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English as a Lingua Franca

In an emerging and important area in the field of applied linguistics, this is one of the key texts.
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Darren Elliott
English as a Lingua Franca

English as a Lingua Franca

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.

Reviewed for TEFL.net by Darren Elliott
November 2009 | Filed under Teaching
Darren Elliott, Nanzan University, Nagoya

10 Comments on “English as a Lingua Franca”

  1. Carey Thomas Campbell Says:

    Mmm… I’m not sold. Let me explain.

    Without having read the book, I think it is fair to point out that accurate pronunciation is only one key to mutual understanding using English as a second/international language. Perhaps an even deeper carrier of meaning, and a more common barrier to mutual understandability, is the prosody — the rhythm and music of a language. This is especially true during conversation but it also forms what people perceive as good writing as well. Further, for better or worse (I think for the better), it is a key concept for evaluating the debates mentioned in this review. Without it’s mention I can’t agree that this book’s audience is as general as concluded here.

    Can the reviewer, or anyone who has read the book, comment on this?

  2. Robert Baird Says:

    This long (sorry!) comment addresses a few points that I felt needed expanding beyond such a short review, and may have led to the previous commenter’s confusion. It also addresses Carey’s (if I may use your first name?) comments. I am writing in support of ELF and its application to ELT as a researcher and English teacher, in case there’s any confusion!

    ELF is conceptualised as transnational English in use – it is fluid, changeable, strategically negotiated and not fixed to the norms of a particular region or people. The fact that Native English speakers are generally found to be less intelligible than ‘competent’ second language speakers in English communication among interlocutors of different first language backgrounds should do away with any arguments of intelligibility. Jenkins doesn’t limit her argument to pronunciation, nor does any other ELF theorist, and I think Carey’s comment shows how her ideas, when reviewed, can seem reduced to such. Researchers study many aspects of interaction that achieve intercultural communicative success through ELF. There have been studies on various prosodic features of ELF interaction (mentioned in the book), as well as many other areas (lexicogrammar, turn taking, code switching, vocabulary adaptation to name but a few).

    We all have what we think of as superior or richer features of our language variety; that’s primarily because we’ve embedded it in our social discourses and adapted it to meet our needs, confirm our social positions and express our identities in complex ways. Also, let’s not overlook issues of ownership and the ‘othering’ of people who speak ‘differently’ to the social group to which we belong. Languages change when speakers and their contexts change (first language(s), locations, purposes, goals etc.), and they don’t lose intelligibility or logic when they do so. Languages, dialects and varieties meet the communicative needs of their speakers. For USERS of a language, even if it is seen as hybrid and changeable, to be measured against a particular region’s constructed norms is both unnatural and unethical (it is linguistic imperialism to deny others a voice through a common but heavily mediated “international” language). Having such a theoretical foundation is not unusual in scholarship or almost any other form of writing, and I’m not sure that saying the author’s “personal attitudes (may) colour the research” is necessarily a weakness, it just affects how the reader should engage with it (which she says… so what’s the problem?). And why is this her “personal attitudes” rather than “professional beliefs” or “theoretical standpoint”. It seems a choice of words with amateurish connotations, especially for such an esteemed scholar in the field.

    English teaching is a more often than not a balancing act between our knowledge of language learning and the students’ requirements and desires – and it’s necessary for English teachers to understand how the language works around the world… or in the case of ELF, how it is already working in various contexts around the world. I am convinced that, as an English teacher, this issue is something that should not be controversial or jarring anymore. What we should be asking is: How do we apply concern for the way English is used and taught? How do we (if not we, then who?) decide on the language, goals and practices that are pragmatically beneficial for our students vs. language, goals and practices that are unnecessary or inappropriate for their needs and identities?

    A final point that’s of particular interest to me is consideration of the implications for writing (in reference to the comment “…forms what people perceive as good writing as well”). Writers with varieties of English that were seen as divergent or undesirable have been among the great pioneers of English literature, diversifying written discourses and with them our conceptions of what ‘good’ written English is. It is important to remember that the way writing is interpreted, and in turn produced, is always culture-specific and develops over time through the complex interplay between various processes and agents. Unilaterally ‘good’ writing that can cross borders, genres, timescales and discourses simply does not exist. As writers and readers, along with their language background and contexts, constantly change, so to does writing. There are astounding changes happening to the demographics of English around the world, exemplified by China becoming the largest market for English language printed materials. This trend will continue as long as English continues to be crucial for mass publication, international business and scholarship – and this makes areas like ELF and related fields relevant to the TEFL profession, as we need to have understanding of language to be ‘experts’ and begin to address how best to react to these changes.

  3. Brian Barker Says:

    I think that the whole world needs a modern lingua franca, as well :)

    My vote goes to the planned language, Esperanto. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Your readers may be interested in the following video which can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator for the United Nations in Geneva

    A glimpse of the Esperanto language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  4. Darren Elliott Says:

    Sorry it’s such a short review Robert… I could have easily written twice as much but this is already twice the length of the average TEFL.net review. Your response was quite fair and well-argued, and I take your point about the choice of terms – it would have been preferable to refer to professional rather than personal beliefs. I am a great admirer of Professor Jenkins’ work (her earlier book on the phonology of English as an International Language made a huge impression on me when I was studying for my MA). However, I still feel that, even with full disclosure, some of the conclusions reached in chapter two were either misleading or underexplored. I was already suspicious of the intention to catergorise teaching methodologies as native or non-native, but I could have been persuaded had the author explained how such catergorisation had been decided. None was forthcoming. There are other inferences which don’t stand up to scrutiny – the British Council’s comment that “if you go over a certain size, quality is called into question” (p. 52)seems to be a reasonable one, one which could be levelled at the BC itself. But is it an attack on Indian teachers of English? It’s possible, but a stretch.

    I am aware that there is work in ELF research beyond phonology, some of which is referred to in this book, but the focus (as I read it) was on the phonological.

    Robert, I do appreciate your comments and I think we are generally in agreement. My overwhelming impression of the book was a positive one – I am very glad to have read it and I look forward to learning more about this facsinating topic. Certainly, if there were a fence I know which side I would be standing on. I know, too, that as one of Professor Jenkins’ doctoral students, you have the inside edge on me! Please pass on my regards and I hope she isn’t too put out by the criticism ; D

  5. Robert Baird Says:

    Hi Darren. Let me begin by apologising if you feel that I was attacking your review. Far from it; I got the feeling that you supported the idea and were upholding a concept that has been received in TEFL circles with a lukewarm reception!

    My intention was to emphasise the theory and implications of ELF research that gets missed (necessarily) in a review. Your job as a reviewer is to offer a somewhat neutral summary of the content of the entire book, which I felt needed more elaboration for those reading these ideas for the first time – as was evident from the Carey’s reaction (which is a common point of disagreement – but it hopefully with some insight we can win Carey’s agreement, and if not, disagreement but for applicable reasons).

    I was quick to pick up on the wording issue because it is common for various areas of Sociolinguistics to be framed as attitudinal and controversial, which can give a reader the impression that it is an idea that can be submitted to uninformed scrutiny and/or dismissal. As an additional point, the ‘personal caveat’ is something all researchers ought to do – to recognise ways in which their beliefs, backgrounds and approaches could influence the results, analysis and applications of the research. Not to state that is bad practice, as I’m sure you’re aware through experience!

    As for your point about the British Council in India, I’d say that the BC’s comment seems loaded to me – “seems” being a word used by Jenkins – but I can see that it isn’t a conclusion that one arrives at without a jump (or perhaps a leap for you)! Despite being a brand in a ‘free’ market, it’s important to recognise that the BC also carries a strong national and institutional message, a message that should show respect for Indian English (which is a codified and institutionalised language variety) and local teaching settings (especially in a former colony). Their comments *seemed* to say “take on the number of students that the school system does in India, and you’ll get a lower standard of English.” For a comparison, could you imagine a similar point being made about the number of BC schools in Britain? VERY doubtful. That’s my view on a debatable point, but I am happy for others to disagree – debate over these issues is, as you say, long overdue.

    As for teaching methodologies, I agree with you that there is a great danger in labelling things as ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ without fully justifying your position. Perhaps there are a few points that need to be made more clearly to avoid ambiguity. If we changed the terminology from ‘NS’ / ‘NNS’ methodology to ‘institutionally accepted Western ELT methods’ (communicative language teaching etc.) vs. ‘other methods that are not popularised by TEFL organisations, but which are still practiced by many non-native teachers in local settings,’ we could then see that valid teaching methods which value the multilingual abilities of non-native teachers (NNTs) are denigrated by the dominance Western ELT. An example of this is the widely perceived benefits of English-only classrooms (a myth which is, incidentally, supported by no research whatsoever – with plenty of ignored evidence to the contrary). Contrary to many beliefs and claims, these Western methodologies appear to have developed, to a large extent, from the need for monolingual NSTs to develop pedagogical practices around their linguistic inabilities, not through the linguistic needs of their learners. That’s not to deride the creation of these pedagogies – teaching methodology has developed greatly over the years – rather, it is their universal application and promotion, and the negative effects that result in local learning contexts (among teachers, learners and policy makers), that is the problem.

    Anyway, I though it was a good review – my supervisor was far from unhappy with it too! I hope these issues have been brought to light for some teachers and opened it up to further, more informed, debate. I’m sure I would be forgiven for saying this book is not perfect (and despite what I said before, ELF’s implications are controversial and hotly debated), and it’s good to see points of contention and doubt brought to light alongside your generally positive points. I hope you don’t mind my paragraphs of waffle or take them as criticism!!!

    As for Brian’s comment on Esperanto, I think that the whole idea misses the nature of a language and is absolutely riddled with problems over its implementation. It would be nice to have a neutral lingua franca though (not that Esperanto would necessarily end up being as neutral as planned)!

  6. the lives of teachers » Blog Archive » an interview with jennifer jenkins (podcast) Says:

    […] is a review (mine!) of her 2007 book ‘English as Lingua Franca: Attitude and […]

  7. Charles Jannuzi Says:

    One issue is that there are advanced users of English who use the language to move across many different cultures, including ones where English is a dominant language. However, these sorts of observations can not be generalized to the many learners of English who never get to use the English outside of class.

    Take for example the case of Japan. If it weren’t for the thousands of native speakers of English hired to teach English here, many–perhaps most–of the Japanese learners of English would never have a chance to communicate in English with anyone. Little wonder then that the ‘native speaker’ becomes a model for pronunciation–so many students have never heard their Japanese teacher speak any English communicatively (only reading out loud vocabulary items). Another issue is the opposite side of this: many–perhaps most–Japanese teachers of English do not feel confident enough to serve as pronunciation models for Japanese learners of English. They say this and follow up with the complaint that they have never been taught how to teach pronunciation anyway.

    I think such topics are really very interesting–we are dealing with complex sociolinguistic realities, such as English being used as a lingua franca all over the world. But analyzing a few exchanges amongst 30 advanced learners of English (on a teacher trainer’s course) is hardly going to give one the empirical basis for making sweeping claims.

    Jenkins seems to be verging on privileged criticism along the lines of all those who gave us the ‘linguistic imperialism’ and ‘linguicism’ concepts–all argument, much of it for a good but very limited cause, done from privileged high horses–and none of it backed up with very clear conceptualization or extensive empirical data.

  8. Charles Jannuzi Says:

    RB writes above:>>The fact that Native English speakers are generally found to be less intelligible than ‘competent’ second language speakers in English communication among interlocutors of different first language backgrounds should do away with any arguments of intelligibility. <<

    I question that assertion. If you select native English speakers who have experience communicating across cultures, you will see that they neutralize their English to make it more intelligible. Moreover, if a second or foreign language speaker of English attempts to use English with a group of the same linguistic and cultural background, they may well be linguistically rejected for not speaking their own language. Another weak aspect of the proposition is the term 'competent'. I know people who are considered competent in English, but they have no idea how to use it, for example, to teach English in an EFL classroom. I see this again and again in Japan, where these teachers revert to Japanese for ease of communication. This is complex because it could also be the learners are rejecting this Japanese person's use of English. However, it could also be because the learners have got used to an English native speaker using teacherese, motherese, highly neutralized, simplifed English, and the Japanese teachers of English hasn't figured out how to deal with both issues.

  9. Robert Baird Says:

    Sorry to have missed the last few comments, I hope you check back Charles.

    RESEARCH shows the problems of intelligibility – relating largely to identity, (lack of) accommodation, (lack of) multicultural/intercultural competence and such – for native speakers. Of course SOME native speakers are good intercultural communicators and become bi/multilingual in their teaching contexts (assuming they weren’t before). ELF research looks into and problematises the notion of the perceived ‘native speaker’ in interaction. It is, however, a common position that’s perceived by speakers (native and not) and which seems to affect self/other perceptions, and therefore language use, in communication. So saying native speakers are among the most unintelligible (which is what I said and what research in the area supports) is different from saying ALL native speakers are less intelligible (which is something nobody says – and nor did I).

    “If it wasn’t for the NSs here, the Japanese learners wouldn’t have anybody to communicate with (paraphrased)” – The thousands of NSs is a reality that exists because of the perception of native speakers, not a reason for their presence! If they weren’t there, others would be (look at the diversity of English teachers in China, for instance). And if you’re suggesting only native speakers could provide such genuine interaction, then look to France, Germany, Indonesia, China, etc etc to question who they (the many very good speakers of English) communicate with?

    “Little wonder that the native speaker becomes a model for pronunciation” … This is NO reason for NS models!!! As a supposed multicultural NS who can “neutralise” your language, why do you need to demand that your English is the model? That, if anything, seems to contradict your position of being a successful intercultural communicator (once again, successful intercultural communication is about aligning linguacultures, orientations and accommodation – central to it is understanding how your own linguistic/cultural norms affect communication and positionings as well as understanding the culture of language user with whom you’re engaging). Surely a bit of awareness of English, and a pinch of knowledge about the way language works, would allow teachers to make an educated and inclusive step in the right direction. As you point out, you don’t need to speak like a native to be intelligible, in fact if you stick to one culture’s linguistic norms, it can only harm communication in intercultural communicative instances. It would be highly unnatural, and it would suggest cultural accommodation / assimilation rather than good language use, if a Japanese person were to speak like a British or American! That’s the point.

    The other point is that “1000s of native speakers” have taught in Japan for ages – and there is still such a thing as a Japanese accent for the same reason as there’s a German, French, Scottish or Welsh accent! ELF research is about how cooperative intercultural communication can exist between accents, as well as lexical, pragmatic and grammatical choices… it’s about how language works and IS WORKING in practice despite, not because of, NS (and many NNS) teachers’ efforts!

    The problem is that the 1000s of NS teachers, and institutions that employ them, don’t have awareness of, or know how to teach, English in any other way. I’ll admit it’s confusing – the way people use language is personal and they will always be judged by others on their language, but continuing ignorantly amidst the kind of research in ELF, intercultural communication, (new) literacy studies, English as an International Language, global Englishes and World Englishes is just plain… ignorant (as a supposed English expert)! Teachers who teach business should know how people use English for business internationally. People who teach academic English should be aware that this isn’t IELTS – they should look at what’s expected and accepted these days in international institutions. It’s critical ESP if you like – and the ‘specific purpose’ isn’t generally to sound like American, British or Australian people! I hope that’s expressed our position more clearly.

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