Category Archives: Professional Development

A(nother) beginner’s guide to English as a lingua franca!

A while ago while starting my MA dissertation I wrote a series of posts detailing my early incursions into the world of ELF (1, 2, 3, & 4). Now, I’m writing another one (sigh). But with good reason (yay)! I’m going to be presenting on ELF at the KOTESOL International Conference at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea sometime on the 12th or 13th October.* If you’re in Korea, or even further afield, you should certainly come and watch.

I feel as if ELF still leaves people with a lot of unanswered questions, and so I’m taking the brave/foolish step of having the question and answer session right in the middle of the session, so there’s a lot of time and space to explore. Not wanting to be caught out too much, this post is a preview & practice run in which I answer eight of the questions I anticipate getting. It’s also a chance to solicit a few questions from people reading this (see later). In order to keep things short, I’ll try to keep my answers to 80 words or less.

What’s the difference between ELF and English as a native language (ENL)?

ENL is dependent on external norms and standardness for understanding, ELF, however, draws standards and norms from users language systems during each interaction. This means that ENL users try to conform to the linguistic traditions they have experienced since being born. ELF is more pragmatic, seeking only what is needed to communicate between the interlocutor language systems present. This can mean that ELF shows more lexico-grammatical flexibility and variability than ENL.

What would an ELF syllabus look like? 

The variability mentioned above means that a traditional syllabus sequenced by forms would be unlikely, especially those forms with little communicative value (eg third person -s). Collocations would also have a smaller role to play, as would idiomatic language. In the place of these, we’d expect more focus on pragmatic skills such as rephrasing and signalling misunderstanding. We might even expect to see a place for extra-linguistic communication. Drawing up a syllabus would be a tricky job.

Why is ELF necessary?

Great question! It may not be so much a case of necessity as inevitability. It’s claimed that there are more interactions in English featuring no native speakers than there are featuring native speakers. ENL then is increasingly becoming a very specific and rare end point for English learners, as well as being extremely difficult to reach. In Korea, we are much more likely preparing learners for ELF environments.

Do students want to learn ELF? 

In my experience students in Korea don’t really know about ELF. However, there’s certainly a desire to not continue to spend their educations slavishly following exact native speaker forms. The growth in confidence that I see over the course of my classes where grammatical accuracy is de-emphasized shows what can be achieved. I think that sociolinguistic education is necessary in English classes in Korea, if only to stop students apologising to me when they think they make a grammar mistake.

Isn’t this just encouraging low quality English?

This depends on your definition of quality. From a native speaker point of view this could be seen as deficient in terms of conformity to NS norms, but given that native speakers are generally not involved much in ELF, their point of view actually doesn’t matter too much. An ELF view takes communicative success as a quality measure, and research actually shows that it’s native speakers who have greater trouble in ELF or multilingual environments. 

Where does culture exist in ELF?

Clearly the conception of culture as being intrinsically linked to a native language cannot apply to ELF, as the native cultures and languages in any interaction will be different. Thus ELF becomes less about learning culture, and more about negotiating culture. Preparing students for ELF environments requires more focus on open-mindedness, curiosity and comity. This has fascinating but perhaps underdeveloped implications for language teaching.

What are the downsides? When might it not be appropriate?

There are downsides to ELF. Two relate to the end point of learning. For learners looking to integrate into native speaker communities completely it’s not relevant. The other significant area is for those preparing for proficiency tests which use an ENL model. I would argue that it is time for the tests to better reflect linguistic realities though. Finally, it could be seen as increasing the risk of fossilization, but again this depends on the desired end point of learning.

Do I need to think about it? I have so many other things to consider? 

Unhelpfully, this is something that you need to consider for yourself. Your learners are a good starting point. Mine are future engineers and scientists, and are likely to need English for very practical and pragmatic uses, rather than academic or poetic ones. If you’re in a similar position, the good news is that the change is more one of re-orientation than complete overhaul.

Thanks very much for reading this far. I hope you found that informative. If you found yourself with any further questions about ELF, I’d really love to hear them and answer them in a further blog post. Please do leave them as a comment below, or tweet them to me at @breathyvowel. The more obscure or uncomfortable the better!



* I will edit in the date and time when they are confirmed.


ELF #4: Orienting your class to ELF

Finally then, my eagerly awaited (by at least three people) post on how I believe one could go about orienting one’s classroom to English as a lingua franca (ELF). If you’re interested you can read parts 1, 2 and 3 too.

In order to write this post I read a fair bit of literature with titles that refer to teaching ELF or an ELF pedagogy, only to find that they deal with culture in rather broad terms (McKay 2002), critique methodology  (Holliday 2005), or provide rough frameworks for teaching (Dewey 2012). So far it seems that in 12 or so years of intensive research, the ELF field has produced one book aimed at the practical teaching of ELF, Robin Walker’s (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. While Dewey (2012) may rightly decry the devotion to norms and interlanguage still present in the Delta syllabus, this is perhaps partly a product of the lack of any practical help for teachers who would like to prepare  their students for ELF communication, and researchers themselves should perhaps bear some of the blame. I strongly suspect that the take up of ELF would be helped as much by a book of decent classroom techniques and activities as by advocating for its inclusion in in-service training programs. It is with a toe in the researcher camp, and the other 9 in the teacher camp, that I write this post.

It might be helpful here to state a few things that I believe, and that the suggestions that follow rest on:

  • There is a thing that people do called English as a lingua franca, that involves communication between speakers of different L1s in English (leaving aside native speakers (NS*) and same L1 non-native speakers (NNS) for the sake of simplicity).
  • This ELF communication will be different from communication between NSs in grammatical, phonological, syntactical and lexical forms. In addition these forms will vary between individuals and contexts. This variation is natural, and not deficient in terms of native speaker norms.
  • This variation means that there is no such thing, nor will there likely ever be, as an ELF model or variety.
  • A student’s own conception of the language is more important than a model is anyway. Students are exposed to multiple models in every class.
  • We can’t teach ELF, but we can help to prepare students for meeting English in this kind of context (and others) by simulating it in our classrooms. 
  • The decision to orient, or not, your classroom to ELF should be taken as part of a reflection of your students’ needs (the macro-context).

It might also be helpful to say here that these suggestions are things that I have done, try to do now, or may try to do in future in my classroom. For those not familiar with this blog, that means groups of first year engineering and design students at a university in South Korea.

Decentering Intelligibilty

If ELF can be said to have an ideology (and for the record, I would say that it does), it could be viewed as one of decentralization. This is in the sense of removing native-speaker English from the center of (often criticised) models such as Kachru’s. From a teaching point of view it means removing yourself from the center of the classroom. The change in role of a teacher from a dispenser of knowledge to a co-constructor has long been a tenet of CLT in general, but where ELF is concerned this is especially relevant in matters of intelligibility.

In an ELF oriented classroom, a native speaker teacher simply cannot be the sole judge of students’ intelligibility. Firstly, a native-speaker tends to approach meaning-making from the top down rather than the bottom up (Jenkins 2000). While Jenkins talks in relation to phonology only, I would argue that it applies in general. In other words, NSs try to match the whole of a student utterance to a range of possible meanings, before working back to the constituent parts. NNSs, on the other had, tackling individual signals (words, sounds) first, building them into utterances, and finally looking for meaning**. Secondly, in a lot of English teaching, intelligibility is bound up with native speaker norms, with the inference that learning these norms will make the student intelligible to native speakers. For students who will use English as a lingua franca, this seems untenable.

So the big question then. What can I do about it? Well, it’s pretty simple. Your students are better judges of intelligibility to other NNS than you are. This means getting them involved in judging it at every level, and by every level I mean the one that really matters (in Korea at least), testing. My classes loosely follow the Willis & Willis conception of TBLT, which means each week ends with students presenting a “polished” version of whatever task I set them for that week. This is evaluated to give their weekly quiz score, as required by our program. During one group/person’s performance, other students listen and grade them on their intelligibility.

I am aware that grades are important, and the concept of students giving each other grades may well be a new one. In general however, my students have taken to this quite well. Here are some reasons why I think it might be so:

  • I explain the reasoning for doing<span style="ages or my preferred path of numbers of breakdowns in misunderstanding.
  • I always have a good number of students evaluating so that an average can be taken and no one person can inflate or deflate a grade too much.
  • I make sure the teacher and performing students have a right to ask why a certain grade was given.
  • I don’t ask for examples of misunderstanding. While this would be useful, it tends to drive students down the path of least resistance, which is to tick 100% so they don’t have to provide examples.  

This also has the extra bonus of freeing up time and attention for me to concentrate on grading other things.

As I said, this works well for me, but it tends to happen in well-structured groups using institutionalized processes. This minimizes the face-threatening nature of evaluating misunderstanding. However, no such neat and sanitized methods for signalling non-comprehension exist in more open pair or group work, and students are fond of adopting the “let it pass” strategy. This is definitely an unresolved problem in my class, so this solution falls into the things I might try in future category mentioned above.

My solution would be to try to partly institutionalize and sanitize the process of signalling non-comprehension. One unrealized ambition of mine is to introduce a load of “classroom chunks” for functions such as giving an opinion, politely disagreeing and showing that you don’t understand. NS-like chunks could simply be given, but a truly ELF-oriented approach to this would probably involve negotiating the chunks with input given in the form of NNS examples drawn from corpora such as VOICE. I suspect that some of the face threat involved in showing that you don’t understand is exacerbated by being stripped of L1 based politeness strategies. Having a recognized and validated (by the students) system for situations like this may go some way to restoring these strategies, as well as perhaps legitimizing misunderstanding as a natural part of classroom life (something which may have been drummed out of the students through their previous experience of English at high school). My other solution for sanitizing the process slightly is to change the medium, and have students complete written feedback forms for each other. In theory removing the need to give face to face feedback removes some of the potential for that face to be threatened. I’d hope that employing one or both of these strategies might help miscommunication to be signalled more often and more easily.

It might seem that I am getting slightly distracted from ELF here. After all, signalling non-comprehension is pretty crucial to any classroom, and presumably is the first stage in Long’s (1983) Interaction Hypothesis, a fairly important concept in second language acquisition. However, in a ELF classroom, it’s perhaps the most important thing. Here’s why. I said in a previous post that ELF draws it’s standards/ideals from people, not norms.*** What this might mean in practice then, is that your students should be the sole arbiters of intelligibility in a ELF oriented activity. In other words, if it works, it stays, if it doesn’t, it goes. I’m sensing that there may be gnashing of teeth and throwing of toys out the pram here, but stay with me for the rest of this post at least. Your role  as a teacher during this then, is to decenter yourself completely, and I mean go sit in the corner – I do, and WATCH! Note here, I say watch, not listen, not monitor (hearing is ok though). Let them get on with it, and intervene only in the following cases:

  • Students are not doing the task. It’s probably best to politely ask why this is so. Perhaps they didn’t understand the instructions?
  • Students are using the L1 to discuss. In this case, I usually ask them what they’re trying to say and we look at how it could be done in English.
  • Students are looking a word up in a dictionary. At the very least, this becomes useful vocabulary/teachable moment for later. It’s also a good chance to help them choose the most understandable word and understand the usage.
  • Student understanding breaks down, and is not being repaired by the students.

I put the last bullet in boldface as it is the most important part one, and the one where intervention may be most necessary. Firstly, figuring out why understanding broke down is important, but tricky. My suggestion, in a monolingual class,would be to let the students talk about it in L1. This has the advantage of speed, so students can get back on task, and exactness, as well as being able to deploy L1 politeness strategies in a high face-threat situation. Once the students understand where the misunderstanding occurred, the first thing to do is try to get them to figure out a repair strategy themselves. If they really can’t, then I suggest at least negotiating a strategy with them. The idea is to get them to rely on their own communicative resources. “This is how I’d say it” should be your very last resort.

Outside of the above cases, however, your role as a teacher is not to interfere. This means not monitoring, not taking notes, not recasting. The students, and you should tell them this, are responsible for deciding what is intelligible and what is not. Go make a cup of tea and let them get on with it.

Right then teeth grinders, it’s proviso time. Firstly, the ideal situation for this is a multi-lingual class. Not a reality for most of us in Korea. Still, I think it has value even with a mono-lingual class. It still gets students considering their interlocutors and levelling their language accordingly, especially with a range of levels in one class. This is an incredibly important ELF skill. However, there is the potential for language that follows L1 syntactic patterns to be more understandable to a fellow L1 speaker than a speaker of a different L1, plus there is the possibility of Korean English loan words appearing that would be unintelligible to a non-Korean resident (including, potentially, an NS of English). My solution to this would be to have the students record themselves, and then listen back and try to identify parts that sound especially Korean, or include loanwords. More on this reflexive approach to stuff in further posts.

Finally, addressing the toy chuckers again, I want to make very clear what I am not saying here. Note that I am talking about ELF oriented activities above, by which I might mean giving instructions in pairs about how to do something (perhaps topically engineering or computer based). This means:

  • I am not saying that you should do this all of the time. In fact, I think I’d say that you should NOT do this all of the time. You may have noticed that this provides little in the way of pushing (norm-based) accuracy, nor much in the way of complexity. In monolingual classes you’re also probably running the risk of reinforcing L1 phonology transfer errors****.
  • I do not do this all of the time (for reasons stated above).
  • In general Standard English norms provide a useful reference point for teaching. The imperative, for example, would provide the basis for the activity above. However there has to be some tolerance of variation in these norms.
  • There is no reason why you can’t/shouldn’t teach the norms in an ELF classroom, but you might want to think about how rigorously you insist on accuracy in producing them.
  • I am not saying that this approach is suitable, appropriate or useful for everyone. Many students want/need to acquire native speaker norms. I’d also say that it’s perhaps not the best use of the qualities that a native speaker can bring to the classroom, and if that’s what students have paid for then they may be disappointed with this approach.

That said, I’ll finish this post by going back to my students. They come into my class fresh out of high school, where they have spent three years learning fairly insignificant native speaker norms in order to pass the most significant exam of their lives, and wind up apologising to me if I recast one of their utterances. This cannot possibly be a good attitude for someone who wishes to speak a language, and so an approach that relaxes attitudes to NS norms, gets the NS out of the way for a bit, and allows students to get on with making meaning with each other, can surely only be empowering.

More ELF orientation to come. Cheers,


* I’ll acknowledge here that “native-speaker” is a problematic term. As this post largely concerns teaching in Korea, I’m taking the Korean immigration definition of someone who holds a passport and a degree from one of the “big seven” English speaking countries.

** Actually, in writing this, I’m not sure that’s quite how it works. I would say that my L2 listening process worked on a whole range of levels depending on the situation.

*** This is not to say that there is no room for people in the meaning-making of English as a native language.

**** This will happen in almost any meaning-focused activity with a monolingual class, regardless of orientation.


Dewey, M. (2012). “Towards a post-normative approach: learning the pedagogy of ELF.” Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. 1(1) 141-170.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. H. (1983) ‘Native speaker/non native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input’. Applied Linguistics. 4(2) pp. 126–141.

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

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a lingua franca.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

What does (an) ELF look like?

This post is essentially part two of my beginner’s guide to ELF. The beginner referred to here may be someone with a newly minted interest in the field, but also refers to me as someone just dipping their toes into the cool pond of ELF. If you’re in a position of expertise, please feel free to correct me on any of my half-baked ideas.

In the previous post I talked of the difficulty of defining ELF as a concept. Any degree of conceptualization requires a commensurate degree of reduction, and it is this reduction that robs ELF of the plurality, variation and contextuality that characterizes it in practice. Cogo & Dewey (2006) make a claim for the E of ELF to be interpreted as Englishes, rather than just English (and you thought the title was an elf joke, shame on you). Nevertheless, in this post  I’m going to try to define what an ELF, or some elves (OK that was an elf joke, with a hat tip to @languagebubble), might look like in the areas of phonology, pragmatics and lexico-grammar.


The earliest serious attempt at identifying and codifying features of ELF communication was Jenkins’s (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. A self-confessedly prescriptive document, it attempted to outline the most important phonological features of English for intelligibility in international contexts, and recommended that these be taught first. It’s my feeling that it is misreadings of this book contribute to the “plot” view of ELF that I talked about last time. In fact, Jenkins only recommended that these features should be taught first, rather than exclusively, in order to make a more efficient use of limited time. However, given the boldness of her claims, including that the /θ/ & /ð/ (th) sounds made no difference to intelligibility, it’s not surprising that they drew some criticism. Jenkins’ other recommendations included not teaching allophones of /l/, fully aspirating fortis (unvoiced) consonants all the time, and where necessary even adding consonant sounds where confusion may arise. All of these are quite radical alterations to a NS model.

While she considered “teachability” of features in the core, most of Jenkins’ empirical data came from intelligibility studies, and her suggestions are based on  making speakers maximally intelligible to other L2 speakers of English. Perhaps the key theory in her work is that of accommodation, and she found that students would vary their pronunciation towards NS norms in order to aid intelligibility of their speech to a speaker of a different L1. In a dyad with a speaker of the same or similar L1, less variation of this kind was observed. This then is the defining feature of ELF – instead of orienting to norms, it orients to people. Therefore rather than examining the phonemes that speakers produce in terms of whether it meets an externally imposed standard, ELF research examines them in terms of the contribution they make to situational meaning making.


Accommodation, in terms of aligning oneself with one’s interlocutor, also features heavily in the study of ELF pragmatics.  In general speakers will orient towards each other’s language, in a type of accommodation often known as convergence.  Studies such as Cogo & Dewey (2006) show one way in which this happens is through repetition. Chunks of language will be repeated, along with their variations. One Chinese speaker who generally uses a third person ‘s’ repeats a chunk including a third person ‘0’, seemingly in order to positively align her speech with her interlocutor’s.

ELF conversations seem to contain a high degree of mutual co-operation, using other pragmatic strategies such as utterance completions and latching (one utterance following directly on from another). While these are demonstrably features of ELF communication, what this study fails to do is demonstrate that this is significantly different to what NSs do. It reminds me of studies of gender differences in styles of talk, in which women were shown to be far more co-operative communicators, as evidenced by the same kinds of features mentioned above (see Coates 1993: 135-139 for a review of these).

Where ELF does certainly does differ is in it’s greater acceptance of pluralingualism and pluraculturalism. Again, this is shown in Cogo and Dewey’s study, where speakers of different L1s shared idioms from their own first languages when they found the English adjective “cheesy” didn’t communicate the exact meaning that they required. Idiom works differently in ELF seemingly, as it is unbound from culture. This allows for a much greater use of invention and adaptation in use of idiom, as well as the use of L1 culturally bound idioms in English.  I suspect, however, that this kind of communication happens more between European ELF speakers whose L1s are more similar than ELF speakers in Asia, as the L1 terms in the example above were “fleur bleue” from French and “kitchig” from German. Both of these are intelligible to me as an English speaker with little knowledge of French or German.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exchange described above, is the way that “fleur bleue” is introduced into the conversation. The speaker alerts his audience to the fact that there is a potential for misunderstanding approaching by saying “We say….”. This again shows the interlocutor orientation of ELF and may also lead to the fact that most studies find very little evidence of misunderstanding in ELF (eg Mauranen 2006).


The final area that ELF research tends to look at is that of lexico-grammar. Cogo and Dewey (yep, them again) make the point that this is still strongly linked to pragmatics and accommodation, as in the example above where a variation such as using a zero article is repeated by a speaker who would ordinarily use an article. Nevertheless, there would seem to be some fairly systematic features common to most ELFs. The classic hypothesis of ELF variants was proposed by Seidlhofer (2004):

  • Use of 3rd person zero form (not adding an s)
  • Use of which as a relative pronoun to describe people.
  • Article deletion or insertion
  • Fixed or “ungrammatical” (by NS standards) question tags
  • Innovative verb-pronoun collocation
  • Higher frequency of semantically general verbs (take, have)
  • Preference for the infinitive over the gerund form
  • Explicitness (“black colour” as opposed to just “black”)

These tend to be the areas in which research is concentrated. However, it’s important to note that the above is in no way a grammatical core for ELF. Firstly, while the above all feature, they usually feature alongside the NS standard variant (see Breiteneder 2009). Secondly, the focus of ELF study tends to be more about how ELF communicators make use of the linguistic resources available to them in the process of building a discourse. For instance, Jenkins (2011:21) points to the greater use of progressive forms in ELF as a way of drawing attention to a past point in time, possibly to make the structure of the discourse clearer. In other words, it’s not so much the feature themselves that are of interest, but the reasons for using them. In this way lexico-grammatical studies in ELF are often really pragmatic studies anyway.

The great question then is whether the features and variants mentioned above are really part of a linguistic system or whether they are “errors”. Given ELF’s critical stance towards NS models of English, but the lack of an ELF model in its stead, it’s hard to label anything as an error with reference to any standard. Nevertheless, there is little doubt in my mind that sometimes variations stem from a lack of language control; performance problems if you will, and these should not be counted in ELF data. Dewey (2007) suggest four criteria for ELF variants:

  • They must be systematic (according to corpus studies)
  • Occur frequently and with speakers of different linguacultural backgrounds.
  • They are communicatively effective (perhaps more so than an equivalent NS from)
  • Considered a variant, not an error, when contrasted with an ENL form (but no mention of who is doing the considering).

If non-standard forms meet these standards, rather than being seen as errors, or deficient, they become what Cogo & Dewey would see as “innovative forms”.


While the variations above are in some ways systematic, they are often bound by geographical context and different speakers. The call for plurality in ELF is no doubt driven by the fact that research in ELF is very much concentrated in two different fields: Europe and Asia, and evidence suggests that  the kinds of English used in these areas are quite distinct. I believe this makes it unlikely that an ELF core could ever be produced; I also think that such a core would go somewhat against the kind of principles that ELF research tends to espouse.

This comes back to the point I made in my previous piece, that in dealing with a phenomenon as unprecedented as ELF, traditional frameworks and nomenclature may not be sufficient for the needs of ELF researchers or English teachers. What the above should show though, is that there is a collection of somethings that we can refer to as ELF communication, and that it may be a good idea to prepare our students for this kind of communication. In next week’s post, I will try to examine some of the ways that we as teachers can do this.




Breiteneder, A. (2009). English as a lingua franca in Europe: An empirical perspective. World Englishes, 28.2, 256–269.

Coates, J. (1993). Women, men, and language: A sociolinguistic account of gender differences in language.

Cogo, A., & Dewey, M. (2006). Efficiency in ELF communication: from pragmatic motives to lexico-grammatical innovation. Nordic Journal of English Studies5.2, 59-93.

Dewey, M. (2007). English as a lingua franca: An empirical study of innovation in lexis and grammar. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, King’s College London.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J., Cogo, A., & Dewey, M. (2011). Review of Developments in Research into English as a Lingua Franca. Language Teaching44.3, 281-315.

Mauranen, A. (2006). Signalling and preventingmisunderstanding in ELF communication. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 177, 123–150.

Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209–239.

A beginner (me)’s guide to English as a lingua franca

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

#KELTChat Summary: Automaticity & Fluency (23rd September 2012)

This a summary of the #KELTChat that took place on Twitter on the 23rd September 2012. It is dual posted on the KELTChat Blog and my personal blog The Breathy Vowel, but feel free to only read the one version!

On Sunday night we witnessed one of the busiest #KELTChats ever, with over 200 tweets sent in an  hour on the subject of Automaticity & Fluency. Along with regular members, I’d really like to mention the great contributions by two first-timers (I believe): @bora_maren and @jankenb2. Welcome to the community 🙂

We started out chatting about how important fluency was in our classrooms. The consensus was that it is important in every context, but especially so in Korea, where the bias of school teaching (we will return to this later) is towards grammar and vocabulary, and some teachers are guilty of treating language as knowledge, rather than as a skill, especially where speaking is concerned. We also pointed to the fact that opportunities for practice outside the classroom are limited. I think this is why those of us who teach at universities, such as @languagebubble, put fluency “at the forefront” of their classes.

For @keisenhow it was not only speaking fluency, but thinking fluency in English that was important, which she tries to promote through a task based approach, with thinking time built into a pre-task stage. Combined with relevant tasks and good modelling this helps her students to access the language that they need to complete the task.

We then had some fascinating ideas about the nature and role of fluency. @jankenb2 felt that fluency helped students to free their minds to focus on meaning more (I think I may have Matricized this a little in transcription), and @tamaslorincz added that it might also help with accuracy and range. @chopedu summed this up nicely with a metaphor: “Like learning to drive, we struggle before we can relegate the mechanics to the subconscious and just focus on the journey”. I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with this view on fluency though, for me meaning should always come first, but I am in no doubt that fluency helps to deliver quicker and clearer meanings. The beauty of #KELTChat was that this was then jumped on by both @bora_maren and @chopedu, claiming that form should sometimes come before meaning, and that students could not focus  on meaning, accuracy and fluency all at once, and that performance in the other two factors would drop if students focused on just one. This thread of the discussion then moved on to the role of repetition and games in the classroom. I suggested that simple speaking tasks could be redone with different audiences, and different focuses each time, and @jankenb2 highlighted the role of games in maximizing repetitions within an environment where they are actually required (ie. not just endless drilling).

While all that was going on, another chat within a chat was taking place about the role of fluency within high school classrooms. @bryanteacher (another brilliant recent addition to the #KELTChat squad) suggested that he focused much more on fluency activities, and introduced us (well me, at least) to the concept of ‘unlocking’ what the students already know. This was heartily agreed with by @annehendler, and the point was raised that it often meets opposition from school teachers who prefer to focus on the eminently more measurable and testable quality of accuracy (@josettelb).

At this point @alexswalsh chimed in with a very good point about the fact that fluency activities were strongly tied to motivation and the reasons the student is learning English. This seemed a good point, and again goes back to the testing culture here – why bother putting in the effort to be able to produce something fluently when all you need to do is check a box on a multiple choice exam. @michaelegriffin, @languagebubble and myself all agreed that motivation is crucial in developing fluency, but that we may be able to ‘sow the seeds of motivation’ by giving enough space for fluency in our classrooms. The flip side to this argument came from @alexswalsh again, suggesting that a) students may just throw chunks of language together to finish a task, and b) that doing fluency activities with large classes is not practical because many students simply revert to the L1.

Another issue that came up for public school teachers is that of level, and teachers not trusting their students, or not thinking fluency activities were necessary at lower levels. @bryanteacher pointed out that any “low-level” middle school student has a good few years of English education behind them, and this would seem to make the case that fluency needs to be concentrated on from the very beginning, a bit like what I understood Demand High ELT was all about.

The penultimate part of the discussion stemmed from the motivation thread, and considered how we could make an atmosphere in our classrooms that was conducive to practising and building motivation to achieve fluency. We talked in terms of a “safety zone” (@languagebubble), of which features might be “thinking time” and a “friendly atmosphere” (@bora_maren), or a “social presence” (@keisenhow). “Lightheartedness and laughter” and improving student dynamics through team building are important for @languagebubble.

Actually, that wasn’t the penultimate bit of the discussion, as another thread popped up at the last (this is not the easiest #KELTChat to summarize, in case you hadn’t noticed). This brought in a bit more SLA research which says that students learn linguistic features in predictable sequences. What does this mean for fluency though, @chopedu asked @jankenb2? The response was that even when students seem to be backsliding (I assume in terms of grammar and lexis), especially in conversations, this may still be a sign of progress, and again brought us back to the separate concepts of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’.

Finally we did get down to talking activities, which for the sake of my tired fingers I’m going to present as a list.

In terms of book recommendations @languagebubble and I also highly recommended English Firsthand for developing fluency, especially at lower levels.

And that more or less rounded off the chat for the evening. Both moderating and participating was a thrilling experience, it seems like every chat is better than the last right now, so thanks to everyone who joined in! I’m going to leave the final word to @bora_maren, in one of my favourite #KELTChat tweets ever:

“It was my first time joining.I enjoyed it a lot. It was a bit confusing and I am still dizzy but I am sure i will get better.”

Pretty much sums it all up I think.


Alex (@breathyvowel)

PS I’ve tried to be as accurate here as possible, while weaving the various threads of the chat into some kind of cohesive whole. If anyone feels that they’ve been misquoted, misrepresented or misused, please get in touch and I’ll do my best to correct it. You can also see a Storify of the important bits of the chat here:

Make Your Students The Experts: My KOTESOL National Conference Presentation 2012

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been working pretty hard recently getting ready for a presentation at KOTESOL‘s National Conference 2012 in the southern city of Busan. The conference has now been and gone and I’m still here, which is a positive. Actually, my presentation went really well (I thought) and the seven people who came were quite complimentary. I would have liked a few more people to speak to, but at least the small numbers made for a personal and constructive atmosphere.

Having been asked by at least one person, I’m going to share my presentation with you here. Unfortunately I don’t have time to write it up, but if you have time to sit down and watch/listen to it you can watch the Youtube videos below, (as filmed by the wonderful Anne Hendler (@annehendler), thanks!), or watch and listen to one of my slightly ropey practice screencasts further down the page.

If you watch the videos, you’ll need good eyes to see the projector screen, so you might want to take a look at the Prezi first.

I hope you find these useful. If you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments section.



Youtube Videos


Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4: