The world’s language

When the dust has settled it’s often useful to take stock. This is an especially good idea after a conference as full and as fulfilling as IATEFL, which was in Birmingham this year. If the venue was new, the range and variety of talks on offer was as appealing as ever, so following a well-studied policy, and based on a blog by Laura Patsko and Katy Simpson (elfpron.wordpress.com), I made up a track for myself based around English as a Lingua Franca and related areas.

The related areas lead me to a talk by Lewis Lanford on the Thursday morning. The title of the talk was The world’s language: using authentic non-native input in the classroom, and much to my surprise, Lewis very quickly lead us through an overview and justification of an ELF approach to teaching English to learners who will be using it for international communication.

My surprise was partly because the term ELF hadn’t figured in the title of the talk, and partly because of the size of the room. Normally sessions on ELF are stuck in rooms for 50 (or fewer), but there were easily over 200 in Hall 5. Admittedly, the numbers may have been swelled by the fact that the speaker is an author for one of the major publishers (National Geographic / Cengage Learning) and was going to show us how to use TED talks in our classrooms.

Lewis put forward a number of arguments in favour of an ELF approach both clearly and convincingly (not that I needed any convincing), summing up a number of them in slides that had been well thought out. I loved the statement about native speakers not necessarily being able to ‘do’ ELF, and another about accent as a feature, not a flaw.

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The theoretical base established, Lewis then showed us a couple of extracts from TED talks where non-native speakers gave skilled presentations of the standard we’ve come to expect of these talks, but with English that was definitely ELF, and often noticeably different to any native-speaker set of norms.

Goodness, I thought. Is the message finally getting through? OK, he called ELF a variety, something researchers stopped doing some time ago, preferring the concept of community of practice (although that, too, is about to be questioned). And OK, he talked about the ELF ‘movement’ in a way that suggested that although he was advocating an ELF approach in his talk, he was not totally at ease with the idea of being associated with ELF, given its controversial landing in ELT. Overall, though, if you weren’t up to speed on ELF and wanted a quick, practical introduction, Lewis’s session was spot on. Certainly it got me heading straight to the Cengage stand to take a look at Keynote, in the hope of at last finding that much-needed adult ELF coursebook.

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I have an acid test for books that claim to align with ELF and English for international communication, and that is to go to the contents page and check out the pronunciation strand. The question is quite simple: to what extent has the pronunciation syllabus taken the lingua franca core (LFC) into account, and to what extent are the pronunciation contents NS-norm oriented?

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My acid text proved to be just that – a bitter experience. There they all were, the usual suspects: Intonation in questions, Weak forms, and my favourite, Expressive intonation. Quite apart from the teachability-learnability issues surrounding the choice of tone, or the current understanding about the meaning of tone, I don’t really think that expressiveness needs teaching, or indeed that it can be taught. And there was no indication that weak forms might be dealt with in terms of receptive competence only. No, from what was a brief glance, I accept, I had the distinct impression that we were face to face with yet another reincarnation of the suprasegmental syllabus that has dominated the scene for the last 30 years, especially the US English scene.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been disillusioned like this. I remember following exactly the same steps with the launch of MacMillan’s Global English. A friend had told me that my work on ELF pronunciation had influenced the pronunciation contents of the book, but when I saw them the next day at the publisher’s stand in Harrogate, I couldn’t see at all how I’d influenced things, save, perhaps, to drive the contents closer to a British norm.

So coming back to Birmingham and Lewis, it’s a question of chalk and cheese. It was encouraging to see an author openly arguing in favour of an ELF approach to English for international communication to such a large audience, but it was depressing once again to see that the publishers are still clinging firmly to the NS norm. The worst thing for me, however, is the way that ELF has been used here, as elsewhere, as a marketing device. It had certainly filled the room, but the word misappropriation springs to mind.

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  1. Pingback: IATEFL Birmingham 2016: We’re all teachers | Sandy Millin

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