Saturday 9 April 2011

The globalization of English: implications for the language classroom
=Guest post=

by Robin Walker

The globalization of English is now an undisputed fact. One of the major effects of this is that English has taken on the role of lingua franca in many contexts. The Toyota-Peugeot factory in the Czech Republic, for example, uses English as a lingua franca among the staff who work there, as do the Nokia factories in Finland. English is also the working language for major international trade associations such as the G7, BRIC or ASEAN. That is to say, the globalization of English has added a new role to the existing ones, namely the role of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). This new role requires us to rethink our goals for the language classroom. It is no longer appropriate to assume that what native speakers (NS) do when they use English amongst themselves is automatically relevant to communication between non-native (NNS) interlocutors.

A critical outcome of English becoming a lingua franca is that it will be modified through use. One of the principal mechanisms in language change anywhere is contact with the speakers’ first language(s). This mechanism has already given rise to Indian or Nigerian Englishes, for example, and Henry Widdowson argued some time ago that with English the non-native speakers have the right to make changes, since ownership of the language belongs as much to them as to its native speakers. His article, The ownership of English, was published in TESOL Quarterly (28/2, pages 377-389).

Of course, it is possible that language contact might drive the emerging Englishes in different directions depending on the L1s at play. This could lead to the development of mutually unintelligible variations. However, David Graddol contests this outcome in English next, and even suggests that it is frequently the absence of native speakers in ELF interactions that results in communication being successful.

Research has been going on for some time as to the nature of English as a Lingua Franca. In terms of grammar, certain features of ELF, such as the “s” of the 3rd-person singular of the verb, are regularly seen to differ from standard NS English norms without impacting negatively on communication. ELF is also characterized by lexical variation. In some cases, such variation is the result of poor English or of performance mistakes, and is not effective. Thus, May I forguest Please reftain no check good. (seen on the door of a public toilet) is neither good ELF nor good EFL (English as a Foreign Language). The English used completely fails to convey any intended message.

In contrast, Please do not plug out!, which I found by a telephone jack-point in a Prague hotel, is entirely effective. Even though plug out does not conform to the NS norm, which only permits plug in, the ELF coinage not only displays a full understanding of the meanings of plug and out, but also reveals competence in the functioning of English phrasal verbs. The NNS author of the sign has merely “played” with the potential for meaning of the language. Legitimate, effective creativity of this sort characterizes ELF vocabulary, and learners need training in such creativity if they are to make the most of their own language resources.

The area of ELF most people are familiar with is pronunciation. Analysis of empirical data from NNS-NNS spoken interactions gave rise to the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) (Jenkins 2000). In her seminal work, Jennifer Jenkins suggested that mutual intelligibility would be retained when speakers are competent in the main areas of the LFC, namely:
  • the consonants of English (except voiced and voiceless “th”);
  • the correct treatment of word-initial consonant clusters;
  • variation in vowel length (as opposed to vowel quality);
  • tonic stress placement.

Apart from facilitating intelligibility between NNSs, an ELF approach to pronunciation offers teachers and learners significant benefits. Overall, it offers them a lighter workload, and it is broadly achievable through classroom teaching, unlike certain significant aspects of most NS accents. In addition, an ELF approach allows speakers to retain their identities through their accents, a linguistic right that very few would dare to deny to native speakers, but which non-native speakers are continually denied. Until now, L2 “accent” has been judged in terms of distance from a standard NS phonological norm, generally RP (Received Pronunciation) or GA (General American), with “foreign” accents almost automatically being equated to poor intelligibility and poor learning. With an ELF approach to pronunciation this need no longer happen.

Robin Walker is a freelance teacher, trainer and ELT author. He has been in ELT for 30 years, and is the current editor of Speak Out!, the newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. He is the author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, a title in the Oxford Handbooks for Teachers series.

© Robin Walker 2011

Next post: You speak with an accent. I don’t. Saturday 16th April 2011.


  1. "an ELF approach allows speakers to retain their identities through their accents, a linguistic right that very few would dare to deny to native speakers, but which nonnative speakers are continually denied."

    By whom? Unless a non-native speaker is very talented indeed, they will always retain an accent that evokes their maternal language, which is absolutely fine: in fact, it is to be preferred. Just as we have US and British (and South African and antipodean) native speaker accents, so we have distinctive German, Italian, Portugese, Slavic and Chinese accents.
    I'd go further, and say that I find highly-schooled European speakers who have been trained to "have no accent" i.e. some sort of unplaceable Received Prononciation, a bit creepy and unpleasant to listen to. It's often associated with a very careful, over-inhibited style of oral expression which is rarely much fun to engage with. What's more, I suspect that for every such speaker that has "succeeded" in their mastery of English, a multitude of "failures" who have been told their English is not good because it contains traces of the pronunciation of their mother tongue.
    Native English speakers cannot fail to betray their origins when they open their mouths; no reason to exempt those who learned it later from this, and indeed, every reason to encourage it.
    Let's plug out the horrible inhibiting grammarians who infest language teaching, and start a worldwide English party where everyone is welcome to join in the fun.

  2. I am a German and I attach worth on it that one hears from my accent where I am from. Unfortunately, the speech among born Germans have become very uniform. Speaking with a strong regional accent is largely seen as sign of bad education. There is sometimes real discrimination against those who do not speak plain Standard German.


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