English as a lingua franca and some implications for English teachers

Written by: Penny Ur

Initial Concepts and Assumptions

Probably between two and three billion people speak English.
These may be defined according to Kachru’s three circles: inner, outer, expanding (Kachru, 1985).
But today the majority of English speakers are located in the outer or expanding circles, using English as a lingua franca (ELF).
It is used for: academic purposes; political negotiation; tourism; entertainment; business and finance; information; interpersonal relationships …
Most educated speakers of other languages are at least bilingual.
Both centrifugal and centripetal trends are developing: a proliferation of local ‘Englishes’, side by side with a generally comprehensible ELF.

Some general implications
The user of English as a lingua franca

May be either ‘native’ or ‘non-native’
Is typically bi- (or multi-)lingual, or bi-dialectal
Is likely to be skilled in communicative and comprehension strategies.

The fully competent speaker of English as a lingua franca

A speaker with a wide vocabulary, accurate grammar, easily understood accent. .
May or may not be originally a native speaker.
Perhaps it is more useful, therefore,  to define the three circles of users of English internationally simply in terms of their level of competence in the language rather than in terms of where they live and whether or not they are ‘native speakers’.  (Rajadurai, 2005).   In the centre would be the fully competent speakers, next the fairly competent, and on the outside the limited.

Some implications for English teachers worldwide

1. The language to be taught

Various options:

  1. One of the mainstream native varieties
  2. A ‘common core’ syllabus; communication is more important than accuracy
  3. Varied models: diversity
  4. A world standard model

A native model

Advantages:

  • Accepted by many teachers and learners (Timmis, 2002; Kuo, 2006)
  • Prestigious
  • Defined and codified
  • Clear basis for materials and tests

Disadvantages:

  • Not  used by fully competent speakers
  • Not appropriate for ELF contexts
  • Difficulty of deciding which native variety to choose
  • Full competence not normally achievable

(Cook, 1999)

A ‘common core’ syllabus

The argument: we need to teach for communication, and a lot of users of English as a lingua franca are communicating perfectly effectively with limited grammar and without standard grammatical usages.
So maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about such points of accuracy in our teaching (Jenkins, 2006).
What are our priorities?
Some applied linguists claim that many so-called errors are in fact ‘variant’ forms commonly used by many users of English as a lingua franca and therefore do not need to be corrected.

Examples:

She go
The people which…

Advantages:

  • includes common ‘unproblematic’ variants
  • relatively easily achievable
  • universally comprehensible
  • at present being researched

Disadvantages:

  • not the variety used by fully competent speakers
  • not the most common forms used in ELF interactions
  • unacceptable to teachers, learners, materials writers and test designers

Diverse, flexible models

Advantages:

  • ideologically acceptable
  • allows for local variation
  • sidesteps need for codification and definition

Disadvantages

  • no clear model or set of priorities
  • very difficult to teach
  • very difficult to assess
  • very difficult to design syllabus and materials

A standard variety

Based probably on one of the main native varieties, or a combination but eliminating specific local idiom, vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, grammar and allowing variants that are acceptable worldwide.
Examples of local usages: fortnight,  ‘cheers!’, aluminum (Gupta, 2006)

Further illustrations: fall / autumn;  mad / angry; schedule (/sk/, /ʃ/); program / programme; zed / zee; rhotic/non-rhotic pronunciation; she just finished / she has just finished; do you have / have you got;

A standard variety;

Advantages:

  • comprises a range of acceptable forms
  • based on usages of fully competent speakers
  • comprehensible / acceptable worldwide
  • achievable

Disadvantages

  • its existence is questionable
  • ideologically unacceptable to many: externally imposed standards
  • not (yet) defined or codified

Does it exist? Probably.  Evidence:

  • Similarity of formal written texts from all over the world: vary according to genre, not place of origin.
  • The fact that fully competent speakers can intuitively usually identify which features of their own speech are and are not internationally standard

Its ideological unnacceptability may be based on a post-modernist reluctance to accept ‘imposed’ standards and frameworks.
But standards are likely to be based on a consensus rather than imposed by a minority.
Agreed standards are not incompatible with diversity: on the contrary, they are arguably necessary for it.   You cannot diverge if you have nothing to diverge from.
As to codification: The present American and British English grammars and dictionaries can continue to be used, provided teachers and materials writers are aware of their limitations described earlier.  But sooner or later, someone has to write reference books dealing with internationally acceptable usages.
Possible solution: A wiki, which is based on consensus, has a large number of contributors, implies built-in change and updating, is constantly and readily available to teachers, learners, materials writers and testers

2. Culture and intercultural competence

Is English as a lingua franca a culture-free language? (Alptekin, 2005)
To a large extent yes, in that it naturally expresses the culture of its speakers, and is therefore may function as a vehicle for a wide variety of cultures.
It is arguable that in certain areas of behavior, an ‘international culture’ is developing, parallel with the development of ELF (hotels, dress, greetings, thanks and apologies, business letters, email formats, internet conventions …)

Implications

English needs to be used as a vehicle to raise awareness of three types of culture:

  1. That of those who are learning and using the language (the ‘home’ culture
  2. That of the English speaking peoples
  3. That of other people who use English for international communication (i.e. world cultures)

As part of their program of study learners of English need also to be helped to develop intercultural competence: the sensitivity to other cultural norms and the ability to adapt and function appropriately when interacting with people from other cultures (Alptekin, 2002).

3. The model English speaker

The native-speaker or the fully competent non-native?
Many teachers and learners today still prefer a ‘native speaker’ model.
But native speakers are often limited to their own local dialect, may not be aware of international usages; and many English speakers who were originally non-native are today ‘fully competent’.
Non-native fully competent speakers have the advantage of being an appropriate role model; and the language proficiency level of the non-native fully proficient speaker is, by definition, achievable.
The bottom line is that the argument about whether native or non-native teachers are better is rapidly becoming irrelevant.
What is important is the level of competence of the teacher in English, their teaching ability, and their intercultural competence.

4. Materials

Content: culture, situations, texts, characters …
Culture: ‘source’ and ‘international’, not just that of the English-speaking peoples
Situations: more international in character
Characters: more likely to be ‘international’ or ‘home’.
Texts:  more adaptations of international or local sources,  fewer ‘inner-circle’ ‘authentic’ texts or literature.
Language: based on international usages rather than any particular native dialect; more acknowledgement and use of the learners’ L1

To Summarize

  • The teaching of English as a lingua franca rather than as a foreign language
  • A change in the ultimate goals of English teaching: full competence rather than ‘native-like’ mastery
  • Acknowledgement of the place of the fully-competent user of English as a lingua franca as the model
  • A change in criteria for selection of language to be taught
  • A change in criteria for content of materials

References and further reading

  • Alptekin, C. (2002). Towards intercultural communication competence. English Language Teaching Journal, 56 (1), 57-64.
  • Alptekin, C. (2005). Dual language instruction: Multiculturalism through a lingua franca. In A TESOL Symposium on Dual Language Education: Teaching and Learning in Two Languages in the EFL Setting (pp.5-11).  Istanbul: Boğaziçi University.
  • Cook, V. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33 (2), 185-209.
  • Cullen, R., & Cho, I-Chun. (2007). Spoken grammar and ELT course materials: A missing link?. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 361-386.
  • Gupta, A. F.  (2006) Standard English in the world. In Rubdy, R., & Saraceni, M. (Eds.), English in the world: global rules, global roles (pp.).  London: Continuum.
  • Jenkins, J. (2006). Current perspectives on teaching world Englishes and English as a lingua franca. TESOL Quarterly, 40 (1), 157-181.
  • Kachru, B. B. (1985) The English language in a global context.  In Quirk, R., & Widdowson, H. G. (Eds.), English in the world (pp.11-30).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kuo, I-C. (2006). Addressing the issue of teaching English as a lingua franca. ELT Journal, 60(3), 213-221.
  • Rajadurai, J. (2005). Revisiting the Concentric Circles: Conceptual and Sociolinguistic Considerations. Asian EFL Journal, 7(4), .
  • Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239.
  • Timmis, I. (2002). Native-speaker norms and International English: a classroom view . ELT Journal, 56(3), 240-249.

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