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?



Of work and idioms

What does it mean to communicate? Part II – Montblancs vs. Bics

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.

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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.

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