English as a lingua franca

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Thu Apr 26 05:09:45 UTC 2001

This is from the Guardian, a British newspaper:

Bringing Europe's lingua franca into the classroom
Jennifer Jenkins and Barbara Seidlhofer suggest how the results of new
research into how 'non-native' speakers of English use the language must
change the way it is taught

Guardian Unlimited, April 19, 2001

A Finnish scientist coming to Vienna for a conference on human genetics; an
Italian designer negotiating with prospective clients in Stockholm; a Polish
tourist chatting with local restaurateurs in Crete: they all communicate
successfully in "English", but which "English"? Well, chances are that it is
not the language you hear in chat shows and soaps on British or American
television, but rather a range of "Englishes", with enough of a common core
so as to make it viable as a means of communication.

In fact, it is even claimed that a European variety of English, sometimes
labelled "Euro-English", is in the process of evolving to serve as a
European lingua franca. As yet, however, this new variety of English has not
been described, largely because it is at such an embryonic stage in its
evolution. All we can say with any degree of certainty is that English as a
lingua franca in Europe (ELFE) is likely to be some kind of European-English
hybrid which, as it develops, will increasingly look to continental Europe
rather than to Britain or the United States for its norms of correctness and

However, as long as there is no sound empirical basis for a description of
how the language is actually used, the forms ELFE will take will remain an
object of speculation.

This is why we decided to record interactions among "non-native" speakers of
English from a wide variety of first-language backgrounds, and to
investigate what happens linguistically when English is used as a lingua
franca. The focus of our research to date has been on pronunciation and
lexicogrammar (vocabulary plus grammar), and it has enabled us to make a
number of educated guesses at emerging characteristics of ELFE.

Jennifer Jenkins gathered data from interactions among non-native speakers
of English in order to establish which aspects of pronunciation cause
intelligibility problems when English is spoken as an International
Language. This enabled her to draw up a pronunciation core, the Lingua
Franca Core, and certain of the features she designates core and non-core
provide evidence as to the likely development of ELFE pronunciation.

The features of the Lingua Franca Core are those which were found to be
crucial for intelligibility. They include:
. consonant sounds except for "th" (both voiceless as in "think" and voiced
as in 'this') and dark 'l' (as, for example, in the word 'hotel')
. vowel length contrasts (eg the difference in length between the vowel
sounds in the words "live" and "leave")
. nuclear (tonic) stress (eg the stress indicated by capital letters in the
following: "I come from FRANCE. Where are YOU from?")

Most other areas of pronunciation are then designated non-core, and these
include many features on which teachers and learners often spend a great
deal of time and effort, such as the exact quality of vowel sounds, word
stress, or the "typical rhythm of British English", with lots of "little"
words such as articles and prepositions pronounced so weakly as to be hardly

Taking the Lingua Franca Core as our starting point, we predict that the
pronunciation of ELFE will, over time, develop certain characteristics. For
example, it is unlikely that "th" will be a feature of ELFE accents since
nearly all continental Europeans other than those from Spain and Greece have
a problem in producing it. What is not clear at this stage is whether the
ELFE substitute will be "s" and "z" (as used, for example, by many French-
and German-English speakers) or "t" and "d" (as used, for example, by many
Italian- and Scandinavian-English speakers), or whether there will be scope
for regional variation. Given that users of "s" and "z" outnumber users of
"t" and "d", however, we predict that ultimately the former will become the
accepted ELFE variant.

Similarly, because of difficulties of many Europeans with dark "l", we
predict that this sound will not be included in the ELFE pronunciation
inventory, but will probably be substituted with clear "l" (a development
which will run counter to that in British English, where dark "l" is
increasingly being substituted with l-vocalisation, such that "bill" sounds
more like "biw").

On the other hand, the British-English distinction between voiced and
voiceless consonants is likely to be maintained in ELFE since the loss of
this distinction proved to be a frequent cause of intelligibility problems
in the research. For example, a German-English speaker's devoicing of the
final sound on the word "mug" so that it sounded like "muck" rendered the
word unintelligible to an Italian-English speaker.

The phenomena that can be observed in the area of ELFE lexicogrammar are the
focus of Barbara Seidlhofer's current research. For this purpose, she has
been compiling a corpus of interactions in English among fairly fluent
speakers from a variety of first-language backgrounds. This corpus
consisting of vast amounts of electronically stored written and spoken text
is called the Vienna-Oxford ELF Corpus, and is housed at the University of
Vienna and supported by Oxford University Press.

The findings emerging from it are similar to Jenkins' research into
pronunciation in that they also involve many of those features often
regarded, and taught, as particularly "typical" of (native) English. In our
analyses of a variety of interactions such as casual conversations and
academic discussions, no major disruptions in communication happened when
speakers committed one or more of the following deadly "grammatical sins":
. using the same form for all present tense verbs, as in 'you look very sad'
and 'he look very sad'
. not putting a definite or indefinite article in front of nouns, as in "our
countries have signed agreement about this"
. treating "who" and "which" as interchangeable relative pronouns, as in
"the picture who. . ." or "a person which"
. using just the verb stem in constructions such as "I look forward to see
you tomorrow"
. using "isn't it?" as a universal tag question (ie instead of "haven't
they?" and "shouldn't he?"), as in "They've finished their dinner now, isn't

These characteristics, it will be noted, are described in a neutral way
here, ie we are not talking about "dropping the third person -s" or "leaving
out the -ing ending of the gerund", but this is not the way these "mistakes"
are usually treated in English classrooms around Europe. As many teachers of
English as a foreign language will know, the time and effort spent on such
features as the "third person -s", the use of articles and the "gerund" is
often considerable, and nevertheless many learners still fail to use them
"correctly" after years of instruction, especially in spontaneous speech.

What our analyses of ELF interactions suggest is that the time needed to
teach and learn these constructions bears very little relationship to their
actual usefulness, as successful communication is obviously possible without
them. It seems, in fact, that there is a very good reason for many students'
observed resistance to learning these characteristics of native-speaker
English: like the th-sounds discussed above, they are not communicatively
crucial. Rather, speakers tend to tune into them only when they use English
in a native-speaker community and wish to "blend in" (which, for certain
learners, obviously remains a desirable objective) while they seem to be
redundant in much lingua franca communication.

As far as the implications for teaching are concerned we would like to make
two general suggestions. The first and most important point to emphasise is,
in our view, the need to encourage both teachers and students to adjust
their attitudes towards ELFE. Even those who strongly support the
development of a continental European hybrid variety of English that does
not look to Britain or America for its standards of correctness, reveal a
degree of schizophrenia in this respect. For example Charlotte Hoffman has
described the English of European learners as spanning "the whole range from
non-fluent to native-like", as though fluency in English were not a
possibility for those whose speech does not mimic that of a native speaker.

Similarly, Theo van Els pointed out in a lecture given last year in the
Netherlands that the ownership of a lingua franca transfers from its native
speakers to its non-native speakers. Yet he went on to argue paradoxically
that the Dutch should not be complacent about their English because "only
very few are able to achieve a level of proficiency that approximates the
native or native-like level".

Our second point is that it is crucial for English language teaching in
Europe to focus on contexts of use that are relevant to European speakers of
English. In particular, descriptions of spoken English offered to these
learners should not be grounded in British or American uses of English but
in ELFE or other non-native contexts (depending on where the particular
learners intend to use their English in future).

In this respect it is disappointing that so-called "authentic" materials
offered to learners continue to be based only on corpora of native speaker
use. For example, Helen Basturkmen's recent contribution to the ELT Journal
argues in favour of "highlighting general strategies of talk, and
encouraging learners to become active observers of language use in settings
relevant to them". This would be admirable were it not the conclusion to an
article in which she cites examples taken exclusively from data of native
speaker interactions. ELFE learners (along with all other learners of
English as an International Language) need descriptions drawn from
interactions between non-native speakers in the contexts in which they, too,
will later participate. To some, our proposal may seem to be a recipe for
"permissiveness" and decline in "standards". But what we are essentially
seeking to do is to carry through the implications of the fact that English
is an international language and as such no longer the preserve of its
native speakers. If English is indeed a lingua franca, then it should be
possible to describe it as such without prejudice. And that may well be the
biggest challenge for ELFE in the 21st Century.

Paul Frank
Business, financial and legal translation
>From German, French, Chinese, Italian,
Spanish and Portuguese into English
Thollon-les-Memises, France
paulfrank at post.harvard.edu

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