English as a lingua franca #3: Should I? Could I?

This is the third piece in a series I’ve been working on about English as a lingua franca. I’m focusing on this area in my MA dissertation, so it’s good to think these things out. So far I’ve had a go at defining ELF, and describing it, and now I’d like first like to look at if it’s appropriate, and second if it’s even possible to teach ELF. I’ve a feeling that this one might go long, so I’ll get straight to it.

Should I teach ELF?

I’ve talked before of the “plot” view, in which ELF is perceived as a threat to the English currently being taught in classrooms, about to sweep in and replace Standard English with something ugly, reduced and devoid of culture.  Regardless of the fact that a revolution like this would be entirely impossible, it also doesn’t hold water in the light of ELF literature. Most of my reading (Jenkins 2012, McKay 2002) leaves this decision in the hands of local educators, and quite rightly so. A decision as to whether to teach ELF should be based on the language needs of the students.

In the case of my class things are not exactly clear cut. I’ll start with some stats though. According to Beneke (1991), 80% of exchanges in English involve no native speakers. I’ll admit I’m quoting this without having seen the research (no intellectual rigour on this blog I’m afraid), and I’m curious as to how this figure was arrived at, but it at least seems to be accepted that non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers (see Crystal 1997, Graddol 1997) . Thus the balance of probabilities would suggest that my students are more likely to converse with a NNSE than a native one. Further to that, the US makes up 10% and 9% of Korea’s export and import trade, whereas China, Japan, Saudia Arabia and Singapore make up a combined 35% and 40% respectively (source). Chances are then that if my students are using English for business purposes it’s going to be with non-native English speakers from one of those countries. It’s my view that at least some of my teaching should be directed towards preparing them for this.

On the other hand, there are solid arguments for not teaching ELF. Perhaps the principal one of these is that probably the most important use of English that my students will make is in taking the TOEIC exam (a point echoed by Wang & Hill 2011), which remains resolutely native speaker centred despite the “international” in its name. However, my students already study TOEIC in a separate class, and my class is supposed to be the more communication centered, “conversation” class. Having spoken to my students, I don’t get the impression that they are exactly crying out for more TOEIC.

Another reason against ELF would be that the students would prefer to learn a native variety, for reasons of identification with the culture, or because they see it as a prestige form. They may also simply not be aware that English can take other forms, as the English taught (and more importantly examined) in schools is based almost entirely on imitating native speaker norms, what Sifakis (2004) would call N(orm)-bound usage.  To these students I would say that there would still be plenty of opportunity to pick up native-like features from me, and that while they may wish to speak native-like English, not everyone will, or can, so being receptive to other varieties is at least as important, and probably more so, than speaking them.

There is a further reason that strikes me as actually quite a convincing reason not to teach ELF, and that is that it seems to have done pretty well so far without being taught. Despite Mckay’s (2002:103) claim that the teaching of ELF is widespread, there seems to be very little literature on exactly how to go about teaching it, and very few commercially published materials to support teachers. All of this would suggest that there is no concerted effort currently being made to teach ELF, though I am prepared to be wrong here. Regardless of this lack of teaching, as we saw earlier, the global dominance of English and the number of lingua franca interactions only seems to be increasing, and on the evidence of what I have read, people are generally managing to cope without having been taught. So do we actually need to “teach” ELF, or can we just keep teaching “English” and leave it to our students to figure out how to use it? My answer to this is that the classroom often provides a safe practice space for real-life situations. If we can simulate some ELF-like positions in class, surely it will help students to approach them with more confidence and understanding if they have to do it for real.

In this section I have, I hope, established that ELF might at least be an option for my classes, and perhaps others in Korea. However, that is only half of the battle. It is not, to me at least, especially clear about how one would go about teaching ELF. However, the next section will explore some reasons that I think do make it possible.

Could I teach ELF?

In my previous two posts I looked at the problems with defining ELF and in describing and codifying its features. In general ELF tends to work in terms of language variation and localised communities of practice. The lack of a model seems to be the main criticism of ELF from a teaching point of view – back to our old friend Sowden (2012:5) who says “seeking to derive artificial norms from these ad hoc procedures is inappropriate”. I actually agree with him here, and in my view even a pedagogic ELF core is not likely to happen (with the exception of phonology). This makes life hard for curriculum designers and textbook writers, who need some kind of framework on which to hang everything, as well as teachers of course.

However, rejecting ELF on the basis of the lack of a model perhaps assumes that there is a clear model to replace it. The alternative would be, I guess, “Standard English”, or “Native Speaker” English. Trying to define these terms is just as fraught with difficulty as defining ELF is, and working out what constitutes a model is also an interesting one because they are, to a degree, abstractions. As a very obvious example, most of the materials that I have to teach are American English, and I am a Brit. What implications does this have for the model in my classroom, and what my students should be aspiring to? The truth is probably very few implications at all. What my students bring to the classroom, and how they use it to make meaning are far more important than either the materials or models that I can provide. The truth is that, as intermediate students, they are nowhere near close enough to any model of English for it to make much difference.

This may fit with a different view of standards and models in the classroom. I mentioned above Sifakis’s (2004) categorization of classes where imitating native speaker norms is the only goal as N-bound. This is, fairly sensibly, one end of a continuum. Fairly sensible because if you took this to its literal extreme, you’d have to correct students every time that they said something even slightly removed from what a native speaker would say. This is providing, of course, you could figure out what a native speaker was in the first place. Anyway, at the other end of this continuum is the C-bound classroom, the C standing for communication, comprehensibility and culture, and the goals of this classroom are sharing of backgrounds and mutual intelligibility. Perhaps this end of the continuum would represent the “semiotic bricolage” that Scott Thornbury talked about in a recent post.

As hinted at above, every classroom has a degree of C-boundedness. For example, my “teacher-speak” is not really a native-speaker model. It’s much slower, less idiomatic and much less playful. In the same way, I’d much prefer my students to be comprehensible than “accurate”, so if I, and more importantly their classmates, understand what they’re saying, then it’s all good. Finally, culture-wise, it’s more about what each person brings to the class than trying to teach culture too much, though there is an element of cultural comparison going on, for instance when I introduced Labov’s Western Narrative Structure I tried to get students to think of how they told stories in Korean. All of this, in the end, means that in our classroom we have our own little culture, with jokes, chunks, experiences, personalities and cultures all contributing to a discourse, which could be called learning English. Given that’s what the students are there to do, we could probably call ourselves a community of practice.

And all of a sudden we’re back at the kind of terms that are, rightly or wrongly,  used to define ELF communication: community of practice, intelligibility and variation. The kind of communication that probably happens in your classroom every day when your students talk to you and to each other, especially if you have a multilingual class. Does this mean that there is no need to teach it? Doesn’t it just happen anyway? I’d actually answer “yes” to the first question, but “no” to the second. Here’s why.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how I would define ELF, and in my view the system/model/variety view just doesn’t hold up, especially on an individual basis. I believe that there is at least some kind of language system contained within the individual, and ELF is a different way of deploying it according to the situation.  While I’m not sure that this deployment can be “taught” as such, the conditions in which it can be practised can be created quite easily. In this way, I want to suggest that while teaching ELF as we currently understand it may not be possible, it is very possible to simply orient your classroom towards it. I have gone on long enough in this post, but in the next one I will be making some suggestions for how teachers might go about this.



PS I’m indebted to Kurt Kohn’s comment on my previous post for developing some of my thinking, especially in the latter parts of this post. If you haven’t read it yet, it comes highly recommended.


Beneke, J. (1991) Englisch als lingua franca oder als Medium interkultureller
Kommunication. In: Grebing, R. (ed.) Grenzenloses Sprachenlernen. Berlin:
Cornelsen. 54-66.

Crystal, D. (1997) English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press

Graddol, D. (1997) The Future of English? London: British Council.

Jenkins, J. (2012) English as a Lingua Franca from the classroom to the classroom. ELT journal66(4), 486-494.

McKay, S. 2002, Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Sifakis, N. C. (2004) Teaching EIL – Teaching International or Intercultural  English? What Teachers Should Know. System32(2), 237-250.

Sowden, C. (2012) ELF on a mushroom: the overnight growth in English as a Lingua Franca. ELT journal66(1), 89-96.

Wang, H., & Hill, C. (2011) A paradigm shift for English language teaching in Asia: From imposition to accommodation. The Journal of Asia TEFL8, 231-258.

12 responses to “English as a lingua franca #3: Should I? Could I?

  1. Very interesting post, Alex. I especially appreciate the implications towards “what to teach” the ever-present question for teachers. In my own context, I’m not teaching to a test (thankfully) and I get to design any assessments myself anyway, so deciding what sort of English to teach is always on my mind. I’m inclined to think that ELF is something that can’t really be taught. I think my current opinion is that it’s a form of accommodation and so I’m not sure I’d agree with you that it doesn’t “just happen anyway”. Or are you suggesting that the communication (negotiation of meaning, etc) that happens when a group of different L2 speakers just want to understand each other and be understood isn’t ELF? Thanks as always for more to think about.

    • Hey Anne,

      Just want to say I’m really grateful for your comments over this series, if I’ve given you stuff to think about, you’ve probably given me twice as much.

      Accomodation-wise, I’m not too up on the theory yet, so would like to hold off on any judgement on it, but I would say that there’s more to it than that, especially on the cultural side of things.

      With reference to your final point, I think what I’m trying to say is that, at heart, English being used for any ‘authentic’ purpose between non-English L1 people (leaving aside NSs for now), is ELF in the sense of “using English as a lingua franca”. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never spoken it before, it’s just communication.

      However, there is probably another concept called ELF (in the sense of a model or variety, though those terms don’t really fit) that appears in other situations with people used to communicating with other NNSs, which may or may not display some features like the ones I outlined in post #2. These features could then be said, possibly, to arise from, or because of, the requirements for deploying the individual’s language system in that kind of communication.

      My idea then, perhaps, is that the kind of features and other markers of ELF arise out of communicative need and situational context. Probably though, they don’t arise, or arise with difficulty the first few times that this kind of communication takes place. In this way I’m saying that ELF (in the second, ‘variety’ sense) does just happen, but only after some time, and that we as teachers can give it the space to just happen in the safe zone of our classrooms, rather than out there in the big nasty world.

      I hope this is at least a little bit clear. I know what I’m trying to say, but I’m not sure I’ve quite got the vocabulary yet. Do keep asking if it’s not clear.


  2. Dominic Xavier Farrington

    Great post, really interesting. I definitely have a tendency to teach students with the object of approaching native speaker usage, yet in the school I work in there are 2 native speaking staff and 20 non-native speaking staff, and all my exchanges in English for the last two days have been with non-native speakers.

    A real eye-opener, and a great explanation of why it’s important to incorporate multiple accents & styles of speech, rather than obsessing over producing students with perfect RP pronunciation.

    • Hi Dominic,

      Thanks so much for checking out my blog.

      In the interests of balance, I should point out that this in no polemic against NS models, which will almost inevitably endure for a long time yet, and this doesn’t even have to be a problem. As you say, it’s just a check and balance against judging students by completely unobtainable, and occasionally unhelpful standards.

      I think Korea would do itself a whole lot of good to uncouple itself from the native speaker ideal and get on with learning something a bit more practical. That way my students might stop apologising to me when they make grammar errors.

      Hope you stick around for more!


  3. This article made me reminisce my graduate studies when I first heard the term, “ELF”. At that moment, I was surprised that there were studies contemplating on how to bring lingua franca into the classroom because I simply couldn’t imagine it. Maybe I was very narrow-minded back then. As a learner of English, I couldn’t imagine me or other learners wanting to learn a language with an accent or that is non-native like (okay, the definition of “native” is not clear but you know what I mean). At the same time, I was a bit arrogant and thought, ‘if you know the language, it’s only a matter of time and lots of listening practice to understand the variations.’ Throughout the years my thoughts haven’t changed a lot, not because I don’t believe in the importance of being able to converse with non-native speakers, but because I haven’t seen a convincing example of how it plays out in the class. This makes me look forward reading your next piece.

    This topic has always been a great interest to me and that’s why I have the new resource book from Oxford (“Understanding English as a Lingua Franca” by Barbara Seidlhofer) on my desk that I have been procrastinating reading for months. Now that I know that this is your area, you would be the perfect person to have it. Please email me if you are interested in reading it. I have several copies on my desk for review and didn’t make the time to do so. Of course if you already own one, no worries. Thank you for reminding me to read this book.

  4. Hi mystery person (who might be Bora?),

    Thanks very much for visiting.

    In the interests of expectation management, I’m not planning on my next post being a “blow traditional ELT out of the water and replace it with something cool and swishy” affair. More just making some slight adjustment to teacher and student mindsets in order to raise awareness, and provide a bit of practice space, for ELF.

    I do understand the desire, and the importance, of gaining a native-like accent for some people, and again I’m not planning on throwing out the traditional models yet. I’d say two things here: one is that as with everything ELF, intelligibility is key, and the skills needed to make yourself intelligible may well apply to NSs, near native-accents and regional accents alike. The second is that my feeling is that if you have mastered a near-native accent, you probably have the skills to deploy it in a slightly different way to accommodate those who are not used to it. Again, this fits nicely into my current view of an ELF orientation, rather than a model.

    Finally, I have a copy of the very same book sat on my desk, as yet unopened. However, it’s just arrived from my university library on loan. I’d love my own copy. Thanks very much!


  5. At the end of a loooong day of oral teacher student exams I connot resist to add a brief comment to your stimulating post – thanks for pushing on, Alex:

    Empirical research has it that ELF communication is (better: can be?) successful despite deviations from SE. But does that mean teaching ELF should involve teaching deviant forms of English? Not at all. A variety perspective on ELF, however, inevitably leads us up the garden path of teaching incorrect English. So, for pedagogical purposes, let’s drop and ban the variety view. ELF-inspired teaching should rather focus on finding ways to enable learners to use their ‘own English’ (shaped by a SE orientation) in such a way that they manage to achieve communicative success in ELF contact situations. For this purpouse, ELF teaching could/should thus focus on e.g. awareness raising, ELF-specific comprehension practice, and development of ELF-specific production skills > pragmatic fluency: linguistic-pragmatic knowledge and skills for interactional ELF performance: accommodation, negotiation of meaning, repairs etc. Enabling learners to exlore and trust their own non-native speaker creativity would be another (more challenging) objective.

    See references and download links in my previous post.


    • Kurt,

      So sorry it’s taken such a long time to get back to you. This post was the last thing that I wrote before I disappeared into midterm exam writing hell, from which I’ve only just emerged (relatively unscathed).

      I think I would also be in favour of a ban on the variety view. Even this weekend a friend of mine was telling me that the idea of teaching ELF was, well, I won’t repeat it here, but it wasn’t very complimentary. It turned out that, after some discussion, we actually held very similar views, but the idea of ELF as variety had led them to the misconception that it would/could be taught as a model. Banning that view would certainly help, though I must say I’m not sure I like your chances of instituting said ban!

      Your strategies for teaching look fairly similar to mine, but I will, now I have some free time, give them the investigation that they deserve.

      Thanks again for your interest, and helping me develop my thoughts about this.


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