English as a Lingua Franca: Three questions, few answers

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), roughly defined as English-medium communication among people who have different mother languages. ELF is believed to be qualitatively different from the kind of English used natively, in terms of linguistic form, and with regard to the relative status of interlocutors.

Interest in ELF has led, among other scholarly activity, to a series of annual conferences since 2008. The seventh ELF conference (ELF7) will be held in the American College of Athens in September 2014, and a pre-conference event will be taking place in a few days’ time. In view of the upcoming events, I thought it might be topical to reflect on a number of unresolved questions about ELF.

Is ELF inclusive or restricted?

There is some ambiguity in the literature over the precise definition of ELF. Some scholars use the term to describe all instances of English -mediated international communication. An example of such an inclusive definition is provided by Barbara Seidlhofer, who views ELF as “any use of English among speakers of different first languages, for whom English is the communicative medium of choice, and often the only option” (2011: 7).

However, “English as a Lingua Franca” is sometimes used restrictively, to describe communication in English among people for whom English is not the native language (e.g., Firth 1996, Pakir 2009, Prodromou, 2008). When ELF is used in such a restricted sense, it usually is seen as a special case of English as an International Language, which encompasses all cases of communication among native and non-native speakers.

Is ELF a language variety or not?

Much of ELF research has focused on using language corpora to codify English-medium communication involving (mostly) non-native speakers. Despite the emphasis on codification, many ELF researchers insist that ELF is not a variety of English, in the same sense that the Standard Language, or e.g. Indian English are (Jenkins, Cogo, & Dewey 2011: 304, Seidlhofer 2006). Rather, it is described as emergent linguistic behaviour, akin to ‘languaging’ (Dewey 2013; Seidlhofer 2011: 189-190).

That said, a critical reading of ELF research reveals a tendency to reify and essentialise language. For instance, after discussing the defining features of indigenised varieties, Jenkins asserts that “ELF will eventually fit all these criteria” (2007: 14-15). Moreover, ELF researchers (e.g., Seidlhofer 2009) seem keen to position themselves in the World Englishes research paradigm – a strand of scholarship that concerns itself with the description of and advocacy for regional varieties. It is unclear how these seemingly contradictory positions are theoretically reconciled.

Is ELF descriptive or prescriptive?

Initial work on ELF argued for restructuring the language learning curriculum and testing procedures (e.g., Jenkins 1998, 2000). Since then, a tacit reorientation seems to have taken place, and now ELF researchers seem to insist that their work is purely descriptive. Seidlhofer, for one, categorically states that:

These chapters […] are emphatically not intended to prescribe what forms of English people should use to ensure effective communication. It is important to emphasise this because the descriptive work on ELF […] has sometimes been confused with the prescriptive proposals that have been made for the specifications of a simplified version of English (2011: 154, original emphasis).

When ELF scholarship ventures into language learning nowadays, the argument is sometimes made that learners should be provided with a detailed explanation of what ELF is, and how it compares against more traditional conceptualisations of English, which will allow them to make informed linguistic and pedagogical choices (Cogo 2012: 104, Jenkins 2006: 155). ELF research, it seems, claims to describe in order to give learners choice.

On the whole, though, when reading the ELF literature, it is difficult to avoid forming the impression that many ELF scholars have “passed beyond the duty of raising awareness to actual advocacy” (Sowden 2012: 106). Moreover, empirical work to date has failed to unequivocally confirm that ELF is relevant to the learners’ needs and aspirations, but such conflicting evidence tends to be summarily dismissed with remarks like the following:

[English Language Teaching] seems somewhat bizarrely to be the only educational subject where an important curricular decision (which kind of English should be taught) is seen as being to some extent the prerogative of the students or their parents (Jenkins 2007: 105).

One cannot help wondering whether ELF scholars would rather take on that responsibility on the learners’ behalf, and if that is the case, this implicit prescriptive agenda is at odds with claims that the ELF research project is strictly descriptive.

As the brief exposition above may have hinted, the English as a Lingua Franca research paradigm is still developing theoretically, and one hopes that the upcoming conference might help to clarify some of the confusion that surrounds it.

5 thoughts on “English as a Lingua Franca: Three questions, few answers”

  1. I think that while researchers are okay with the descriptive paradigm, non-academic circles, and especially students learning English for ELF purposes, may expect their teachers to give them a prescriptive kind of instruction. This, unfortunately, makes a lot of ELF research not applied enough and creates a conflict of interests between researchers, teachers and students since they all want different things…

    1. I liked the “not applied enough” prhase: I think that’s a very good way of putting it. I think that while (at least some) teachers/students might be comfortable with non-standard varieties, the idea of having no model at all doesn’t work too well in the classroom…

  2. Hi Achilleas,

    I found this an interesting summary of some of the issues met by those new to the field of ELF. I have also found the literature to be at times unclear or (self-)contradictory. As you point out, though, I think this is part and parcel of its still being a burgeoning field of enquiry, with new views, ideas, practices and data emerging all the time. Quite exciting to be involved in it, really!

    Will you be at this year’s ELF7 conference in Athens? If so, hope to meet you there!

    Laura

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