Adam Kilgarriff’s recent blog sparked a lot of comments – not only on our site but elsewhere too. This comes as no surprise: the use of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is an issue that tends to generate controversy. In this sense, it reminds me of what some Brits now call ‘elf and safety’. This is a disparaging way of referring to Health and Safety legislation – the body of regulations designed to ensure we are not subjected to unnecessary dangers in our place of work or study. Most of us would agree that people working in mines or on construction sites, for example, shouldn’t be at risk of death because their employers refuse to spend money on basic safety measures. But minimizing risk can be taken too far, and the UK press regularly features articles (many based on anecdotal evidence rather than hard facts) about schools banning children from throwing paper planes (in case someone gets injured) or a local council deciding that its famous palm trees represent a danger to visitors. In other words, there are benign and ‘extreme’ versions of Health and Safety – and the same could be true of ELF.
The positive aspect is a recognition that people whose mother tongue is English don’t have any special rights over what is now an international language, and that non-native speakers shouldn’t be seen as somehow ‘defective’ native speakers. Most interactions in English take place between people whose first language is not English, and in these circumstances effective communication is more important than any notions of ‘correctness’. Equally, when native speakers interact with non-natives, it’s a good idea for them to avoid highly idiomatic language and obscure cultural allusions, and aim for semantic transparency. This just seems like common sense.
But some would go further. A group of researchers which includes Jennifer Jenkins and Barbara Seidlhofer proposes that certain features commonly found in the language of non-native speakers should be accepted as ELF norms. These include the omission of articles in some cases (the most important development since [the] discovery of penicillin) and the dropping of final –s in the 3rd person simple present (it taste very nice). In the ‘extreme’ version of ELF, the native speaker not only has no privileged status (fair enough) but is actually expected to conform to these norms. To quote Jenkins:
As far as ELF interactions are concerned, any participating mother tongue speakers will have to follow the agenda set by ELF speakers*
This approach may underestimate the desire of many English users to achieve (or at least aspire to) native-like competence. As a contributor to the Language Log says:
My experience as an English teacher here in Catalonia for 20 years has been that no one wants to speak ELF. People use it … but they certainly wouldn’t want me teaching it to them. There may be people whose goal is learning ELF, but so far I haven’t met any.
In reality, there is huge diversity – in pronunciation, phraseology, and grammar – in the ways in which people use English. For most of this year our blog has been celebrating this diversity, and all users of English (mother tongue or otherwise) need to be equipped to deal with it. But the idea of standardizing a colourless, simplified version of the language strikes me as strangely unambitious.
‘Current perspectives on teaching World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca’, TESOL Quarterly 2006.161