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Some thoughts on ELF

Our next post in Business English month comes from Paul Emmerson. Paul is a writer, teacher, teacher-trainer and presenter working in the field of Business English. He runs his own website, which offers free resources to busy teachers. Here he looks at the interesting (and slightly controversial) topic of English as a Lingua Franca, commonly referred to by the charming name of ELF.


At the recent IATEFL conference in Brighton I went to a presentation on intercultural competence by a German intercultural trainer. He referred to ELF (English as a Lingua Franca), and took it for granted that ELF would be a big part of intercultural competence in the future. His example of ELF was the word protocol, which he explained would be understood easily all over Europe with its non-native-speaker meaning of ‘the minutes of a meeting’. Native speakers are stuck here unless they know and use ELF, because they only know the native speaker meaning(s).

This set me thinking. What he was really saying was that the word protocol was a false friend, and the same false friend, between English and other European language groups (Romance, Germanic, Slavic). If there is indeed an ELF lexicon, then we would expect there to be lots of other examples, not just protocol. OK … let’s think. The first example that comes to mind is actually (all European language groups would understand this as ‘nowadays’, and native speakers wouldn’t). That’s easy – we meet it in class every week. Can we think of some more? Wearing my Business English hat I can think of: active/passive (for assets and liabilities), concurrents (for competitors), participation (for shares) and … not much else. Mmm, a half dozen words don’t make an ELF. And a Turk or Korean or Indonesian wouldn’t understand the European false friends – they would need the native speaker word.

So what’s going on in the ELF debate? A lot of confusion, I think. Supporters of ELF usually make two related arguments: a geographical/political one, and a global communication one. The first is that English has spread way beyond its colonial heartland and is now spoken by all sorts of people in the ex-colonies and other countries who have just as much right to own it as the native speakers do. But the issue here is surely social class and regional accent, not geographical location and colonial master/servant relationship. Middle class doctors or lawyers or politicians from any region of Canada, Pakistan or Singapore can generally communicate easily and freely between themselves. Working class people from Newcastle, Texas and Delhi generally cannot. The second argument – about global communication – is that most conversations in English in the world are non-native to non-native. True, but no argument for ELF there. In fact, this could be used as a very strong argument for teaching native speaker English as the unifying glue that holds all the disparate non-native Englishes together. Turkish speakers will be heavily influenced by their L1, Japanese speakers by theirs, Italian speakers by theirs. What better than a common reference point to help them all communicate together?

So, as Michael Swan has pointed out in a recent video interview (13:30), ELF confuses a situation (that English is spoken widely by non-natives to non-natives all over the world) with a language (which has a lexicon, grammar and phonology). Where does that leave us? Back to authentic native speaker English as the model to teach and learn? Not so fast. ELF’ers are absolutely right that we should not focus our limited time and effort on culturally-bound lexis (such as explaining clever Economist headlines that have double-meanings based on quotes from Shakespeare), or on minor grammar mistakes that no-one notices or minds, or on insisting that students aim for native speaker pronunciation when the L1 influenced variety is perfectly comprehensible. But these arguments are non-controversial, certainly in the Business English world, and pre-date the ELF debate. For example, the Cambridge ESOL BEC suite of exams (the Business English equivalent of First Certificate etc) has since its inception in 1993 explicitly stated that accuracy of meaning will count more than accuracy of grammar in the marking criteria. And I agree with that.

The beginning of this piece argued that there isn’t an ELF, at least while there is only a European ELF based on a half dozen words. And the last paragraph pointed out the wasted time and effort in teaching pure native-speaker English. So what kind of English should we teach? Actually, you’ll see it all around you. It’s the graded language that experienced teachers (native and non-native) use with their students every day of their lives. And it’s the graded language of coursebooks (certainly most Business English coursebooks) where the writing and editorial process has weeded out the low-frequency native-speakerisms to focus on what is useful and worth learning for international communication. We’re already teaching the right stuff in fact.

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Paul Emmerson

1 Comment

  • I think successful Business English course books tend to focus on language at sentence rather than discourse level. There are all kinds of good reasons for that, but it means we have traditionally taken a somewhat narrow view of things. Some of the things that are emerging from the ELF corpus research (and other workplace discourse studies) have received scant attention in business English course books. Some examples in ELF terms would be ways in which ELF users accommodate to one another, ways they code switch and the ways they use metaphors and idiom. I would like to see more attention paid to these things in the future as they seem to be pretty important skills.
    So while I find the body of this interesting and sensible, I can’t agree with the conclusion that we’re teaching the right stuff. I don’t want to throw babies out with bath water, but times change. I think it would be foolish to ignore the knowledge we’re gaining from ELF corpus studies and think that means we need to be adding new stuff to the old stuff rather than doing the same old, same old… But it’s also quite possible that I have misunderstood something here.

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