“Is English a foreign language?”

Earlier this morning, I was posed a deceptively simple question via Twitter: “Is English a foreign language in Greece?” Of course it is, one might be tempted to answer. What else might it be? But it seems to me that one may profit from going beyond such an unreflective response.

Before one begins answering such a question, one would have to reflect on what a ‘foreign language’ actually means. In language education, a distinction is commonly made between Second Languages (SL) and Foreign Languages (FL). SL education refers to teaching and learning a language within a community where this language is natively spoken. For instance, students who travel to England to improve their English, or immigrants learning Greek in order to integrate in Greek society would be said to learn a Second Language. By contrast, FL education refers to teaching and learning a language within one’s native community (often as part of one’s formal schooling), so that one might communicate with tourists, trade partners and other speakers of the target language. By this definition, pupils learning English or French in a Greek school are engaging in Foreign Language learning. Some important differences between FL and SL education are summarised below:

Second language education Foreign language education
Takes place in the community where the language is natively used Takes place outside the community where the language is natively used
Opportunities to engage with the the target language outside the classroom The target language is used exclusively in classroom
Learners are immersed in the culture of the Target Language community The culture of the Target Language community is hard to access (possibly undesirable?)
Learners normally come from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds Learners normally share a linguistic and cultural background
Teachers are most commonly members of the Target Language community Teachers are likely members of the local community
Teacher education emphasises pedagogical skills Teacher education must foster linguistic skills and provide cultural information

Taking these definitions as a starting point, it seems to me that language educators in Greece are faced with two important questions:

(a)    To what extent is the distinction between English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) still relevant in a globalised world?

(b)   If the distinction is indeed meaningful, does it still make sense to view Greece as an EFL setting?

I shall attempt to answer these questions in the paragraphs that follow, and after that, I will outline what seem to be the most important implications. Before reading on, however, you may want to go back to the table outlining the differences between FL and SL education and reflect on how easy it is to place Greece in either category.

A global rejection of EFL

Regarding the first question, I think it is very difficult to argue for a continued distinction between EFL and ESL. The defining feature of the EFL paradigm is that English is functionally confined to the language classroom. In other words, an EFL situation presupposes a community where the native language is used exclusively in all domains of social life, and -as a result- learners can only find English language input and opportunities to communicate in the classroom.  Such insular communities are becoming increasingly harder to find in a globalised world.

The Phonology of English as an International LanguageRather than thinking of the world as being divided into English ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ , where ESL and EFL are respectively practiced, there may be some value in conceptualising the English-using world as a geographically distributed community where English functions as a shared linguistic resource. In fact, some linguists have already began using terms such as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), English as an International Language (EIL) or English as an International Communication (EIC) in order to describe the linguistic resources that members of this community share.

The linguistic status of ELF is still the subject of some debate, as are questions of legitimacy (e.g., Is the English spoken by an Indian university professor equally ‘good’ as that spoken by a Glasgow cabbie?). But from a pedagogical perspective, I think that replacing EFL with ELF is both more descriptively accurate and more empowering. An ELF perspective acknowledges that a language may be dominant in a community, but that English can also be very salient. It recognises that aspects of the local culture can be legitimately conveyed through English, and that cultural artefacts from the Anglophone West are both easy and useful to access. It rejects the assumptions that English can only be ‘properly’ taught by native speakers of the language and that the literary and cultural tradition of the British Isles and North America has a privileged connection to a language that is used for communication globally.

A qualified rejection of EFL

Even if one is not prepared to abandon the EFL construct entirely, I believe a case can be made against viewing English as a ‘foreign’ language in Greece. As early as 1985, Braj Kachru pointed out that a number of countries and states exist where English is not natively spoken, but nevertheless seems to enjoy a privileged status. For instance, in many post-colonial settings, English was used as a language of schooling, trade or administration, in parallel with, or to the exclusion of local languages. Although Kachru seemed to distinguish rather rigidly between post-colonial settings and the rest of the English-using world, his observation seems to undermine the strength of the dichotomous distinction between ESL and EFL: the core of his argument seems to be that if English is very salient in the linguistic ecology of a community, then it must be more than just a ‘foreign’ language.

Snapshot of a restaurant chain website
A snapshot of the website of a large Greek restaurant chain. Note that this is the *Greek* version of the webpage.

Although English is not an official language in Greece, I want to put forward the claim that its position in the local linguistic ecology is more prominent than that of other foreign languages, and that this qualitative difference has important pedagogical implications. One can list several examples of the way English is used, but I will just refer to naming practices, which have important identity implications. If marketing practices are any indication, English is at least as prominent in trade as Greek is: two of the largest banks are named Eurobank and Alpha Bank (two more, Emporiki Bank and Geniki Bank, merge a Latin transliteration of their name with the English word Bank), and large retail stores such as Public, the Golden Hall and The Mall use English names. The semiotic predominance of the English language appears to be spreading in government as well, judging by initiatives such as OpenGov, or changes in the ways government entities refer to themselves: For instance, the Ministry of Education website was recently moved from www.ypepth.gr (a transliteration into the Latin alphabet of the initials that made up the Greek name of the ministry) to the Orwellian www.minedu.gov.gr . Taken together, what all these examples seem to indicate is that corporate and government bodies in Greece appear to view themselves as bilingual entities operating in a context where English is readily understood, i.e. a context where English is not ‘foreign’.

But what does it all mean?

Whether one adopts a global or a qualified rejection of the English as a Foreign Language construct, it must be clear from the preceding discussion that English is qualitatively different from foreign languages, and this has important implications for curriculum design and for teacher education.

With regard to language pedagogy, it is likely that the methods and techniques used to foster English language proficiency have more in common with the practices used in native language education than they have with foreign language education. It also means that the privileged position English Language specialists enjoyed, as sole providers of linguistic and cultural input, is less tenable. Taken together, these observations seem to call for re-appraising the policy of using English Language specialists in teaching posts that could be better served by teachers with stronger pedagogical credentials.

As regards teacher education, the rejection of the EFL construct calls into question the bizarre ministerial decision to merge Departments of English, French, German, Spanish and Italian Studies into integrated departments that ‘Foreign Language’ Departments. The academic absurdity of such a decision aside, it is clear that such departments would produce English Language teachers who would be unsuited to engaging with the particularities of English in the Greek context.

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