Frankly, dear, what do you think of English as a lingua franca?

When professionals I know and admire seem to have something against English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), I try to understand why. From their follow-up replies, I get the impression they see ELF as “narrowing the curriculum” and their own position as one of “demanding high” and “catering for students’ needs in the real world.”

I think I get it. The problem is, however, I am too in favor of “catering for students’ needs in the real world” and to an extent even “demanding high”, but that’s precisely why I subscribe to an ELF perspective. As one of such friends keep telling me, we’re polar opposites when it comes to our discourse on some controversies, but in the classroom we’re probably very much alike. And the word “opposite” is quite fitting: against the view of ELF as a narrower curriculum or a lower standard, I understand it as an expansion of the curriculum and a higher standard.

So how have we gotten here, to such different interpretations of the ELF phenomenon?

For all the academic arguments both sides of the debate have, I don’t think my position is as academic as it is experiential. You see, by the time I read about English as a Lingua Franca, I had already had the main experience that would define how I feel about it to this day. And that experience, I must admit, was a major failure of mine. I lived in Australia when I did my M.A. and I couldn’t communicate – not with Australians, who are hard to come by at the University of Melbourne to be honest with you, but rather with many of my fellow international students, most of whom were from Asian and Middle Eastern countries. I did manage to communicate rather well with some of them, I think, especially the ones from Saudi Arabia, but with others I felt I struggled.

Could it be a problem with their English language proficiency? I hear you ask. Maybe. They had, however, passed the tests they needed to, IELTS for most of them, 6.5 or above. Most universities think that is enough for a student’s life in an English-speaking country, and indeed it has been.

Plus, it takes two to tango.

Could it be a problem with my English language proficiency, then? Yes, and that’s precisely my point. Except I had just passed the CPE with flying colors and nearly aced the TOEFL. So while I understand now there was something wrong with my communicative competence in English, it probably wasn’t with the English-English I was taught and assessed on.

You see, I emulated a Standard American/sitcom kind of English. I would flap my T’s or drop them all together (“internet” became “inner-net”), muffle my vowels, and Sandhi my words together (“don’t you” became “Doncha?”). Unless I was teaching, I would speak fast, regardless of the confused looks I got, and fire away as many idioms and phrasal verbs as I could come up with (and mind, I was an insecure young professional who had just spent months practicing for the CPE – so that spells A LOT of idioms per minute). As you can probably conclude, I wouldn’t try to accommodate my interlocutor; I wouldn’t volunteer a paraphrase if they looked as though they didn’t understand; I wouldn’t simplify; I wouldn’t use an easier pronunciation for their benefit.

In short, I was a jerk.

So you can say, “We don’t need ELF. We need people not to be jerks.”

To which I reply, “Fair point.”

However, I wasn’t aware that I was being inconsiderate. To me, all I was doing was speaking English the way I was taught to, the way I was assessed handsomely on, the way I was supposed to. I never knew how to do it differently. I hadn’t been exposed to other non-native accents; I hadn’t been taught strategies to help my interlocutor (if anything, I was prepared to apologize for MY English, not to be the most competent peer); I hadn’t been sensitized to the fact that the native standard I had as reference might not be the most appropriate for every situation.

A year and a half after I came back to Brazil, I started working with Aviation English. You may not know this, but in the seemingly peaceful skies, there’s a major language policy – and all the fight that it entails. Pilots and controllers who work internationally are expected to speak English to a certain degree to communicate with one another. However, only professionals from non-native countries are required to sit a language proficiency test. Native speakers or non-native speakers who are granted their licenses in English-speaking countries are exempt. “Of course,” you may interject, “who would want to test a native speaker?”

I would. And I’m not alone. You see, the whole rationale behind the Aviation English policy is to increase safety. When it comes to aeronautical safety, honestly, I don’t care one bit where the speaker is from, I want them to communicate as safely as possible. They do, by the way, for most of the time, using a pre-set phraseology and many recommended practices. But you know all those intercultural communication strategies I wasn’t taught and sorely needed in Australia? That familiarity with and ability to understand foreign accents? Or even the sheer understanding that “native speakers” are not the owners of the language, or even if they would like to believe they are, that doesn’t matter when it’s essential that we all communicate well with one another? The idea that entitlement will get us nowhere but to a communication breakdown? Well, all that, I believe, needs to be taught to natives and non-natives alike.

To me, that is the broadening of the curriculum and the demand high of ELF. I demand so highly, that I would demand more even from “native” speakers. Of course people who weren’t brought up with the language will have to learn the basics to communicate internationally – and even way beyond the basics depending on their personal and professional aims. As I’ve said before, some people can do with a Bic; others require a MontBlanc for work. However, even if our students reach a very high proficiency in the “English-English” language, that doesn’t mean they can’t be the ones to blame in a communication failure with other less proficient speakers. Also, if our students are doing business with a less proficient English speaker and the less proficient one happens to be the client with the money, our students’ employers or balance sheets won’t be happy if we don’t teach them the ELF they need to close the deal. In fact, I find it especially hard not to advocate for an ELF approach after reading this post by Ricardo Barros with the point of view of two C1 students of his.

In short, I’m an ELF-enthusiast precisely for the reasons that make other professionals be against it. While I’ve only exemplified with proficient speakers, I believe the same rationale applies to lower levels. From the get go, we need to expose learners to different accents and teach them to negotiate and be tolerant of others as they engage in communication tasks. I don’t believe, as some say, that learning about ELF will lower the standards of the English taught in the world or in Brazil. In fact, how much evidence do we have that using native standards is doing the trick?



Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

  • Thiago Veigga
    Posted at 17:29h, 05 dezembro Responder

    Brilliant, as usual. The problem is that many people do not understand, and worse, they do not want to understand what ELF is. ELF is a very serious field, research based and driven, very much unlike the stigma that has been unfairly associated with us. ELF is not about the dumbing-down of the English language, far from that, as you elegantly put it.

    • Natália Guerreiro
      Natália Guerreiro
      Posted at 20:16h, 05 dezembro Responder

      Thank you for sharing the article with such kind words. I’m not sure people refuse to understand. Maybe they do understand it, but disagree. To an extent I agree with them, however: ELF is research-driven, but it’s research about language use. There’s very little in the way of ELF research in terms of teaching (at least that I’ve seen), so they may be right in being cautious. On the other hand, ELF and translanguaging uprooted my whole concept of what language is, so…

  • Bri
    Posted at 06:48h, 06 dezembro Responder

    Looking forward to translanguaging asap. I love the idea of mixing it up. But people have been doing that for years! Gr8 topic. Obrigada.

  • Tyrone Bishop
    Posted at 15:07h, 06 dezembro Responder

    Good work Natália, native speakers are not the owners of the language (custodians maybe? another point of debate perhaps), many of them (us) behave as though they are. For some reason they seem to be really protective about it and this is reflected in the way some of this communication takes place. There are certain (or ‘a’ certain) part of the world, which will remain nameless, for now, who are the worst offenders. Communication is a 50/50 affair, it doesn’t matter where one is from or how proficient one is in the English language, it is incumbent on both sides to find a level playing field and seek the goal of successful communication.

  • Mike Casey
    Posted at 13:09h, 10 março Responder

    It seems to me that most ex-students and plenty of students of English use the line “I wasn’t taught to do X”. I never stop asking those people why they think the English teacher and the English classroom should be fully responsible for the students development in learning a language. Maybe 50 years ago, I could understand the complaint, but not now, in a connected world.
    ELF research and conclusions, especially in its third stage of inquiry (Jenkins’ ELF 3), is useful in reminding us that we need to keep an open mind when communicating with others, be they native model speakers of English or whatever, be they academics or not, be they people with shared similects or not. It’s common sense and cooperative manners, Most people know that and are good at it, naturally.
    Those who don’t know how, for whatever reason, could be helped by the right ELF-aware pedagogy, but there are millions who would find ELF-awareness classes tedious, a bore, a case of stating the obvious, and maybe patronising. But mostly, those who come with anecdotes about their previous ignorance toward intercultural, multi-linguistic communication should stop blaming their past teachers and should begin asking why they, as students, didn’t look at English contexts beyond the classroom. Or do we really think that all the “ELFers” who are studied by Applied Linguists had to be taught to adapt to each communicative context, situation, moment, genre, etc.?

    • Natália Guerreiro
      Natália Guerreiro
      Posted at 15:12h, 21 maio Responder

      Hi, Mike. Thank you for your comment. I should add that I wasn’t blaming my past teachers, who like I said, got me to a very high level of proficiency in the understanding of the time, a time, might I add, when the internet and cable TV wasn’t common and English was indeed only a foreign language in Brazil. I was describing a previous mindset of language teaching and learning and how that didn’t match how I ended up using the language. I had to teach myself multicultural skills, much like the ELF users Applied Linguistics describe (even if I haven’t been able to do so as competently). I’d like to see, however, research on how an ELF-aware classroom could be condescending and boring to ELF users/learners. To me it makes sense to teach them within the same context(s) in which they will use the language.

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