‘L’ is for the Lingua Franca Core. What else?

This should have been the easiest post so far – after all, I do know a thing or two about the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) – but it’s been driving me crazy for days. The problem is you. Who are you? What do you already know about the LFC? And what don’t you know? So help me. Look at the following reader profiles, find the one that fits you best, then follow the instructions that correspond to your level:

  1. I don’t what the LFC is.
  2. I have a basic notion of the LFC, though I’m not sure I can fully describe it or that I understand everything.
  3. I can explain the components of the LFC to somebody else in reasonable detail, though with occasional doubts/uncertainties.
  4. I know about the LFC in detail, have introduced it to other teachers on numerous occasions, and can apply it to real-life teaching situations.

Found yourself? OK, now follow the instructions for your profile:

  1. You don’t know what the LFC is! What on earth made you come to this blog? But don’t go. Read this (the first part at least), think about what you’ve read, and when you’re ready, come back here.
  2. Well done. I think all teachers should have a basic understanding of the LFC. You’re almost there, then, but you might want to strengthen and extend your understanding by going here.
  3. Excellent. Really nice to know that there is an increasing numbers of ELT professionals who have bothered to find out about the LFC. Have you read Chapter 2 of my book? Or better still, Chapter 6 of Jenny Jenkins’ book? The latter is really worth your time.
  4. Wow! That’s fantastic. But as with 1, what are doing here? In all honesty, if you know that much, there’s nothing that I can say in this blog that could be of any real use to you.
Walker. Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. OUP 2010.

As I suggested at the end of my last post, pronunciation teaching at the end of the last century was about to be turned on its head by the work of Jennifer Jenkins. In retrospect, what she did in the 1980-90s seems almost normal now, but 30+ years ago it was a huge shift in perspective. Today, for example, it is obvious that non-native speakers use English with fellow non-native speakers in ways that frequently don’t conform to NS norms. But to visualise this 40 years ago, and then to base your research and later your PhD on finding out exactly how NNSs managed to communicate successfully with such diverse, non–standard accents – this was a privileged mind at work.

The Phonology of English as an International Language
Jenkins. The Phonology of English as an International Language. OUP 2000.

Today, love it or hate it, we should all know about ELF and, for pronunciation teaching in particular, about the LFC. As a minimum, we should know what the LFC is, but equally, we should know what it isn’t. For me, it’s as important to understand what lies outside the LFC (and why) as it is to know what lies inside. The ‘non-core’ features, I’d argue, need as much time and study as the core features. Let’s take a look at some of them now.

The dental fricatives, /θ/ and /ð/
We looked at the dental fricatives earlier in this blog. Absent from many of the world’s languages, as well as from numerous native-speaker varieties of English, the dental fricatives are inherently difficult to pronounce, notoriously resistant to classroom teaching (Menyuk, 1968; Pennington 1996), and unnecessary for ELF intelligibility. The LFC does not, however, stipulate that speakers should be discouraged from using them if they are part of the speaker’s mother tongue pronunciation.  Rebecca Dauer, for example, wrongly interprets the LFC in this way: ‘…from my 30 years of teaching experience, I do not think having students replace /θ/ and /ð/ with /f/ and /v/ is very helpful’ (Dauer 2005: 546).

The LFC does not in any way suggest that /θ/ and /ð/ be ‘replaced’. It simply insists that the dental fricatives are not necessary for intelligibility in ELF. In their attempts to pronounce /θ/ and /ð/, learners might instead pronounce /f/ and /v/, dental /t/ and /d/, or /s/ and /z/. All of these would be valid variants in ELF settings, and so could be left alone in the classroom, which would free up time for more important matters.

Word stress
Despite our collective obsession with it, word stress is another non-core feature where variation on the NS norm is unlikely to impact negatively on ELF communication. That said, Jenkins herself admitted from early on that it was ‘something of a grey area’ (2000: 150). Whilst accepting that word stress is reasonably important for native-speaker listeners, she demonstrated from the analysis of her data that incorrect word stress almost never caused intelligibility problems among non-native speakers (i.e. in ELF contexts). The exception to this was when an error in word stress occured in combination with an error in a particular sound. The word ‘product’ pronounced as [pɒˈdʌk] was not intelligible, but in this case, in addition to incorrect word stress, two consonants have been deleted from their corresponding consonant clusters. 

In terms of the classroom practice, the full set of rules that govern word stress in English is probably ‘unteachable’ because of its complexity. By ‘unteachable’ we mean that word stress in English cannot easily be generalized into rules that can be taught effectively in the classroom. 

(Tell us about it! We’ve all been caught out by teaching one of the rules only for students to turn up a bunch of exceptions. Ouch!)

However, despite the above, and even when our goal is ELF intelligibility, it may be worth paying some attention to word stress for two reasons:

  • The exact role of word stress in ELF is not yet fully understood, and some studies suggest that incorrect word stress could have a negative impact for both native and non-native speaker listeners alike (Field 2005; Rajadurai 2006).
  • Work on word stress provides us with preparatory exercises for work on nuclear stress placement, which is part of the LFC and is essential to intelligibility in ELF. The mechanism for perceiving and placing stress at the level of whole utterances is the same as the mechanism for perceiving and placing stress at word level. Working on the latter can prepare the ground for working on the former.

(Phew! and other indications of collective relieve among readers. So we CAN do word stress. Hurray!!)

Pitch movement (tone)
Falls. Rises. Fall-rises. Rise-falls. Level tones. Wow, is the use of tone in English that complex! Well yes, and then some. Moreover, some experts now feel that the ways that tone is used in English are so complex that, like word stress, it is largely unteachable.

A second problem with the teaching of tone is that there are now serious doubts as to the notion of individual tones having specific meanings. Richard Cauldwell spent many years working at Birmingham University’s English Language Research Unit, the home of the discourse intonation theory originally laid down by David Brazil (1997). Despite this invaluable experience, in a posting to an e-list discussion among international pronunciation experts about the meaning of different tones, Cauldwell declared that:

after working for nearly twenty years with Discourse Intonation on examples of spontaneous speech I no longer feel that tones ‘mean’ anything. My view is that they are one of the ways of making your speech interestingly variable. Particular meanings already contextually present can be cued (drawn attention to) by particular realisations of a tone… …but, in my view, it is a misrepresentation of reality to say that rising tones have a dominant referring meaning. Or indeed, any meaning. 

Cauldwell, 2006

So, unteachable, possibly meaningless, and not damaging to ELF intelligibility – the teaching of tones is clearly not a good investment of their time for most students, and for this reason is left out of the LFC.

Stress-timing 
Stress-timing is a key feature of the rhythm of native-speaker English, and has come to occupy significant place in pronunciation teaching. But the division of languages into stress-timed or syllable-timed is questioned. Peter Roach, for example, points out that:

There are many laboratory techniques for measuring time in speech, and measurement of the time intervals between stressed syllables in connected English speech has not shown the expected regularity; moreover, using the same measuring techniques on different languages, it has not been possible to show a real difference between “stress-timed” and syllable-timed” languages.

(Roach 1991: 123)

Whether it exists or not, work on stress-timing would not be a good use of classroom time for students whose target is ELF. On the one hand, it is not necessary for intelligibility. More importantly, the features of native-speaker pronunciation that are claimed to create the effect of stress-timing can all have a negative impact on ELF intelligibility, as we will soon see.


Dental fricatives, word stress, tone, stress timing: these all lie outside the LFC because they are not essential for intelligibility when English is being used for communication between nonnative speakers in ELF settings, and/or because some are unteachable. They also share in common the fact that their use by native speakers (or NNSs whose pronunciation includes these features) does not impact negatively on intelligibility. The same is not true, however, for certain other features of native–speaker English, particularly vowel reduction, schwa and weak forms.

Vowel reduction, schwa and weak forms
In order to make stressed syllables more prominent in the speech flow, native speakers ‘weaken’ unstressed syllables. To do this, they replace the vowels in unstressed syllables, usually with the weak vowel schwa (/ə/), although also with the short vowels /ɪ/ or /ʊ/. This process of vowel reduction is reflected in dictionaries. The word ‘chocolate’, for example, can be found transcribed as both [ˈtʃɒk.ələt] and [ˈtʃɒk.əlɪt]. The transcription shows that the letter ‘a’ in the written word is pronounced either as /ə/ or /ɪ/. Similarly, the second letter ‘o’ in the written form is pronounced as /ə/ or, as the use of superscript indicates, is simply not pronounced at all. That is to say, it is so strongly reduced that it disappears altogether, leaving the spoken word with only two syllables. This ‘disappearing act’ is not helpful to the NNS listener.

Weak forms, as you already know, are a particular example of vowel reduction. Both weak forms and vowel reduction are given considerable attention in EFL coursebooks and in pronunciation programmes. However, despite this attention the ‘vast majority of learners, including many who become fluent bilinguals, use few weak forms other than ‘a’ and ‘the’. In this sense, despite the fact that it is easy to formulate clear rules about weak form use, they are unteachable’ (Jenkins 2000: 147). I go into vowel reduction, schwa and weak forms in more detail in Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, and will come back to them when this blog gets to ‘W’. But broadly speaking, how do we deal with weak forms if we take an ELF approach to pronunciation? Well, that depends on how much you decide to align with the LFC.

In its strong version, the LFC omits weak forms altogether not just because they are unteachable, but also because they are unnecessary and can be damaging to intelligibility. A less extreme version of the LFC suggests that because many ELF users will have to deal with weak forms in the speech of native speakers that they meet in international contexts, learners should be given training in understanding speech that is characterized by both weak forms and vowel reductions. That is to say, we need to differentiate between what learners are able to understand (i.e. their receptive phonological competence) and what they can do (i.e. their productive phonological competence). This is the stance that I take, and may well appeal to you more than the strong version, but the choice is entirely yours.


This is by far my longest post, so congratulations if you have got this far. However, the LFC is so important to pronunciation teaching today that I felt it was necessary to give myself room. To fully understand the core, however, it is not enough to know what the features of the LFC are. You also need to know what is non-core and why. Finally, you need to take on board that some of the non-core features, especially those centred around vowel reduction, are potentially damaging to international intelligibility in English, as so should NOT be taught for active use by learners aspiring to use their English primarily in ELF settings. I’ve tried to summarise this below.

Core features
(essential to ELF intelligibility)
Non-core features
(not damaging to ELF intelligibility)
Non-core features
(damaging to ELF intelligibility)
Most consonantsDental fricativesVowel reduction
Initial and medial consonant clustersWord stressWeak forms
Vowel length (quantity)Stress timingSome features of connected speech
Nuclear stress placementTones (pitch movement)

I had a list of other points that I wanted to touch upon in this post on the Lingua Franca Core, but enough is enough for now. Next week, then, I’m going to look at some of the problems actually posed by trying to use the LFC as the basis for your teaching of pronunciation in real classrooms. I know a bit about this from personal experience. Hope you’ll join me.

References

Cauldwell, R. (2006). Brazil’s Yes-No questions. Posting to supras@mailbox.gsu.edu on 18.05.06.
Brazil, D. (1997). The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Originally published in 1985 as Monograph 8 by the English Language Research Unit, University of Birmingham.
Dauer, R. (2005). ‘The Lingua Franca Core: a new model for pronunciation instruction’.  TESOL Quarterly 39/3: 543–550.
Field, J. (2005). Intelligibility and the listener: the role of lexical stress’. TESOL Quarterly 39/3: 399–424.
Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Menyuk, P. (1968). ‘The role of distinctive features in children’s acquisition of phonology’. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 11, 138-146.
Pennington, (1996). Phonology in English Language Teaching. An International Approach. London: Longman.
Rajadurai, J. (2006). ‘Pronunciation issues in non-native contexts: a Malaysian case study’. Malaysian Journal of ELT Research, 2: 42–59.
Roach, P. (1991). English Phonetics and Phonology. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

9 thoughts on “‘L’ is for the Lingua Franca Core. What else?

  1. Thanks Peter. Glad the post was enjoyable. Re syllabus planning, you’re absolutely right, at least if we look at current coursebooks. However, as I write, one of the major publishers has a four-person team writing a new adult coursebook. The team includes an author who is very active on the ELF front, and the LFC is a major driving force behind the syllabus that lies beneath the whole project. In addition, two years ago OUP commissioned me to write a pronunciation syllabus for them that would cover all of their couresbooks from A1–C2. I undertook the commission on the understanding that the LFC would be the starting point, with options like specific NS accents coming in at around B2 level, first in terms of receptive competence and then at C1-C2 in terms of a learner preferred, optional goal.

    So things are moving, even though it’s taken a long time to get there, and I think we can expect to see the LFC driving pronunciation syllabuses more in the future. As to the past, the syllabus of ‘Oxford English for Careers: Tourism’ was driven strongly by the LFC. I know. I was co-author! Slow but sure, then, Peter, but we will get there in the end.

    • Hope so. This new coursebook series with Marek involved might be what’s needed to nudge things along a bit. I’m just apprehensive because of the publisher. NGL are slightly more leftfield in some ways (Life a case in point). Will others follow suit? Then again you’ve mentioned OUP are receptive to ELF, in ESP terms at least.
      Smart choice of writer though as Marek really knows how to get the ELF message across marketing-wise. It’s sad that we have to think about such practicalities like that 😦

  2. Thanks for yet another really well written article Robin.
    I was listening to an interview that Michael Swan gave after his workshop at a JALT Conference yesteryear and in this interview he refers to ELF being a ‘situation’ rather than a language or ‘variety of English’. You can hear what he says from minute 13 at

    What do you think about his comments?
    James

    • Don’t really need to know what Michael thinks. I gave a plenary with him sitting in the front row a few yaers back in Croatia. We talked about ELF quite a lot that weekend, and to an extent on other occasions where we met when working for OUP. I think it would be fair to say that we’re not singing from the same hymn sheet. However, he is right is saying that ELF is not a variety. This was an early notion (1990s and the first few years of this century) but research soon showed that ELF is not stable, and never will be. In practice, it’s often very ad hoc with extensive negotiation of meaning between interlocutors, who sometimes arrive at solutions to problems in their communication that will never see the light of day again but worked there at that moment between those interlocutors. So fluid and flexible would seem to be the main characteristics of ELF.

      No longer viewing it as a variety of English in the traditional sense, researchers started tallking about ELF as a speech community, though if my memory serves me well (which is highly unlikely) ‘speech community’ has now been dropped for ‘community of practice’, i.e. users of English who share practices in the way they employ the language.

      However, coming back to Michael, I agree with him that we cannot class ELF as a variety of the language in the way World Englishes would class Nigeraijn English, etc. as varieties.

  3. Thanks for this well-organized and thorough post, Robin. Looking forward to the next ones! I’m passionate about pronunciation and accents!

    I’ve just known about these posts due to a tweet I read earlier today and I’m so glad to know you have started this series of blog posts. In February I started posting on Instagram about The ABCs of Pronetics. So far, I’ve talked about Adrian Underhill; ‘Brazilianized’ Pronunciation of loan words; Consonant Clusters; David Crystal; Exposure to a variety of accents; First Language; and I’m getting ready for letter G, Global English.

    I’m still working on some letters of the alphabet but I’m pretty sure about letters J, L, M, R and T – Jennifer Jenkins, Lingua Franca Core, Mark Hancock, Robin Walker and Thais Cristófaro. 🙂

    Once again, thanks a million for the post!
    Have a great week!

    • Hey Carol
      Thanks for the comment. Really nice to know that there are people out there who read these posts, and better still that there are people who benefit from them. I don’t have an Instagram account (or a Twitter one) but it’s really useful that pronunciation is finally getting a bit more air time.

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