of the event: the speakers themselves, their context, their purposes – or, in Halliday’s terms, the field, tenor and mode. As Sureish Canagarajah puts it:

“Because of the diversity at the heart of this communicative medium, LFE [lingua franca English] is intersubjectively constructed in each specific context of interaction. The form of this English is negotiated by each set of speakers for their purposes. The speakers are able to monitor each other’s language proficiency to determine mutually the appropriate grammar, phonology, lexical range, and pragmatic conventions that will ensure intelligibility. Therefore, it is difficult to describe this language a priori. It cannot be characterised outside the specific interaction and speakers in a communicative context. Meierkord (2004) said that LFE ’emerges out of and through interaction’ and, for that reason ‘it might well be that LFE never achieves a stable or even standardised form’ (p. 129). In this sense, LFE does not exist as a system ‘out there.’ It is constantly brought into being in each context of communication” (pp. 925-6).

Canagarajah, S. 2007. Lingua Franca English, Multilingual Communities and Language Acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 91.

9 04 2011
Evan Frendo

A nice example of ELF discussion in the non teaching world, and the furore it can cause, is Fabio Capello’s (The England football manager) claim that he only needs a 100 words of English to do his job. See here

9 04 2011
Chia Suan Chong

Everyone’s comments and thoughts on ELF made me reflect upon my own journey I made over the last 3 years since I first encountered the ELF argument.

1. That it seemed condescending to speakers of English as a foreign language to claim that they could never speak like a ‘native-speaker’.

2. That the term ‘native-speaker’ seemed to have become a dirty phrase due to the guilt of post-colonial hand-wringing liberals and those who spoke English as a mother tongue do not own the language, nor should they expect their varieties to be considered the only standard.

3. That talking about codifying ELF was silly when there already exists enough standards that have been codified and ready to be used.

4. That if everyone spoke their own variety of English, no one would understand each other and it would defeat the purpose of having a lingua franca.

5. That all the fuss made about speakers of ELF needing to assert their identity through their own variety of English was annoying considering the fact that they already have their own language to express their identity through, unlike native-speakers of English, who do indeed need the language as an identity-marker.

6. That ELF speakers are being judged on how ‘native-speaker-like’ their language accuracy is, even when speaking to fellow ELF speakers, e.g. in job interviews where fluency in English is a requirement.

7. That the ELF argument does not consider the receptive needs of ELF speakers. They will still be exposed to native-like varieties through Hollywood films, literature, and English pop music, and they will wonder why they can’t understand the language that they are supposedly proficient in.

8. That the EFL classroom cannot teach a dumbed-down version of English e.g. accepting that the dropping of dependent prepositions or the third person ‘s’ is ‘correct English’.

9. That negotiation of meaning will always take place in cross-cultural communications out of the classroom anyway, but just because certain language features are common in such interactions (like the above dropping of dependent prepositions), it does not mean that is the language we should advocate in the classroom. (Although I agree that communication strategies to aid such negotiation of meaning should be taught/practised in the EFL classroom)

10. That code-switching abilities should be encouraged among native AND non-native-speakers, so that when speaking to different groups in different situations, one is able to adapt their language use to be understood/ fit in.

I constantly preached the above to everyone who would talk to me about ELF in the last three years, and even spoke at conferences about it. But in the meantime ELF research has been evolving and I struggled to catch up with the more current discussions in ELF linguistics.

Over time, after lots of debates with sociolinguists, I have been told the following:

1. Proponents of ELF no longer advocate the codification of ELF.

2. ELF is no longer seen as a single variety.

3. A singular view of a so-called ELF community is a fallacy. Instead are different communities of practice and situations where English is used as a lingua franca. What seems to be more of interest in sociolinguistics now seems to be the different strategies and lanugage features used in different situations to communicate meaning.

4. Most proponents of ELF are not really saying that features of ELF (like the dropping of the third person ‘s’) should be taught in the language classroom. They advocate prioritising what to teach and using precious classroom time to enable learners to become proficient ELF users but this does not equate teaching learners to drop the third person ‘s’ or not recognising the use of the ‘schwa’. It just means not spending 3 hours on it…something that common sense should already be telling us…

However, the one thing that still bugs me is the claim that there need not be an end-point for learners to target. Of course, with the existence of so many different varieties and different codes, it is hard to decide how to ‘measure progress’. Thus, the whole debate regarding codifying ELF. When one learns something, naturally, one wants a role-model, a target, an end-point. Someone once said to me that the longest and most tiring run is one where the destination is unknown. Such a run is often the most intimidating… I couldn’t agree more…

So although as impossible a task it seems to codify what isn’t even a variety as such anymore, it is important that applied linguists and teachers work together to discuss and think about the practical aspects of advocating ELF in the classroom and providing that illusion of an end-point for learners to head towards, whether they reach it or not. And this end-point no doubt would be different for each and every learner, depending on what they need English for. With so much niche-marketing going on with every product in the global market today, perhaps English as a mass market product does not exist anymore. What we know as ESP perhaps applied to every learner and user of English (including the so-called native-speakers).

What I am curious about is this focus on ‘intelligibility’ in all ELF discussions. Is that really the only aim?
How about the impressions we are creating, and the nuances of the language features we choose to use?
If EFL or ELF speakers are to ‘assert their identity’ through English, perhaps how they impress their personality through the language should be as important as intelligibility?


10 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chia, for an extremely thoughtful and reflective comment. You raise a number of important issues, not least the problem of there being no goalposts, as such, if we reject a NS ‘gold standard’.

Maybe we need to distinguish between models and standards: that is to say, in the absence of a generally recognised international variety, you can choose the NS variety as your model (e.g. when it comes to describing the grammar and lexicon and hence designing syllabi) but you needn’t set NS-like proficiency as your standard. Achieving comfortable intelligibility using this model may well be enough.

As you rightly put it, “It just means not spending 3 hours on [3rd person ‘s]…something that common sense should already be telling us…”

Your other point – that there is more to communication than intelligibility – is also well made. There’s a long tradition in functional grammar of distinguishing between the ideational (or representational) function of language, and its interpersonal function. Intelligibility seems to be more concerned with the former, but – for the reasons you outline – it would be perilous if we ignored the way that language is used to construct and maintain empathy. If it is to be of any use, a corpus of lingua franca English (or Spanish, or Arabic, or whatever) should include not only samples of purely utilitarian language use, but also a representative sample of ‘socializing’ and phatic language.

Even so, for the reasons I’ve pointed out above, such a corpus is probably not a sound basis on which to plan curriculum decisions. Needs analysis – as Evan pointed out – is the way to go.

10 04 2011
Chia Suan Chong

Thanks Scott.
I’ve just started working on my dissertation and I hope to address the impressions created by the different discourse strategies used in requests made in short-turn ELF interactions. A very narrow topic, I know, but because it’s an MA, I’m rather constrained… But I certainly hope that ELF research starts looking at phatic communication and not simple the negotiation of superficial meaning….

11 04 2011
Fiona Granada

Hi Scott – we had contact on the Oxford House diploma November module with your “M is for Methodology”. This debate is very interesting and I´ve enjoyed reading all the posts. I would like to add two comments.

The first is to repeat a comment that Lorna made earlier that ELF has no place in a classroom that is preparing students to pass high stake summative exams. I would argue they are almost two extremes on one continuum. When I actually suggested to my CAE preparation students that as non-native speakers they might be the true owners of English, they were horrified. They like (as others have said above) to have a firm yardstick to bounce off and measure themselves by.

Secondly, I would like to suggest that ELF is rooted in our post-modern globalised world and that it is a “language” that is used primarily for a certain sector of commerce, business and politics (which arguably has Western capitalism at its base). The British linguist Michael Toolan (1997) comments that global English is connected with “globetrotting professionals”. I perceive ELF to be associated with many concepts and words connected with business hegemony – “power” (Harmer 2007), “the franchise language” and “leased out” (Henry G Widdowson (1997), “currency against which all others are measured” (Richard Francis 1992). For this reason, I question whether we as teachers should be changing our syllabus, methodology, grammar books and thinking, when this “new language” is the product of money and business rather than of gradual historical, cultural convergence and pluralism and when it belongs perhaps to a specific sector of our world society.

13 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Fiona, for making the interesting point that ELF may be the ‘diaect of neoliberalism’ (you didn’t put it like that, but that’s what it sounds like). (See a previous post (N is for Neoliberalism) for a discussion of the pervasive influence of neoliberalist values in coursebook content).

It hadn’t occurred to me that there might also be a connection between ‘the pursuit of personal gain at whatever cost’ and lingua franca English. But in fact Phillipson 2009 (in Linguistic Imperialism Revisited) makes a similar point, arguing that English as a Lingua Franca (which he re-dubs English as a Lingua Frankenstein) serves the purposes of ‘global corporatization’ and ‘interlocks with economic/material systems, structures, institutions, and US empire’ (p. 171). Accordingly, he is dismissive of the argument that ELF, by enabling communication and, hence, collaboration, between marginalized communities, as well as allowing direct access to those who wield power, actually empowers those who might otherwise remain ‘the wretched of the earth’.

As an alternative, Phillipson suggests we should “take into consideration the use of Esperanto as an alternative to the juggernaut English, which rides roughshod over the rights of many non-native users of the language” (p. 39).

13 04 2011

Saluton! I’m glad the issue of ‘Esperanto’ has been brought up here. I tried to sneak it into last week’s ELT Chat on twitter but it died at birth. Shame.

On the plus side, this artificial language would have to be learned by everyone, meaning all speakers communicating on a level playing field. Similarly, it was designed to be simple: I’ve read that a B2 CEFR equivalent can be attained with about 6 months of dedicated study. I found it really refreshing to be able to learn the tenses and the rules governing parts of speech in about ten minutes.

Nevertheless, there are drawbacks.

A common viewpoint is that Esperanto’s main problem is that it was underdesigned. The original doctrine contained only 16 grammar rules and 925 roots. As time has gone on, it appears that these were simply not enough for a complete language. This has led to ‘gaps’ having been filled willy nilly by its protagonists. Europeans have been at the forefront of usage, filling in the blanks, setting the grammar rules and adding new root words, leading to inconsistency and a heavy degree of Euro-centrism. Furthermore, Esperanto’s phonetic alphabet includes the difficult-to-type letters ĉ ĝ ĥ ĵ ŝ and ŭ which would have meant a drastic revision of keyboard layouts. Given the prevalence of emails in contemporary international communication, this is probably the language’s biggest drawback. Does it, therefore, have a future?

If anyone has links regarding research into Esperanto use, please share.

12 04 2011
Andy Wilson

Hi Scott, I’m doing the same course as Fiona and Tatiana and what I’ve noticed from a lot of comments is we all want to put the learner at the centre of what we teach in EFL.
Two articles by Trever Timmis and Vicky Kuo asked students what their goals were in relation to native-like production and most had native-like production as their objective despite understanding that it was probably an unrealist goal. I asked my own students who are learning business English and who mainly communicate with other non-native speakers and were surprised to hear the same responses, and this is despite the majority only ever speaking to non-native speakers. So, although English as a lingua franca is a reality should we as native speakers then offer it as a model for EFL learners who may well still dream of speaking like a native? Surely this would be contray to learners objectives which we all keep central to our teaching.

13 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Andy. Yes, Jennifer Jenkins found similar NS-like aspirations when she surveyed attitudes to ELF in her 2007 book, English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity (OUP). She suggests that these attitudes may be a relic of ‘native speakerism’, and that a more realistic and better informed generation will come to accept – and even embrace – the spread of ELF.

14 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

Does anybody know whether topics we’ve been discussing here-humanistic approaches, ELF, or memorization- are taken into consideration by curriculum designers and syllabus writers behind bilingual programs?

15 04 2011
Michael Scirocco FCollT

TSOEL – Teaching Speakers of Other English Languages?

By Michael Scirocco FCollT-April 15, 2011

Hello Scott, I am classmate of Tatiana, Fiona and Andy from the November Trinity LTCL Diploma in TESOL course you moderated in at Oxford TEFL. I am happy to have met you online, and to now, post something on your blog. I enjoy speaking Italian- American English. If I bring you all to my hometown (New Haven, CT), and we hangout with some Italian- American locals, you may or may not understand the English around you. It is mixed with Italian sayings, cultural symbolism and grammar that you will say is wrong, complain about, but try to understand. (You tube Pasquale and Rosetta cartoon: Hilarious) It is standard amongst many Italian Americans. I agree with you, and have seen over and over that language is owned by the people, and not by academics from the United States or the UK.

On the other hand, I always teach the great two standards that belong to the British and the American Academic side by side, e.g. “color”. In British English it would be spelled “colour”. “Colour” and “velour” don’t sound the same in both languages; blah, blah, blah.” Since there isn’t an agreement on a world standard, why should other cultures’ expression in English be wrong? Why should their pronunciations be the same when it isn’t in Native English speaking countries? But any language has a standard pronunciation all you have to do watch the anchor on BBC. In China it would be standard Mandarin the dialect of Beijing.

I enjoy speaking Italian American English, using awkward sayings and mispronouncing words for the sake of ethnical liberty. I can switch it off and speak other dialects. Do we need an accent or grammar police? Who shall it be? If you can understand someone, isn’t that enough? There are more non-native English speakers (NNS) in the world than English native speakers (NS). I also notice NNS from different regions enjoy communicating with each other and are open enough to be patient with “SPEAKERS OF OTHER ENGLISH LANGUAGES”.

For here in East Asia we have many languages that the “experts” have deemed low level or pigeon English. Though most teachers or directors usually need me to interpret from NNS English to NS English. Sometimes, I even observe a NNS interpreting to a NNS in NNS English for a native speaker. So it seems that the NNS understand each other, but NS don’t understand others, or possibly each other. Shouldn’t we concentrate more on training native speakers how to communicate better, and respect other cultures (CCC), instead of maintaining unreasonable demands, discriminating and making personal innuendos about NNS. Could the problem in the ELT industry be that many teachers are under qualified, lacking the education and or world wisdom necessary to deal with their positions?

I hope that someday I can see Konglish, Singlish, Jinglish and Fringlish books on the shelves of bookstores. In fact I decided to create my own Chinglish book. I think that students will love to study Chinglish, and it could make a great transition for those that have personal, political, and/or cultural fear studying Native English. I think the Chinglish class would be a lot of fun. I don’ t think an organization is necessary to standardize English, I think everyone will take care of their own English Languages. It will continue to develop on its own.
I thought ELF was about developing languages along a regional plane, and of course, respecting others in their expression. Focusing on learner is important, but don’t forget language. We are educated and mature. We can find what differences our students have in language, culture, and work with it, in our lesson plans. Course book writers could also have activities and handouts teaching the difference in English dialects. I think we should internationalize the students in upper levels. Of course we have accepted the idea of linguistic drift and new languages may emerge, Caribbean English, Indian English, South African English, Irish English, Philippine English, Mauritian English etc.

Let’s forget about it all, go to a pizza place, and slip into our dialects. Yahoo to Italian American English, e.g. “Ma gumba, let’s go to appizza place for summa pizza aglia olio e vino.”

15 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

—–“I think that students will love to study Chinglish.”
I don’t think my students would enjoy learning Iberinglish…(Spain)

—–“I think we should internationalize the students in upper levels.”

How would you articulate, then, your TSOEL proposal for the lower levels?

16 04 2011
Michael Scirocco FCollT

Wouldn’t standardizing the world’s English mean that even our English language would have to change?

19 04 2011
Hugh Dellar

I’ve written a lengthy article about ELF entitled ELF – and other fairy tales.
It’s in the DISCUSSIONS section of our facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/hughdellarandrewwalkley – should anyone be interested.

11 07 2011

We recently met online through the Oxford TEFL Diploma course in Barcelona, and as part of a module and a project on this area over there, I’d love some feedback:

Your comments are very helpful: “…would simply be replacing one list with another…” ” if we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off”.

It’s a huge temptation to look at the Lingua Franca core and the excellent benchmarks Robin Walker has laid out for the given L1s in your class and say “ok, so these are the language targets I have to teach.” I realize what an English teacher needs to do is be a communications coach, setting up tasks and communicative activities, devising just how to get learners to do pair dictation, minimal pairs, practice nuclear stress for meaning, and what other methods to explore.

But I’m having trouble transferring the development of “multicompetences” to the classroom (Alan Firth in “The lingua franca factor” says this is what allows interactors to produce discourse, including strategies like “letting it pass”, and “making it normal”). In business exchanges there is often a concrete need to have an exchange reach an outcome. But what when communication is less robust? What when you have a class of students who aren’t really working very hard to communicate, because they can live with half an idea of what the other is saying? This is what I’m up against in the academic community I’m working with.

Communicative language teaching is needed to grow communicative skills, but where does that leave form? Isn’t that what we language teachers were originally told our role would be? Should I as a teacher be adding any form-related input or feedback to communicative language teaching between speakers of different languages? I’m sort of at a loss about what my input to the situation should be. If successful outcomes are about getting the meaning, if the comprehensible input is understanding a classmates very difficult accent, does form have any role left to play?

Then, a second question, which is really a comment, actually: There’s this weird attitude split in learners between wanting to to champion the way they get their work done, and an anxiety about whether it will really be enough. Concretely, I find a world of difference between ad hoc communication, and anything the outside world will see. How to get that into one agenda?

Thanks for ideas and clarification!

16 11 2011
Philip Kerr

It is very striking how successful the proponents of ELF have been (in the world of ELT) in getting their views heard and their writing published. This is, perhaps, surprising given that (according to Jennifer Jenkins) ‘scholars who recognize the legitimacy of ELF are at present in a fairly small minority among linguists’. I’ve just discovered the work of Mario Saraceni, who takes a critical, but not excessively hostile, stance towards ELF. An interesting article can be found here: http://www.ffri.uniri.hr/datoteke/Sirola/saraceni.pdf

13 03 2013
Umes Shrestha

Hi Scott and everyone,
I am a Nepali “English” language teacher. In the school I teach, many students drop the possessive marker ‘s’ in sentences such as:
My father name is…. My school name is….
Lately, I’ve noticed that, not only the students in the school, several other teachers (of subjects other than English) do the same. Another instance is of dropping the third person singular marker ‘s’ in verbs, in sentences such as:
He like playing football.
She like me.
Again, interestingly enough, many adult students as well as teachers use this form.
In any of the above cases, the form has not impeded the communication and the meaning is perfectly intelligible.

I frown over the structure and make my students correct them, because ultimately they have to appear in the examination as well. Plus, I believe there has to be some sort of standard. But this debate of ELF version, now I’m confused, what standard, who’s standard should we NNS teachers follow?

Thank you.

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