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Just revising for the exam, and know I won’t remember much. Mark had a funny acronym for this condition: CRS, can’t remember shit. Yesterday I learned quite a lot because my concentration was up, so I got some connections that I’d missed before. But this morning, I’m having trouble remembering my middle name.

This was probably my favorite essay question, one I knew was relevant from our MELTA 20th anniversary party with David Graddol, Vicki Hollett, Evan Frendo and Mark Powell’s plenary at BESIG, and one I could relate to my current experience. Evan organized a professional development session for ELTABB on the topic, which I unfortunately missed:

Essay question:

  1. Briefly outline your understanding of the term “a variety of English”.
  2. With reference to your reading on English as an international language (EIL), discuss the advantages and disadvantages of teaching a “standard” variety of English.

The variety and varieties of English

a. English is the world’s lingua franca, and we generally speak of the language in the singular. But in fact English is a vast complex of different varieties, or dissimilar versions of the language spoken by different groups. They range from local dialects such as the non-rhotic Boston accent, to international standards like BBC English, and include mixed-language varieties like Hinglish. The most influential model of the spread of English is Braj Kachru’s model of World Englishes, which he described in three concentric circles: The Inner Circle, where English is a native language (L1), the Outer Circle, where it is a second language, spread by British colonization and now used in government, law and education (L2, e.g. India, Nigeria), and the Expanding Circle, where it is a foreign language in increasingly widespread use.

Sandra Lee McKay (2002) lays out that English has become an international language in four ways:

  1. It is used as a language of wider communication internationally (global sense) and in multicultural societies (local sense).
  2. The use of English is no longer connected to the culture of the Inner Circle countries.
  3. It is embedded in the culture of the countries where it is used.
  4. Its primary function is to enable users of the language to communicate with each other.

A quarter of the world now speaks English, but the largest group is non-native speakers (NNS), who outnumber native speakers (NS) 3:1. (David Crystal 2003)
There have been initiatives to create simplified varieties (Simple English, Globish) to facilitate communication on a global scale, but NNSs appear to be able to create their own lingua franca without outside guidance. In the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE), Barbara Seidlhofer has recorded some 1,250 speakers of 50 different L1s, mostly with European backgrounds, using English with each other. Her findings show that, with few NSs present to provide impulses for (self-)correction, NNSs frequently or consistently:

  • drop the -s in the present simple third person (she go)
  • leave out or add definite and indefinite articles (I enjoy the nature. She is secretary.)
  • add prepositions (We discussed about the trip)
  • rely on selected general verbs (do, have, make…)
  • use an all-purpose question tag (isn’t it?)
  • use that clauses (She want that they go on a trip)
  • do not distinguish between relative pronouns (who vs. which)
  • avoid idioms
  • do not distinguish between /θ/ and /ð/ and substitute other consonants (/s/ /z/ /d/)
  • avoid weak forms and other aspects of connected speech

As this non-standard use does not impede meaningful communication, Jennifer Jenkins suggests we should stop thinking that ELF is simply “Learner English” (Swan/ Smith 2001), a step on the way to EFL proficiency, and acknowledge it as an emergent variety. This raises the question: If ELF is a useful variety of English, is it worth teaching?

2. Before weighing the advantages or disadvantages of teaching a “standard” variety of English, I’d like to look at what the various standard and non-standard varieties of English represent to those involved in English language teaching and learning.

First of all, standards are set with a purpose in mind. The Queen’s or King’s English, institutionalized by a British minority and described by Henry Cecil Wyld some 100 years ago at the height of British colonialism as Received Standard (later Received Pronunciation (RP), BBC English), has traditionally been considered “good English”, providing the international standard in ELT. After WWII, it was challenged in the US, leading to the establishment of a double standard, American Standard English in the USA, and British Standard English elsewhere. As the written standard, it continues to assure reliable communications, playing an immensely important role e.g. for translations in the European Union.

Spoken English, however, is different. Standard English can be pronounced using a variety of accents, but RP is unique, spoken by only a tiny minority associated with class and power. While it is the institutionalized pronunciation target in many parts of the world, providing NNSs with a reliable benchmark, NSs may use it in jest to parody the upper crust. In the Internet age, a wide range of pronunciation models are available to learners, who can train their listening comprehension and select a model spoken by the population they are most likely to deal with.

The teacher’s national variety generally plays some role in which standards a learner is exposed to. Webster’s Dictionary in 1828 famously gave America a sense of national identity, and other countries have also created their national standards. But contrast that narrow view of language as something that a nation can own, with an approach that looks for similarities in worldwide speech patterns, comparing rhythm (stress-timing vs. syllable timing) and rhoticity, as described by McArthur (2001). Based on their L1s, learners may find it easier to acquire one standard over another. For instance, most NS of English use stress-timing, while most of the languages in India, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean are highly syllable-timed, which carries over when they speak English. This explains why they must put so much effort into acquiring a standard accent, and why speakers of English with Asian L1s are mutually intelligible, but very difficult to understand to unpracticed NS ears.

Home-grown, regional/ local, ethnic, socially-based dialects, like Boston English or Estuary English, are essential to the cultural identity of a given group, and are everywhere in popular culture. To young EFL learners, hits songs and “memes” are often the most engaging areas and can create a bond between people from widely ranging cultures. On the other hand, NS know the dialects to be “non-standard”, and when they would be inappropriate or most effective. These cultural aspects of language in use are highly relevant when learners are planning to spend time in that particular country or area.

However, with the exception of internationally recognizable “memes”, dialects are unhelpful for English as an international language (EIL). As a Japanese executive complained: “Dear English speakers: please drop the dialects.” (McArthur).

There seem to be two main perspectives on English as a lingua franca (ELF). One prioritizes standards. David Graddol’s summarizes: “The use of English as a global lingua franca requires intelligibility and the setting and maintaining of standards.” (Graddol 1996) By contrast, widespread, non-standard varieties such as European English (handy, beamer) prioritize ownership and agency. Phonology professor Jennifer Jenkins asks why one variety of English should be more legitimate than another. Instead, she suggests a “Lingua Franca Core” containing phonological elements that she has found speakers of any L1 need when they speak English with a NNS with another L1. The core includes some of the aspects noted by Seidelhofer, and Robin Walker (2010) has provided a set of pronunciation targets to prioritize for speakers of different L1s, based on the core.

As some of my classes are multilingual, and all of my learners deal with a wide range of other non-native speakers, this approach holds much appeal. The Lingua Franca core benchmarks can promote mutual intelligibility. As learners aspire to different standards at different times and for different purposes, it would be wrong, however, to make the Lingua Franca Core the “new standard of English”. There are core areas, weak forms and connected speech, which learners very much do need to be able to understand. In this media age they should to be able to interpret far more sounds than they can speak.

Alan Firth (2009) (thank you, Evan!) highlights the “multicompetencies” that emerge in interaction between speakers of different L1 speakers aiming to achieve an outcome, which he calls “the lingua franca factor”. This is what allows interactors to produce discourse, including strategies like “letting it pass”, and “making it normal” that level the playing field between the people communicating with each other. In business exchanges there is often a concrete need to have an exchange reach an outcome, which provides enough motivation to work towards understanding each other.

I feel the most important aspect of the discussion is the concept of ownership, which gives priority to negotiating meaning over defending form. Developing effective discourse strategies to achieve an outcome is an essential communication skill in any language. This priority is also born out by Ehrenreich’s (2010) study of a German multinational company, where Business English is used as a Lingua Franca (BELF) (again, thank you Evan!). Ehrenreich focuses on the need to improve effective communication (rather than English as such) and suggests that learning might better take place in “communities of practice” and through “learning by doing” rather than traditional English instruction. Her research showed that English proficiency was required in order to be hired, but that conformity with Standard English was in effect an irrelevant concept. When asked which varieties of English they found easiest, the people interviewed reported that it depended on how much practice they had in dealing with any particular one. Intelligibility was seen as a matter of co-construction, rather than variety. Interviewees also reported that native speakers tended to use their linguistic competence as an instrument of power, which NNSs found extremely irritating.

So, to sum up, where does this leave teaching a standard variety of English? While we need to be able to focus our learners on productive skills that are up to the standards expected in the environments they plan to inhabit, and to prepare them to handle a wide variety of relevant contexts, practice shows that they will most probably go on to use English as an instrument to get things done. Our job, then, is to know when to stop teaching the formal aspects of the language, and to give learners space and tools to develop the skills to work out meaning. Or, as Scott Thornbury has written in a related discussion on his blog (2011), “If we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.”

  • Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Ehrenreich, S. (2010). English as a Business Lingua Franca in a German Multinational Corporation: Meeting the Challenge. Journal of Business Communication, 47, 4: 408-431.
  • Firth, A (2009) The Lingua Franca Factor. Intercultural Pragmatics 6-2, 147-170.
  • Graddol, D. (1996) The Future of English? The British Council.
  • Graddol, D (2006) English Next: Why Global English May Mean the End of English as a Foreign Language. London: British Council.
  • Jenkins, J. (2007): English as a Lingua Franca. Attitude and Identity.
  • McArthur, T. (2001) World Englishes: Trends, Tensions, Varieties, and Standards. Lang Teach. 34, 1-20
  • McKay, S.L. (2002) Teaching English as an International Language
  • Seidelhofer, B. (see VOICE)
  • Swan, M./ Smith, B. (2001) Learner English, CUP
  • Thornbury, S. (2011) A-Z: E is for ELF (http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/e-is-for-elf/ (Accessed 15 July 2011)
  • VOICE website: www.univie.ac.at/voice
  • Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, OUP
  • (This topic was debated in connection with BESIG 2010, in a discussion hosted by Vicki Hollett)

PS: Got lucky! One of the exam essays was a quote from someone saying, back in 2001, that varieties of English should be play a greater role in ELT, much as gender and race had. I might have cut to the chase too quickly, not talking about gender or race, or about ELT as opposed to EFL. But there is so little time in these exams, so I just went for it.