Category Archives: Sociolinguistics

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

Microagressions and Difference


“You use chopsticks so well!” by Joe Schlabotnik on Flickr

There was much debate in Korea this week about Debito Arudou’s article in the Japan Times last Tuesday.  The headline alone, “Yes, I can use chopsticks” will resonate with almost everyone who has spent some time in Korea. The article is an application of Dr. Derald Wing Sue Ph.D’s research into what are called “Racial Microagressions” to the context of “non-Japanese” (to use the article’s term) living in Japan. I found both articles a fascinating read, but felt a slight unease at the Japan Times piece. This piece is an attempt to figure out exactly why, so please excuse the slightly rambling style.

The author’s experience with Japanese/non-Japanese conversations can be translated almost word for word to the Korean context.  Even before I could speak Korean well enough to really converse with people, I could trot out the “England”, “Thank You”, “Two years”, “I like it”, “I like it too”, “No, I don’t find it spicy”, “I’m an English teacher”, “No, I’m not married” routine with my eyes closed. As a beginner language learner, this makes you feel awesome for the first two minutes of any conversation, before the inevitable descent into umm-ing, ahh-ing and head scratching begins. This conversation is still repeated in more taxi journeys than not more than two years after I came here.

Is this a racial microaggression though? Dr Sue’s research breaks microaggressions down as follows:

• Microassaults: Conscious and intentional discriminatory actions: using racial epithets, displaying White supremacist symbols – swastikas, or preventing one’s son or daughter from dating outside of their race.

• Microinsults: Verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a co-worker of color how he/she got his/her job, implying he/she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.

• Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, White people often ask Latinos where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.

I’m not sure that a fairly inoffensive conversation in a taxi really fits into any of these categories. I think that at a push some of the interaction could be seen as microinvalidation (“How long have you been in Korea?”), suggesting that I was not born here. However, the “Westerners in Korea” discourse is still one of recent immigration and temporary stays, and so this seems a more reasonable question when put to me than when put to a Latino in America (however, I am not quite sure about the differences in foreigner discourse between Korea and Japan). Furthermore, I’m not even sure that commenting on my chopstick use is suggesting that “manual dexterity is linked to phenotype”; I prefer (arrogantly) to see it as simply expressing admiration for a skill that I have most likely learnt since my immigration.

It is the claim that this kind of interaction is a microagression that bothers me. It’s clear that microagressions do exist, and are damaging, but how far should we go in claiming that conversations that transpire from a difference in race are microaggressions? Where does recognizing difference end and microagression begin? Debito Arudou suggests that the kind of interactions are microagressions, in which people are being put “in their place”, namely that of Japanese/Korean host (dominant) and non-Japanese/Korean guest (submissive). My problem with this is the labelling of guest and host dominant and submissive, which I don’t believe follow naturally from one or another (and countless episodes of Come Dine With Me seem to support me on this).  Is it not possible to see the roles (in my case) as simply Korean and non-Korean, and therefore different, but equal?

I believe that recognizing difference is natural. Look at the terms that populate this article and the two referenced: Korean, Westerner, non-Japanese, Latino, Asian-American.  Everyone, myself included, is putting themselves, and others, into a place based on race. The flight attendant in Dr. Sue’s article who claims she does not see color is a liar. We all see color, just as we all see age, sex, nationality, sexual orientation and a million other things that make each person unique, and because of those things, we treat people differently. Having probably just outed myself as racist, sexist and generally bigoted, I feel I ought to clarify a little: I don’t speak to Korean people in the same way that I speak to Westerners. I don’t speak to my university students in the same way I speak to elementary age students. I don’t speak to my female friends in the same way I speak to my male friends. And neither, in all probability, do you. We recognize a difference and we behave accordingly.

This is because when we use language we are not just saying something, but doing something. We are “who’s doing what’s” (Gee 2011:44). Therefore, as well as being put in our place, we are putting ourselves in our place whenever we say anything. For example, when talking to my students, I am a “professor ” (in title at least) doing “teaching”. Similarly, when talking to my Korean friends, I am  a “non-Korean” doing “talking to Koreans”. Even when the subject is not our differences, there are still many factors that change because of my non-Korean-ness.  This is an unavoidable factor in the conversation, and affects utterances on both sides, and so I change my rate of speech; I change the vocabulary that I use; I change my cultural references. Our race, and our situation are performed in what we say and do whether we like it or not, and so to expect them not to have an influence on conversation is, I believe, unrealistic. Moreover, our race is part of our identity. Being a non-Korean in Korea is part of who I am – no matter how long I stay here, and that won’t change, nor do I particularly want it to.

To move this towards a conclusion, I personally don’t mind being treated differently (nor treating others differently) on account of my non-Koreanness. What I do mind is being treated unfairly, unequally, demeaningly, or being discriminated against because of it, and this does happen in Korean society both through racial microagressions (such as speaking 반말, or informal language to me) and overt racism (such as anti-foreigner articles on the internet and in the press). However, I don’t think we can extend the definition of microagression into the sphere of phatic conversations with curious people, especially when the intention is the exact opposite of racism and social control, an attempt to reach out and cross cultural and racial boundaries.

Furthermore, criticizing this kind of phatic communication for being boring or repetitive seems a little strange, because boring and repetitive is exactly what phatic communication should be. It’s the little practised routines that allow us to break down barriers between each other, and move on to more personal and interesting topics. It’s at least in the same realm as criticizing saying “How are you?” in English for being dull.

I think the above is why I feel uneasy about the article’s stance. Debito Arudou implies that any kind of discourse that is prompted by a difference in race attempt at establishing dominance or social control. I don’t believe this is the case. We have to recognize our differences, and deal with their implications. Otherwise, the world either becomes a boring, homogenous sludge, or one in which real predjudices go untackled. Personally, I look forward to my next boring conversation with a taxi driver, as it may just be a small step to bring us closer together, rather than an attempt to drive us apart.




Gee, J.P. (2011)  An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (3rd Ed.). Oxford: Routledge.