August 16th. This date is heavily circled with red ink on my desktop calendar. It’s probably not far from having “FREEDOM!” scribbled on the days that come after it either. Regular readers may have guessed that this is the date by which I must submit my MA dissertation. Suddenly it seems very close indeed – in less than 5 months I have to electronically plonk 15-20,000 words of research into our course administrator’s inbox. The problem is I’m still not totally sure what I’m going to write about.
However, it seems increasingly likely that I’m going to be writing on something at least involving English as a lingua franca, or ELF if you’re acronymically inclined. This post is my first attempt to get to grips with the concept of ELF based on the pathetic amount of reading I’ve done so far. My hope is that some of the ELF brainiacs out there can put me right on any misconceptions I have, and that it might provide a useful resource for other people in my situation.
What is ELF?
A bit like a weasel with a jetpack, ELF is a hard one to pin down. Not just for me, but for the people who research it for a living. Jennifer Jenkins, who pretty much is ELF, describes defining ELF as a “thorny issue” (2011:1). Given that even the pros are having trouble figuring out exactly what it is, let’s start with what it isn’t, viewed through the lens of some people’s misconceptions.
One of the most common misconceptions seems to be that ELF is a variety of English. People either see it as a simplified or reduced English, shorn of idiom and unnecessary features such as the third person “s” (Sowden 2012:3), or some kind of monolithic world English which is the same no matter where you go. The inference that follows from this is that there is some kind of plot by bed-wetting lefty language liberals to impose these models on everyone in the world, “The ELF Project” (Sowden 2012:3 again!). While it’s true that where English is used for communication in an international setting (and presumably in an exchange involving at least one non-native speaker) the third person “s” is often omitted, ELF prescriptivists don’t froth at the mouth if it isn’t.
This brings us neatly to the next thing that ELF isn’t, and one thing that it and I have in common. It’s not a model (there’s a reason I keep photos off this blog). There is no ELF canon of literature or Swan’s guide to Practical ELF Usage. It’s also not a norm, against which nervous utterances will be deemed either “ELF!” or “NOT ELF!” by expert ELF speakers, because there isn’t really any such thing. In fact, ELF research in general tends to take a critical perspective on any kind of prescriptivism. This makes it wary of the concept of interlanguage, suggesting something unfinished, and more accommodating to theories of evolution and contact (Jenkins 2011: 5). This might be an extreme view, but at times it can seem that there are no mistakes in ELF, only misunderstandings.
The final thing that ELF is not is tied to a particular geography, culture, identity or setting. It’s also, as previously mentioned, not a uniform world language. In my view one of the biggest problems in describing ELF is the lack of lexical and conceptual apparatus within Applied Linguistics to describe such a new phenomenon (the field is barely 15 years old). If it’s not a language variety or a speech community, what is it? “Community of practice” seems to be the preferred term (Jenkins 2011:18), but to my mind this term is much more of a discourse analysis term which groups people by what they are doing with language. For the range of possible uses for ELF, this term seems inadequate, as communities using ELF are constructed and disbanded continuously. Although there have been lingua francas before, there has never been one such as English, and perhaps some new terms in the sociolinguistic lexicon are required.
Having hacked off great chunks of what ELF could possibly be, it’s time to see what’s left. Not much, it would seem. ELF, despite the name, is neither a language, nor a language variety, nor anything that has really been seen before. The terms that get thrown about a lot are “contact language” and “natural language”. Of these I prefer the first – it captures some of the fluidity, and more importantly the fleetingness, or ELF. It’s what to me makes it an interesting study, it lasts only as long as the conversation or community does, then it may very well disappear. ELF, to me, seems to be the attempt to map the shoreline by taking thousands of photos of the waves breaking. It’s quite romantic if you think about it, but also rather difficult to get a good idea of the big picture.
Who speaks ELF?
As far as English goes, ELF is Woodstock. Everyone’s invited and free to do what they want to do, with no interference from “The Man”, man. At least that’s how I see it. According to Jenkins (2011:4) a small number of researchers would deny that a native speaker can speak ELF, but for most ELF is open to anyone who can speak English with any kind of communicative success (though it seems that most research is conducted with speakers who are at least at an intermediate kind of proficiency by ENL (English as a native language) standards). You’ll notice that I use the term speaker repeatedly in this paragraph, as ELF speakers are not necessarily English learners. They may be satisfied with the English they speak and have no desire to conform to a native speaker model. ELF is fine with this. The only people excluded would appear to be those who speak no English, or whose proficiency is low enough to preclude communication. Free love for almost everyone, I think you’d agree.
In this world of tolerance and (occasional mis-) understanding, we presume that ELF could even be used between two native speakers of English (NSEs). I suspect that this may well take place at ELF conferences, though Sewell (2013) disputes this claim. No free love for him. This presumption is based on the definition on the VOICE corpus website which tells us that ELF is an “additionally acquired language system…”. I’m conveniently ignoring the second part that says “…which serves as a common means of communication for speakers of different first languages”*. Presumably, if it’s acquirable, it’s acquirable by an NSE or an non-NSE, and thus could conceivably be used between two NSEs. Were the situation to be one in which many non-NSEs were present, such as a panel discussion, I’d imagine this would be quite helpful. I could of course have this horribly wrong, so I’d be really interested to hear people’s opinions on whether this is possible.
A con cl/f usion
There would however, seem to be a paradoxical element in the definition above, no doubt caused by what a pain defining ELF is. Nevertheless, it’s illuminative of the kind of problems that ELF research looks to solve. The paradox is in the claim the ELF is acquired. This is problematic because it suggests that one must have experience of speaking ELF to be able to speak ELF. However, I’d suggest that someone speaking English with another NNSE for the very first time is using English as a lingua franca. This seems to be a bit of a chicken/egg affair. We saw above that ELF is a natural language, which springs up from a communicative need, and if this is the case, what’s the need to acquire it, and where would one acquire it from? Is there such a thing as a proficient ELF speaker?
Perhaps two different things are happening here: the communicative event, and the kind of communicative features that one might find within that event. These features will come about naturally through communicative necessity, but may also be picked up in other communicative events. Both events and features currently fall under a single ELF acronym, but perhaps would be more helpfully labelled ELF communication and ELF strategies. I suspect that other, quicker people may already have made this distinction. Nevertheless, this approach would make clear that ELF is more about studying how people use English to communicate when there is little other choice, and how to help them to do it better. It may held to deflect some of the ire that is, I believe, unfairly directed at ELF.
*This was quoted in Jenkins (2011) but may now have been removed from the VOICE site.
The following articles informed the view of ELF given in this article, and come highly recommended as a starting point in the field.
Cogo, A. (2012) ‘English as a Lingua Franca: concepts, use and implications’. ELT Journal 66/1 97-105
Jenkins, J. (2011) ‘Review of developments in research into English as a lingua franca’. Language Teaching 44/3 281-315
Sewell, A. (2013) ‘English as a lingua franca: ontology and ideology’ ELT Journal 67/1 3-10
Sowden, C. (2012) ‘ELF on a mushroom: the overnight growth in English as a Lingua Franca’ ELT Journal 66/1 89-96