English as a Lingua FrancaIn an emerging and important area in the field of applied linguistics, this is one of the key texts.
If I told you that the number of non-native English speakers worldwide outnumber native speakers I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised. You may, yourself, be a teacher of English who speaks a different mother tongue- the vast majority of English teachers across the world are. Most transactions in English now involve no native speakers at all. Why then, asks Jennifer Jenkins, do we persist in demanding that all English speakers meet standards based on native speaker norms?
Jenkins’ previous book (part of the consistently worthwhile ‘Oxford Applied Linguistics’ collection) addressed ‘English as an International Language’ (EIL) from a background in phonology, and through research she developed a ‘Lingua Franca Core’ (LFC) of phonological features as a basis for international communication. Some of these features might be considered errors by native speakers but, she argued, if mutual intelligibility is the primary focus, native speaker varieties may not always be a realistic (or even desirable) target. An alternative ‘English as Lingua Franca’ (ELF) is something we ought to understand and recognise in the modern world. This latest book touches on lexico-grammatical differences in places, but the main focus remains on pronunciation.
Developing this theme in this book, Jenkins starts off on the attack. The first chapter answers the critics who have, she claims, deliberately misunderstood her ideas. It is a very entertaining read; Jenkins knows how to write and doesn’t take any prisoners. This is not gratuitous, either- some of the objections to her earlier work are shown up as silly, misguided and / or loaded with cultural prejudices, and need taking down. Jenkins’ key argument is that ‘as far as ELF is concerned, so-called “errors” should be considered legitimate features of the speaker’s regional (NNS) accent, thus putting NNS accents on an equal footing with regional NS accents’ (p. 23). We must start from the position that there is no single ‘Native Speaker Standard’ pronunciation. If that is accepted, then it appears that preferences for certain accents over others may be driven by issues of identity, power, culture and discrimination rather than linguistics.
The second chapter, however, highlights a weakness of the book. Jenkins examines standard language ideology through a review of literature in linguistics and a survey of three widely read publications for classroom practitioners. Whilst I am broadly sympathetic to Jenkins’ ideas, and think her findings are, in the main, valid, in this chapter it may be said that she allows her personal attitudes to colour the research. Indeed, she alludes to this possibility herself (p.47).
The three publications surveyed are EL Gazette, Guardian Weekly ‘Learning English’ and IATEFL Issues, and Jenkins looks at who is writing, what is recorded and what is omitted. I’ll give two examples of inferences which I feel stretch the point. The first is the objection to the number of advertisements by ‘NS’ exam boards, with none for ‘NNS’ tests of English. My immediate thought was that this was perfectly natural for international publications (why would a Frenchman be interested in a test administered only in Japan?) and Jenkins, fourteen pages later in a footnote, admits that it would be strange for local exam boards to advertise in such widely distributed journals. The second example is the attempt to categorise teaching methodologies as NS and NNS. Leaving aside the fact that the categorisation itself is never clearly defined, the throwaway comment that ‘Other articles focus specifically on NS teaching methods such as task-based learning…’ at least deserves some elaboration. Where do Prabhu and his colleagues on the Bangalore project, central to the development of Task Based Learning, fit into this taxonomy?
Things like this are a shame, because quibbles such as these detract from what, in general, are very serious points. Flicking through a few journals, magazines and newsletters in my office I can see that, although NNS are included, the regular columnists are usually NS – perhaps perpetuating the ‘NS as expert’ view that Jenkins takes exception to. Her comment that ‘NNS English countries emerge as places where NSs of English go to teach, NS countries as places that NNSs go to learn, and where experts and authoritative publications originate’ (p. 58) certainly deserves further analysis.
Chapter three focuses on language attitudes, and gives some background into accent research – there are hierarchies in place even within NS Englishes, and there are correlations between perceived intelligibility and accent status with clear implications for ELF. According to Jenkins, research shows that intelligibility tends to be a one way street (that lower status accent speakers understand higher status accent speakers, but not vice versa). Do we ‘choose’ what we understand based on our own prejudices? This theme continues in chapter six, in which Jenkins report on her own research into attitudes towards accents with a cohort of (mostly) NNS teachers. Without listening to samples, participants tended to grade NS accents as ‘best’, ‘most correct’ or ‘pleasant’ in comparison with NNS accents, even their own. The general trend was also to grade Northern European accents very favourably in comparison to Asian accents – it would be simplistic to cry ‘racism’, but Jenkins is probably fair in her allusions towards the possibility.
One problem that this study brings to the fore, and it is never clearly addressed throughout the book, is exactly what defines a proficient NNS of English. Clearly, Jenkins is NOT saying that anything goes and there is no such thing as an error. Research is still in its early stages, and with the LFC Jenkins has laid out a helpful starting position (and she never claims it is any more than a starting position). But further explorations of the line between ‘interlanguage’ and accent, between a mistake and an identity choice, would have benefitted the book as a whole.
I am also ambivalent about NNS attitudes towards their own accents. Most, although teachers and proficient (that word again…) users, appeared to be ambivalent themselves, switching between pride in their own identity as expressed in their NNS English, aspirational efforts to learn ‘proper’ NS English, and external pressure to do the same. It would be patronising to assume that NNS’s only aim at NS norms because they have been brain-washed to do so, but it may also be accurate. Where does this leave me as a NS and as a teacher?
This is the question that encapsulates the book. It makes for uncomfortable reading in places, and Jenkins is not offering any glib answers. Perhaps that is one of the reasons her ideas have drawn such vitriolic criticism – the issue is an emotive one, and it would be so much easier if there were one correct English we all spoke. But there isn’t, so let’s deal with it.
In an emerging and important area in the field of applied linguistics, this is one of the key texts. That is not to say it is without flaws, but if you have any interest at all in the future of English and English education it is essential reading.
November 2009 | Filed under Teaching
Darren Elliott, Nanzan University, Nagoya