ELF – English as a lingua franca

There are various options for ‘E’, such as elision or epenthesis. However, since English as a lingua franca (ELF) is the thing put my comfortable little pronunciation teacher’s world totally on its head back in the late 1990s, the other ‘E’s will have to wait. 

I’ve written about ELF basics so many times that I’m not going to do it again now. And anyway, I get a feeling that those of you who are following this blog don’t need another introduction. What is probably worth pointing out, however, is that when interest in ELF really took off some twenty years ago, it was referred to as English as an international language (EIL). Formally there are differences between the two terms, but they needn’t worry us here.

What I want to do now, then, is to look at some of the issues that surround an ELF approach to teaching pronunciation. To do this, I’m recovering something I wrote back in 2001 and which I co–authored with Kevin Keyes, a colleague who at the time was teaching applied linguistics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. We met in Madrid where I had just given my first ever conference paper on ELF pronunciation, and we decided to join forces against the avalanche of objections that the notion of ELF pronunciation was already generating.

The piece Kevin and I wrote, ‘Ten questions on the phonology of English as an international language’, was published in 2002 in the ELT Journal 56/3 in a section called Readers respond. Some of these ten questions link back to earlier posts in this blog, especially to my posts on accent. Others, such as Question 6, look forward to posts that are still to come.

Published in full, the ten questions would make a very long post, so I’ve ditched our Introduction and also Questions 7, 8 and 9. Most of the remaining questions make reference to the LFC or lingua franca core, a set of pronunciation features considered then (and now – see my post for ‘L’) to be central to international intelligibility. The LFC was proposed by Jennifer Jenkins in her seminal work, The Phonology of English as an International Language. The PEIL in Question 3 refers to Jenkins’ book. 

The Phonology of English as an International Language

Jenkins, OUP 2000

One final thought before you dive in. Why read all the questions now? Why not ration yourself to one a day! (And if you can be bothered to comment on them as you go along, all the better. As I read them almost 20 years on, there are so many things I’d like to discuss in the light of what’s happened since.)

Ten questions on the phonology of English as an international language.

1. What will happen to pronunciation standards without NS models?
Concerns as to falling standards are understandable, but before looking at whether or not the LFC is a threat to standards, it is worth reflecting on the effects of prestige accents such as RP or GA as pronunciation norms or models. In at least one recent study NNS teachers admitted to avoiding pronunciation teaching because of a sense of inadequacy with respect to their own accent, and the as yet unattained (and for many unattainable) NS standard. Moreover, negative attitudes towards teaching pronunciation are not limited to NNS teachers. The fact that only one NS variant is seen as prestigious in the UK or the States, for example, suggests to those NS teachers who do not possess that particular accent (a very large proportion) that they are not properly equipped to teach pronunciation.

2. Does a ‘strong’ accent give a bad impression?
It is true that our accent, whatever it might be, reveals information about ourselves, and it is tempting to liken a strong accent to turning up to a meeting in shabby clothes – it gives entirely the wrong impression. However, caution needs to be exercised as to exactly what constitutes such an accent, starting with our determining who is defining ‘strong’, and to what end. Precisely because of the shift in the role of English in the world, the L1-user of English can no longer be considered the sole or superior reference. If ‘strong’ means essentially unintelligible regardless of the listener’s background, then we have a problem, although not one caused by the LFC, which, by definition, presupposes that intelligibility is maintained. Unfortunately, the term ‘strong’ is all too often used by L1-speakers to justify attitudes and behaviours that are not remotely linguistic.

3. Is the LFC not a justification for mediocrity?
Good teaching has always been about helping learners to explore their limits. There is no attempt with the LFC to prevent teachers from doing this, and were learners to express interest in acquiring a particular L1 accent, be it one of the prestige options or any of the regional or social variants, then the teacher would need to respond accordingly. It is worth pointing out that the LFC is not an end-point, but a solid foundation. In PEIL, a 5-stage, long-term teaching strategy is proposed that will take learners to any chosen goal within an EIL framework. 

At the same time, it is probably worth bearing in mind the seldom mentioned but certainly pernicious effects of NS targets as a norm, or even as a model. To some learners, these goals appear so unattainable that they give up rather than risk failure. In this respect, the goals laid out in the LFC have the multiple advantages of being both relatively small in number, attainable, and based on a clear awareness of the crucial difference between what is teachable, e.g. nuclear stress placement, and what is only learnable, e.g. some pitch changes.

4. If imposing RP/GA on students was wrong, why is imposing the LFC right?
The LFC in no way legislates for language change and is not trying to replace NS accents. Rather, it is an indication of the minimum requirements for international intelligibility, be this between two L2 users of English,or between an L2 and an L1 user. As such, it is not a closed system; further research will fine tune  the key elements of the LFC, whilst local knowledge will almost certainly generate a far more detailed interpretation of the system for a given student’s L1. Above all, though, the LFC is the first attempt at describing what is already a reality for the majority of the world’s L2 users of English – successful communication through their respective and diverse interlanguage phonologies  As such, it is descriptive rather than  prescriptive by its very nature.

5. How do you teach an accent that nobody speaks?
Nobody is born with an LFC accent, but this does not impede its use in teaching. There are two main considerations:

a) Few teachers genuinely have an RP or an American accent yet despite this try to teach it, or, worse, get frightened off because they know their NS or NNS accent is not one of the prestige options.

b) Different teachers’ different accents are all perfectly suited to the task in hand provided they contain the core features of the LFC. These varied accents will, of course, also possess a number of non-core features which will identify the individual – i.e. they are themselves as they teach through the LFC, and are not filtering their personal identities through an imposed accent.

6. What suggestion is made for an alternative form of approach to the question of mutual intelligibility in international English?
Assuming that there is resistance to the LFC, on whatever grounds, what alternative way exists of approaching the question of mutual intelligibility in the exchanges that take place in English between speakers for whom it is a foreign language? Can British/American norms honestly be relied on in all the varied teaching conditions that exist around the world? If so, the case has to be made as to why and how these norms are to be disseminated, maintained and guaranteed as a means of sustaining communicative efficiency, especially in light of the fact that users of these versions of English are in a minority, and that the norms themselves are unstable.

Why is it felt that GA or RP are appropriate versions for language learners? It cannot be because either ‘accent’ is readily identifiable, both having a range of phonetic settings that indicate complex intralingual variation. Neither accent is necessarily ‘easy’ to understand: indeed, some have argued the case for Standard Scottish English in this regard. It cannot be because we are confident that EFL teachers around the world are all aware of, and competent in, the phonology of both versions, and are therefore reliably transmitting one of them to their students. Nor can it be because every Bilingual English Speaker (BES) teacher whose first language is other than English has satisfactorily eliminated all traces of their L1 from their speech.

How are we to guarantee, realistically, the homogenous transmission of these accents to learners throughout the world? The truth is that we cannot. Given the exigencies of every day life and the reality of many teachers’ professional routines, it would cause no hardship for the interlocutor if the maintenance of an imposed phonetic parameter were to be relaxed.

10. What is it about pronunciation?
Prescriptive attitudes persist in all fields of teaching, and clearly there is a place for normative criteria. The rejection of CLT that we are too familiar with (‘I don’t  want my students to come out with speech that is full of errors’) is one that depresses us. Yet it seems to us that pronunciation and the question of accent provokes a greater storm of non-linguistic arguments than other aspects of learning teaching. While we can talk with a person from Liverpool, England or Atlanta, Georgia and can identify a ‘non-standard’ accent, we are told to be much less tolerant of speakers who are identifiably Latin American or Asian. Our particular concern is that this question of tolerance is so rarely related in a responsible way to matters of intelligibility, and too often allied with preconceptions and prescriptivism that are essentially non-linguistic.



3 thoughts on “ELF – English as a lingua franca

  1. Hi Robin,
    Thanks for this retrospective on your initial published writings about ELF. I was struck by one or two old-fashioned sounding ideas such as: “it is tempting to liken a strong accent to turning up to a meeting in shabby clothes.” But of course, such ideas do still abound in our profession. The fight goes on. Maybe in a future post you might address some of those “attitudes and behaviours that are not remotely linguistic” and that determine in listeners what constitutes a ‘strong’ accent (such as regional prejudices, national stereotypes and skin colour)
    Although as you rightly say many people reading this will be familiar with the concept -and practice- of teaching pronunciation within a framework of English as global freeware rather than private property of the NS community, it was good to be reminded of ELF’s position here, as “not an end-point, but a solid foundation”.

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  2. I hadn’t thought to do a retrospective for this post, Daniel, but the other day when I came across what Kevin and I had written, I was struck by the fact that we are still dealing with the issues raised in the questions we tried to answer back in 2002.

    In some ways, that’s a bit depressing. In others, I think it is fair to say that some change has been brought about. As we saw in my post ‘A’ is for accent (2), the European Union have clearly grasped the idea that accent is natural, and not a sign of failure. And major publishers are now taking an ELF (EIL) approach to teaching English seriously, which I think you’re fully aware of. Last year, for example, I was commissioned by OUP to write the pronunciation syllabuses to be used in the future by all authors and content creators in their upcoming ELT titles. I took the work on precisely because OUP was willing to accept my stance that the basis of the syllabuses would be international intelligibility, with NS accents entering the picture as an option at B2 level and beyond.

    Perhaps what depresses me most, though, is the ‘shabby clothes’ attitude to accent, since it is still found in ELT professionals who are well placed to know that it is no longer acceptable (if it ever were). The ‘shabby clothes’ image, for example, is from an e-discussion list I am a member of and which is peopled by some of the world’s leading experts in the teaching of pronunciation.

    As to ELF as a solid foundation, there is Mark Hancock’s excellent article ‘Beyond dogma and denial’, which is available at http://hancockmcdonald.com/ideas/elf-beyond-dogma-and-denial. And there is my own article explaining how to take ELF as the starting point of a pronunciation journey to wherever your learner(s) want go go. ‘From being intelligible to being themselves: pronunciation for today’ is available at https://englishglobalcom.wordpress.com/articles/.

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