English as a lingua franca: selected readings

This post serves to provide a selective overview of recent debate regarding English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). ELF, very briefly, is a term used to describe the communication in English between people of different linguistic backgrounds. There is a trend, among academics mostly, to view ELF as qualitatively different from the communication between people who use English as a Native Language (ENL). For some, this implies that ELF can more appropriately inform Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

The debate regarding ELF has been going on for the best part of the last decade, following the publication of Jenkins’ seminal book The Phonology of English as an International Language (2000). It is not my intention to engage with all the literature on the topic in this post; rather, I would like to present a few selected articles, which appeared in ELT Journal in 2012 and 2013, and which form part of an extended exchange between five scholars with differing perspectives.

In doing so, I hope to make some aspects of the debate more accessible to readers, while at the same time illustrating how scholarly debate can become polarized around two competing positions. Readers may want to consider whether the two positions are as incompatible as some of the authors claim, or whether the differences are the product of a desire to carve out a new academic niche. A second point which seems to emerge from this debate pertains to the ways in which research relates to practice: although I imagine that we can all agree that teaching practice must be theoretically informed, what these papers seem to demonstrate is a certain ambiguity regarding the demarcation of research neutrality, advocacy and prescriptivism.

Sowden, C. (2012). ELF on a mushroom: the overnight growth in English as a Lingua Franca. ELT Journal, 66(1), 89-96. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccr024

In this article, which sparked the debate, Sowden argues for the continued relevance of the native-speaker model (ENL), noting the ELF paradigm is still beset by theoretical and practical shortcomings.

Sowden begins his argument by noting that English has continued to serve a unifying role in many post-colonial settings, where conferring precedence to one local language is politically undesirable, and acknowledging equal status to all local languages is impractical. In such contexts English, needs to abandon both its cultural associations and those linguistic features which challenge non-native speakers. This, he argues, has led to the development of ELF, which he describes as an ‘abbreviated alternative’.

Citing early ELF research, Sowden points at what he views as an ontological problem with ELF [that is to say, we don’t really know what it is :)]: some researchers have described it as a discrete linguistic entity, whereas others seem to seem to conceptualize it as a collection of mutually intelligible linguistic varieties, or a set of shared linguistic resources that make communication in English possible.

Sowden argues that it has proved impossible, so far, to provide a comprehensive description of what ELF is. Moreover, the problem of distinguishing between authentic non-standard alternatives and persistent error has yet to be resolved. Furthermore, the perception that ELF is an inferior linguistic model weighs against its pedagogical adoption. Sowden also remarks that:

It is highly likely that where choice existed, the more affluent, ambitious, and well connected would opt for schools where native-speaker standards prevailed, and the poorer sections of the community would be relegated to schools where ELF was the norm.

In view of these challenges, Sowden argues for the preservation of the native-speaker model, albeit in modified terms that are sensitive to local cultural settings.

Cogo, A. (2012). English as a Lingua Franca: concepts, use, and implications. ELT Journal, 66(1), 97-105. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccr069

Cogo’s response to Sowden’s paper focuses on refuting the points he makes:

  • She begins by noting that ELF is not geographically constrained to former British colonies. Indeed, it need not be geographically located at all: it might as well refer to exchanges that take place over the internet.
  • She also challenges Sowden’s view that ELF is ontologically confused: According to her, ELF research is not about codifying the linguistic behaviour of a particular community, or identifying core linguistic features [a claim that does not seem to include Jenkins 2000]. Rather, it involves rethinking the concepts of ‘linguistic variety’ and ‘community’, and the ways in which they interrelate.
  • The aim of ELF research is defined as one of enhancing our understanding of the pragmatic processes that users engage with when using English as a lingua franca.
  • The claim that ELF is a reduced version of English is rejected: drawing on empirical data, Cogo demonstrates the creativity and resourcefulness evident in ELF communication.
  • Further, she argues that ELF is neither the product of linguistic engineering, as Sowden appears to suggest, nor can it be viewed as value-neutral, since it linguistically encodes the values and attitudes of all its users.
  • Cogo concludes by claiming that, in terms of pedagogical implications, ELF is about raising students’ awareness of the variety inherent in English, and providing them with choice. The native-speaker model that Sowden put forward, she argues, makes for politically naïve pedagogy and dated views on the nature of communication.

Sowden, C. (2012). A reply to Alessia Cogo. ELT Journal, 66(1), 106-107. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccr078

In the same issue of ELT J, Sowden responds to some of Cogo’s comments by pointing out that much ELF discourse seems to be underpinned by the view that research should dictate to teachers and learners what choices they need to make. In his words, the “researcher has passed beyond the duty of raising awareness to actual advocacy”, and Cogo’s claims to the contrary seem disingenuous. He also notes that a structural component is requisite to any language syllabus, and ELF has yet to provide one.

Sewell, A. (2013). English as a lingua franca: ontology and ideology. ELT Journal, 67(1), 3-10. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccs061

Drawing on the exchange between Sowden and Cogo, Sewell argues that both the pro- and anti-ELF positions can contribute usefully to pedagogy, but neither seems to successfully engage with the complexities of language use in a global context.

He notes that, although Cogo claims that ELF research is about linguistic processes, her wording suggests a latent view of ELF as a linguistic variety. In addition, the distinction between ELF and ENL is not as sharp as proponents of the former position make it to be, and that many of the differences described seem to stem from an essentialist view of language. Moreover, the claim that ENL places burdens on successful communication is challenged on account of its scant empirical support.

Sewell also raises the interesting point that although attitudes towards ENL are, indeed, influenced by dominant ideology, unmasking the ideological role of the ENL is not tantamount to revealing the truth. Rather, this involves substituting one political position for another, since ELF attitudes are similarly a product of counter-hegemonic ideologies. Lastly, the ELF paradigm is challenged with regard its cavalier rejection of learner’s attitudes, which are critical of reduced models.

Sewell attempts to position himself in a middle ground between ELF and ENL, by claiming that there is a need for raising critical awareness of language variation, and a similar need for developing ‘norms of some kind’. He argues that, since language is a complex dynamical system, stable patterns will likely emerge, and notes that “during this evolutionary process, an artificially polarized debate between essentialized ‘varieties’ of language—native speaker and non-native speaker, or ELF and non-ELF—is likely to be counterproductive”.

Sung, C. C. M. (2013). English as a Lingua Franca and English language teaching: a way forward. ELT Journal, 67(3), 350-353. doi: 10.1093/elt/cct015

Responding to Sewell, Sung raises two related points which appear to be overlooked in much ELF discourse: (a) the importance of learners’ choice, and (b) the relation of research to classroom practice. Research is cited to demonstrate that learners can flexibly use different linguistic models to suit their communicative needs, and that their accent is strongly associated with the identities that they wish to project. With regard to classroom relevance of ELF, Sung argues that it is still unclear how learners might be exposed to linguistic variation, and draws attention to empirical work suggesting that some learners feel more comfortable with clear, unambiguous models to draw on.

Dewey, M. (2013). The distinctiveness of English as a Lingua Franca. ELT Journal, 67(3), 346-349. doi: 10.1093/elt/cct014

Dewey also refers to Sewell’s article, noting that although it appears to have been written as a critique of the ELF thesis, many of the points that Sewell raises are, in fact, supportive of it. For instance, Sewell’s conceptualisation of language as dynamical and emergent is consistent with the claims made by ELF research, and his claims that Cogo subscribes to an essentialist view of language are described as the product of selective quotation. He also argues that, despite Sewell’s claims to the contrary, EFL interactions are clearly different from ENL, although poorly understood to date.

In lieu of a conclusion

By listing a small number of different perspectives on ELF, it was not my intention to exhaust the debate on what ELF is, and what its pedagogical role should be. I don’t even think it would be possible to answer such questions even with a more comprehensive review of the expanding literature. The former question, I dare say, will have to wait until more empirical work is done and the relative merits of different perspectives has been demonstrated. In this sense, I find it hard to agree with Cogo’s insistence that ELF is ontologically unambiguous. As to the latter question, I have always felt that any response would have to be responsive to local needs, and that the top-down imposition of any new perspective, however well-intentioned, is politically questionable.

In writing these paragraphs, it has been my hope that this debate may prompt readers to reflect on two related issues, at which I hinted in the introduction of this post. Firstly, one may find it useful to explore to what extent the differences between the ENL and ELF paradigms are linguistic, pedagogical or political. Building on to that, readers might want to problematise how the descriptive warrant of linguistics (“this is how people speak”) relates to deontic claims (“here’s how/what you should teach”).

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