Some Thoughts on English as a Lingua Franca

“We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone.”

Discussion of the “Eleventh Edition” of Newspeak in Orwell’s “1984”

(For interested readers, Achilleas Kostoulas has a great overview of the ELF debate on his site.)

Among the many acronyms in the English language teaching world, ELF seems to be the most contentious one of late. English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) exists in two forms: a real-world phenomenon and a methodology. Researchers are only just beginning to focus on ELF as a linguistic phenomenon, despite it occurring for decades. This is likely because as the world becomes smaller through globalization, more and more conversations are being held between speakers of other languages and English is being used as the medium of communication.

And this phenomenon is now beginning to inform English language teaching. A vague conception of ELF as a teaching methodology would consider the facts that, in the phenomenon of ELF, getting meaning across is more important than accuracy. This is really nothing radical, as meaning-focused English language teaching is widespread, and perhaps even the default teaching mode nowadays. The problem is that ELF research has shown a number of lexicogrammatical features that do not impede understanding. The necessity to master or even learn these features of English has been called into question. Park and Wee (2011), Seidhofer (2004), and Cogo and Dewey (2006) [the latter two are from the ELF Wikipedia article] summarizes these as:

  • simple present third person: He look angry
  • article omission: He bought new car
  • using a bare infinitive in place of –ing: He look forward to buy new car
  • invariant question tags: you’re very busy today, isn’t it?
  • treating ‘who’ and ‘which’ as interchangeable relative pronouns: picture who or person which
  • shift of patterns of preposition use: we have to study about
  • extension to the collocational field of words with high semantic generality: take an operation

In addition, the phonemic landscape of English could possibly be reshaped by ELF considerations. Whereas native speakers of English put a great deal of emphasis on suprasegmantal features (sentence stress, intonation, connected speech), ELF speakers rely more on phonetic cures. Jenkins has developed the “lingua franca core” (LFC), which is, according to Pickering, “a set of core phonological features that will result in maximum intelligibility in ELF interaction”. Deterding (2011) summarizes LFC as a focus on:

  • all the consonants, except /θ/ and /ð/
  • initial consonant clusters
  • vowel length distinctions
  • the mid-central NURSE vowel
  • nuclear stress

 

Thinking about the 1984 quote above, I’m wondering how much of ELF is dedicated to language engineering. One perceived goal of ELF is to teach English in a way that is intelligible by everyone. In the context of ELF, this clearly means simplifying the language by stripping out what is difficult, and that includes not only the above mentioned features, but numerous localized lexical items such as idioms, slang, metaphors, pidgin Englishes, and maybe even sublanguages such as Konglish and Singlish. Basically, all the bells and whistles of English, or to be more exact, Englishes.

What you would get is a world that speaks English like stereotypical cavemen or native Americans. Short sentences with no verb tense spoken at a robotic pace with a sterile vocabulary. Maybe this is exaggeration, or maybe this is taking ELF to its logical conclusion. I’m not sure. I am sure that the skills to build communicative competence and intelligibility do not have to come by simplifying the language, or the language skills.

I am also sure that while teachers and researchers may embrace a more systematic version of English, learners may scoff at such a bastardized form. Despite a learner’s inability to pronounce dental fricatives, add an inflectional suffix, or even use a proper idiom, they still often enjoy learning these things. And although a majority of interactions take place between non-native speakers, most still consider interactions with native speakers to be not only possible but probable. So, why deny them the English they want?

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? … Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. … Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?” — 1984

References

Cogo, A and Dewey, M. (2006). Efficiency in ELF communication. From pragmatic motives to lexico-grammatical innovation. Nordic Journal of English Studies, (5)2. Retrieved from http://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/3148

Deterding, D. (2011). English language teaching and the lingua franca core. ICPHs, XVII. Retrieved from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/psychlangsci/ptlc/proceedings_2011/Deterding.

Park, S.Y.J. and Wee, L. (2011). A practice based critique of English as a lingua franca. World Englishes (30)3. Retrieved from

Seidholfer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24. Retrieved from http://people.ufpr.br/~clarissa/pdfs/ELFperspectives_Seidlhofer2004.pdf.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on English as a Lingua Franca

  1. 권다영 says:

    I think it is good enough to go with meaning-focused English language teaching.
    When I communicated with non-native speaker, even both of us were not perfect in English, we could still communicate to each other. The main reason for language is communication.
    So we we don’t need to get any pressure to be more exact.

    • Anthony Teacher says:

      I agree that meaning is crucial. However, there are many contexts where accuracy is also important, for example business or professional contexts. In addition, written accuracy is very important, as poor grammar and word choice does get in the way of meaning.

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