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ELF in the news

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I’ve been listening to Al Jazeera all day as the reports come in about the horrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, 8.9 on the Richter scale, a 7 on the Japanese scale. The Japanese people are being so courageous. Thinking of them.

Anyway, as I listen, it strikes me: There’s been a lot of talk about ELF lately, with much emphasis on lower level speakers. But the reality of ELF as I hear it spoken among academics, or at least the language they aspire to, is in fact far more advanced. The speakers at Al Jazeera are not the benchmark, they’re really off the grid, and many a native speaker could take a lesson from them. But what about the people they interview? Listen:

Dr. José Barrera, living in New Zealand, US/Canadian accent: AUDIO 1 – He might be a bilingual American, or a Latin American who has lived abroad for many years (English/Spanish). He’s a bit difficult to understand, as he uses “uh” and self-correction the way native speakers do. He seems to be distracted by multitasking, handling some windows on his computer in the background during the interview, so the difficulties he’s having making coherent statements aren’t an issue of proficiency. As soon as he starts concentrating his speech becomes more coherent.

Peter Janssen, from Denmark: AUDIO 2 – He’s a very proficient non-native speaker. As he speaks, he mixes up a few consonants (Japan becomes Yapan, the becomes de) and he does typical things to his vowels (all people becomes ole people) and he drops his third person s (“Everybody know that they have to run now”) and his articles and the odd –ing. As for his ss: He may say “It’s so amacing” instead of “amazing”, but that’s a set phrase every listener will recognize. So overall, he’s much easier to understand than Dr. Barrera.


6 Responses

  1. It’s interesting to follow the conversation on the Being Newscasters thread, which focusses on voices being nice, and the speaker being interesting as he or she speaks, so they very consciously move away from the “performance” aspect to the general level of showing respect and admiration. So there is that worry with pronunciation that someone we hold dear/ respect could lose face.
    Being perceived as having “bad English pronunciation” seems to be very face threatening. I wonder why? It’s also a huge sore point with my learners. But I really can’t grasp the problem. Perhaps because my mother had an accent in English, and I went to school with loads of people who had an accent. It was normal. I just can’t understand the problem. Intellectually, I can register “it’s a problem for some”. But not emotionally!

  2. as a latin american, i guess i would have the exact opposite impression of intelligibility that you, with a “.de” blog, has had. intelligibility is not a one-way street, as i’m sure u agree. the listener’s exposure to the accent has much to do with it.

    unfortunately, we’ll never know because the latin american interviewer’s hesitation did compromise understanding. but then again, it’s not a matter of pronunciation but fluency, and, as u said, it may not have been a matter of language proficiency.

    all in all, i don’t think either of them would be considered ELF speakers by Jenkins, but rather NBES (non-bilingual English speakers). and that’s a good point u make: why concentrate on low-level learners?

  3. Dear Natalia,
    Thank you very much for this! Absolutely, it’s goes two ways. I was reminded of how my ears have become quite acclimatized when I attended a series of presentations and had more trouble understanding a Spanish speaker myself. Sorry, I’m not familar with the “NBES” label. What are the goalposts? I haven’t stumbled upon it yet in the parts of Jenkins I’ve read. Just getting into all of this.
    Thanks again!

  4. sorry, anne, and thanks for the polite correction. i did use the term wrongly. i should’ve checked because these terms are new for me, too, and i tend to get confused.

    the interviewees are BES – bilingual English speakers -, which means they are really proficient in two languages, one of which is English. “native speakers” of English who speak an additional language fluently would also be BES, thus blurring the distinction on who’s got authority over English.

    “Native speakers” of English who don’t speak another language or who speak only a little of another language are called MES, monolingual English speakers.

    the low level learners are called NBES, non-bilingual English speakers. and for some reason, as you said, she focuses on these guys.

    i came across those acronyms on Jenkins’s 2000 b00k “the phonology of English as an international language”, pp.9-10 in the edition i have.

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