Tag Archives: Norms

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!

Cheers,

Alex

* 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,

Alex

* 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.

References

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.

Cheers,

Alex

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.

References

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.