The Shifting Contexts of Instruction

I’ve given my thoughts before on this blog about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), mostly disparaging it as a pedagogically unclear teaching approach, one which unnecessarily simplifies English. My thoughts on this subject seem to be shifting as I read more and more about it. I am beginning to consider, more clearly and carefully, the implications ELF research has for what gets taught and assessed in the language classroom, particularly in EAP.

A shift in my own teaching contexts likely was the catalyst for this change. About two years ago, I moved from South Korea to the USA. I switched from teaching in a homogeneous teaching context where students wanted to approximate the native speaker despite few being around, and where 95% of students were also Korean (hence little exposure to ELF), to a heterogeneous environment where students come to study from around the world and I come face to face with ELF everyday.

What has propmpted this blog post and my musing on this change are two articles. One is an article by Marek Kiczkowiak about the native-speaker/non-native speaker issue that dispels many of the assumptions I had been holding, and the other is a great article on ELF in EAP by Beyza Björkman, which I summarized on Research Bites.

In Björkman’s article, she states that there are three groups of EAP learners:

  1. students who study at a university in an English-speaking country,
  2. students who study in their own countries but the language of instruction is English,
  3. international students who study at university in a non-English speaking country who must use English to communicate (this is the ELF) context.

This third type of learner has been somewhat of a recent development, arising in the last 10 or 15 years. My initial question here is if the first and third group of learners is are really so distinct? I’m wondering if a university in an English-speaking country is not an ESL environment (as it would typically be considered) but rather an ELF environment.

A look at the makeup of any modern university in a typical native-speaking country clearly shows a shifting linguistic dynamic towards what Vivian Cook (2015) calls “multicompetence,” or, the bilingual norm (as opposed to the monolingual norm to which “native speaker” is attached). In the US, a large number of faculty, grad students, scientists, and even college presidents are non-native English speakers. Wikipedia cites a slew of statistics about this. For example, among the non-native speakers working in higher education or the sciences, 45% of all physicists are non-native, 55% of PhD engineering students are non-native, and 50% of engineering faculty is non-native. Likewise, grad students, especially in STEM, account for a 50-70% of the student population. I’m sure the situation is similar in Canada, the UK, and other native English speaking countries.

International students are also entering university at the undergraduate level as well, evident from the number of IEPs (intensive English programs) attached to universities around the nation. IEPs handle all sorts of international students, many of whom are conditionally admitted undergraduates who need to improve their English before matriculating. This is the context in which I currently teach. And clearly, it is an ELF context.

But what happens when you leave the classroom? Can the context shift from ELF, interacting with faculty and classmates from around the world, to ESL, interacting with native English-speakers in the community? One the one hand, yes, it is more of an ESL environment, especially in terms of most popular media. However, English-speaking countries tend to be quite pluralistic, and depending on the region, you might be just as likely to interact with someone from another country. Even listening to NPR (National Public Radio) in the morning, its hard not to see the US as an ELF context as many interviewees are competent non-native English speakers (who are very clear in communication but often have typical ELF issues). While some people may not like it, America is a country already at or moving towards multicompetence and is to a large degree often (but not always) an ELF context.

So, the big question is, as an instructor in an IEP situated in a context that fluctuates between ELF and ESL, embedded in EAP instruction (and, apparently being attacked by acronyms), how is my teaching affected? Well, as Björkman pointed out, while accuracy (a stated goal of ESL) is important, communicative effectiveness (the stated goal of ELF) is more so. They are not mutually exclusive and both can be focused on. The difference is focusing on what is going to make my students effective communicators in any context. The answer, according to Björkman and other ELF researchers, is going to be accuracy where it counts (e.g. question word order), pragmatic strategies that help in negotiating meaning, and exposure to different accents – including various native English accents.

I think this is a great starting point for moving more towards ELF and now I have to re-read Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core!

5 thoughts on “The Shifting Contexts of Instruction

  1. hi Anthony
    before re-eading Jenkins I’d recommend chapter by Canagarajah in the free eBook by Routledge a compilation of cutting edge research

Comments are closed.