E is for English

21 05 2017


Salvador Sobral

Salvador Sobral and his sister Luisa, who wrote the winning song (AFP)

The fact that the winner of this year’s Eurovision contest sang his sister’s song in his native Portuguese, and not – like the majority of contestants – solely or partly in English, has attracted comment in the European press. In fact (according to a Guardian article that appeared in advance of the final) only four of the total 42 songs in the Eurovision final were sung entirely in a language other than English: as well as the Portuguese entry, these were the Belarusian, Hungarian and Italian entries. Of the rest, 35 were sung entirely in English. ‘That’s over 83%, and the highest-ever proportion in the history of the competition,’ notes The Guardian. The fact that the contest’s slogan was ‘Celebrate Diversity’ seems not to have impacted on the choice of language.

Eurovision stats

The rise and rise of Euro-English – as sung in the Eurovision Song Contest (from The Guardian)


That the successful Portuguese song bucked this trend has given grim satisfaction to those who (like me) suspect that the dominance of English may be experiencing the first signs of a reversal, especially in Europe. Only a week or so before Eurovision, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commision, is reported to have opted to make a speech in French rather than in English, on the grounds that, in his words, “slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe.” As The Guardian noted, his snub was received with applause.

Of course, the negative perception of English has been fuelled by Brexit, but also, I would guess, by the election of Trump in the US. As I commented a few months ago, on the TEFL Equity blog, in response to a post that argued that these events will hasten the demise of ‘native speakerism’:

The ideology that underpins the Brexit and Trump ‘debacles’ threatens – not the hegemony of native-speaker teachers or native speaker models of English – but the very survival of English as a global language itself. When two of the countries that are (still) most closely identified with English succumb to antiglobalizing, protectionist and xenophobic political discourses, the ‘symbolic capital’ of the language is devalued. With fewer students studying in the US or UK, and fewer companies trading there – even with fewer tourists – the incentive to learn English will weaken. Maybe not by much, but maybe by enough for another global language – e.g. Spanish or Russian (don’t laugh!) – to edge it off first base – or maybe the increasing sophistication of translation software will render the notion of a lingua franca redundant in any case. Either way, we can’t simply shrug off the effect that Brexit/Trump will have on global perceptions of English. Maybe we should rebrand it ‘Canadian’, and teach that!

As we know, even lingua francas (linguae francae?) are not immune to language change and even language death. Latin, after all, was kept alive (in ‘a state of suspended animation’, as one writer puts it [Coleman 1990, p. 181]) mainly because of its liturgical function, long after it had ceased to be the lingua franca of what had once been the Roman Empire.

english-next.jpgMore than decade ago, David Graddoll (2006, p. 62) made the point that ‘English is no longer the “only show in town”. Other languages now challenge the dominance of English in some regions. Mandarin and Spanish, especially, have become sufficiently important to be influencing national policy priorities in some countries.’

More recently, writing about language and globalization, Ammon (2013, p. 120) notes that ‘it appears likely that other languages besides English will gain, or maintain, international or global function. The gist of their use will probably be bilateral, but the possibility of multilateral usage, including as a lingua franca in special situations, remains, irrespective of the role of English as the predominant world lingua franca.’

And even within the English-speaking world, English is subject to hybridizing influences that threaten its uniformity and which suggest it could go the way of Latin, metamorphosing into a proliferation of mutually unintelligble varieties. Romaine (2009, p. 604) writes of demographic shifts ‘within the US and Europe which may have a dramatic effect on the future position of English. Immigration and migration have brought about increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in both these regions.’ And she adds, ‘unprecedented mobility the world over is creating new hybridised identities. This is no less evident in the English language itself, with its multiple varieties’ (p. 605).

Meanwhile, back in the UK, The Independent reports that a video has been released that ‘shows a British man hitting 27-year-old Tomás Gil, from Valencia, in the face with a wooden plank after shouting at him to “speak English”’.

Great language. Great future.English only t-shirt



Ammon, U. (2013) ‘World languages: trends and futures,’ In Coupland, N. (ed.) The Handbook Of Language and Globalisation, London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Coleman, R.G.G. (1990) ‘Latin and the Italic languages’ in Comrie, B. (ed.) The World’s Major Languages, Oxford University Press.

Graddol, D. (2006) English Next: Why global English may mean the end of ‘English as a foreign language’. British Council.

Romaine, S. (2009) ‘Global English: from island tongue to world language’. In van Kemenade A. & Los, B. (eds) The Handbook of the History of English. London: Wiley-Blackwell.


E is for Esperanto

14 05 2017

teach yourself esperantoTry this thought experiment:

A couple learn an invented language and use it with their child who picks it up naturally. The child eventually meets another person who has the same artificial mother tongue. To what extent will they be able to communicate? That is to say, to what extent will the two linguistic systems be aligned?

Or this one:

Two people, each with different L1s, learn to communicate in a lingua franca for which there are no prescribed rules of suprasegmental phonology, such as rhythm and intonation. Will they be mutually intelligible?

Or this one:

An artificial language has been developed that has its own grammar and vocabulary, but not a codified phraseology, e.g. of collocations, idioms, etc. Will a phraseology develop naturally through use? And to what extent will this cause communication breakdown between speakers of the language who have learned and used it in different settings?

As it happens, these ‘experiments’ are regularly put to the test whenever speakers of artificial languages, such as Esperanto, interact. Designed to be an international lingua franca, Esperanto never quite fulfilled its utopian promise, but (according to Wikipedia) ‘up to two million people worldwide, to varying degrees, speak Esperanto, including about 1,000 to 2,000 native speakers who learned Esperanto from birth.’  This last fact must surely excite researchers of second language acquisition and of sociolinguistics, specifically that aspect of sociolinguistics that deals with generational language change. It’s surprising, therefore, that there is little or no mention of Esperanto in the literature of either SLA or sociolinguistics.

The second generation speakers of Esperanto (I would have thought) would provide interesting data for those who are concerned with how language acquisition emerges, especially in conditions where opportunities for input and output are restricted  – which is often the case, not only for speakers of Esperanto, but also for learners of EFL. And it might provide insights into how languages evolve over time within particular speech communities.

For example, it has been shown (Bergen 2001) that children who grow up speaking Esperanto tend not to use the accusative case. (The accusative case is the marking of nouns and adjectives as objects of the verb. In English, the accusative survives in only a handful of pronouns, e.g. who vs whom). Native speakers of Esperanto also ignore a number of complex tense and aspect distinctions that are marked with affixes.

How does one account for these divergences from ‘proper’ Esperanto (i.e. the language learned by their parents) and the language spoken by second generation Esperanto speakers? Are the differences attributable simply to L1 transfer – given the fact that native Esperanto speakers are invariably bilingual? Or is the ‘nativization’ process determined by general (i.e. not language-specific) learning strategies, such as a tendency to overgeneralize rules or to eliminate redundancy? Or is the failure to adopt features of the target grammar, as prescribed by its grammarians, simply an effect of incomplete learning, due, perhaps, to limited exposure and opportunities for use – what SLA researchers might call the premature stabilization of the interlanguage? Indeed, can we talk about ‘interlanguage’ at all, given that there is no agreed ‘end state’ in the acquisition of Esperanto, i.e. there is no native speaker model that has been codified over generations of users?

Or can second generation Esperanto be explained only by recourse to an innate, language-learning faculty, such as argued by proponents of Universal Grammar (UG)? Could it be that second-generation Esperanto offers evidence of universalizing principles? Which also raises the interesting question as to whether any of the features of Esperanto grammar contravene UG, and, if so, have they been shed in the process of nativization? (Another thought experiment: a language is devised which contravenes UG – e.g. has ‘postpositions’, rather than prepositions (‘the bus on’, not on the bus), but has adjectives before rather than after the noun, i.e. a red bus, not a bus red. It is taught to one generation and then acquired by a second. Would the word order discrepancies resolve themselves? If so, in which direction?)



L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), architect of Esperanto

The accusative case, incidentally, has an interesting history in Esperanto: Zamenhof – Esperanto’s designer – believed that the presence of accusative forms of nouns and adjectives would allow a more flexible word order. Thus, with accusative markings, the difference between The dog bit the girl (‘La hundo mordis la knabinon’) and The girl bit the dog (‘La hundon morbis la knabino’) requires no change in word order. But, as early as 1895, there was a heated discussion as to its usefulness. So Zamenhof put it to the vote. The ‘accusativists’ won, triggering a separatist movement within Esperanto, and the formation of a breakaway language called Ido, which abandoned the accusative altogether. As we have seen, nativized Esperanto speakers have tended to follow suit.


Esperanto also offers a suggestive precedent for other (theorized) lingua francas, such as ELF (English as a lingua franca), which have no associated culture and few if any native speakers. Thus, the phonetician, John Wells, an accomplished Esperantist himself, has used the case of Esperanto to argue that speakers of a lingua franca for which there is no codified system of intonation (like Esperanto, like ELF) will simply adopt and adapt the intonation of their L1, with little or no prejudice to intelligibility. This is an argument against the explicit teaching of intonation, especially in the teaching of ELF (see the discussion in I for Intonation). On the other hand, transferring idiomatic expressions from an L1 into a lingua franca (such as Esperanto or ELF) should probably be avoided, since these are unlikely to be transparent to one’s interlocutors – a case against teaching phrasal verbs, for example.

In short, Esperanto, even if not the success its original proponents had envisioned, offers suggestive material for re-imagining the acquisition and teaching of English.


Bergen, B. K. (2001) ‘Nativization processes in L1 Esperanto.’ Journal of Child Language, 28.



V is for Voice setting

18 12 2011

A correspondent has reminded me of an article I wrote – ages ago – on voice setting (you can read it here):

I have just read your article ‘Having a good jaw: voice setting phonology’, and having noted the year in which it was published, I am interested to find out if you or anyone else, has conducted any studies on the exercises you suggested?

Never mind the mouth, check out the tash!

Just to remind you, voice setting – or ‘bases of articulation’ –  is the general term for those “general differences in tension, in tongue shape, in pressure of the articulators, in lip and cheek and jaw posture and movement, which run through the whole articulatory process” (O’Connor 1973:289).  It’s argued that voice settings vary from language to language, e.g.

“In English the lips and jaw move little, in French they move much more, with vigorous lip-rounding and spreading: the cheeks are relaxed in English but tensed in French: the tongue-tip is tenser in English and more used than in French, where the blade is dominant, and so on.” (O’Connor op.cit.)

Over the years I’ve collected  a number of non-specialist descriptions – from novels and poems, principally – that nicely capture voice setting characteristics. Here’s a selection:

“His voice rang like a metal clipper hitting a bucket and he spoke English. Proper English … he sprinkled ers and even errers in his sentences as liberally as he gave out his twisted-mouth smiles. His lips pulled not down… but to the side, and his head lay on one side or the other, but never straight on the end of his neck”. (Maya Angelou I Know How the Caged Bird Sings).

When you hear it languishing

and hooing and cooing and sidling through the front teeth,

the oxford voice

or worse still

the would-be oxford voice

you don’t even laugh anymore, you can’t …

(D.H.Lawrence: “The Oxford Voice”)

“Watching him twisting his mouth into that intelligently ironical shape that is necessary for the production of Dutch noises, I was reminded of how much I liked the semi-gargling sound Netherlanders make, brewing each word up at the back of their throats and then having to unpick it with their teeth.”  (Howard Jacobson: The Land of Oz)

What I was arguing (in the aforementioned article) was that accurate pronunciation at the segmental level (i.e. of individual sounds) is at least partly contingent on adjusting to the specific vocal setting for the language you’re trying to speak. That is to say, accent is as much an effect of top-down features as it is of bottom-up ones. Hence, it might repay teachers of pronunciation to start working on these top-down features first, in advance of fine-tuning for  phonemic distinctions.

To that end, I suggested an activity sequence that included awareness-raising activities such as watching videos of speakers with the sound off, in order to try and guess what language they are speaking, or role play activities where learners attempt to speak their own language with a marked English (RP or GA) accent, in the way that – for example – Brits or ‘gringos’ are portrayed locally in the movies. This might lead to some discussion as to what is actually happening – physically – when you ‘speak with an English accent’.

Read my lips

But, to answer my correspondent’s question, I don’t know of any follow-up to these suggestions, or, for that matter, of any research into the pedagogical applications of voice setting theory at all.  Besides, I’m wondering if – in this era of English as a Lingua Franca – is it really all that necessary to take such drastic steps to ‘nativise’ learners’ accents?


O’Connor, J.D. 1973. Phonetics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Thornbury, S. 1993. Having a good jaw: voice-setting phonology. ELT Journal, 47/2, 126-31.

Illustrations from Jones, D. 1932. An Outline of English Phonetics (3rd edn.) Leipzig: Teubner.

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).