I was driving back from orchestra rehearsal on Monday – well no, driving back from the pub which we go to after orchestra rehearsal – when the radio station I listen to all the time, BBC Radio 4, started broadcasting a programme called ‘Word of Mouth’.
(In parenthesis: Radio 4 is a national radio station which broadcasts news, drama, comedy, factual programming, magazine programmes etc)
Anyway, the announcer told us that the programme would be about ELF (English as a Lingua Franca - I think you may be able to listen from outside the UK) and suddenly I found myself listening, on national radio, to people I know such as Jennifer Jenkins, Andy Kirkpatrick, Val Hennessy from IH (International House) Bristol, Michael Swan etc. Of course anyone in the UK is used to David Crystal popping up on the radio , but this was more surprising! Two worlds colliding…
As with all ‘public’ programmes (i.e. not made specifically for linguists or language teachers etc) it was fairly general. Jennifer Jenkins, for example, talked about how certain features (such as the omission of present simple 3rd person ‘s’ or the simplifying of allaphonic variation) crop up in a lot of ELF discussion – that is when 2 non-native speakers of English use English to communicate). Interestingly, however, she said that ELF was not, of itself a language ‘variety’ in its own right (as , she admitted, she and others had originally thought).
Mike Swan thought it would take a long time before ELF had its own identity – and suggested that the way people use language depends on both their linguistic context (e.g. what first language background they come from) and on the context the language is occurring in. It would take a long time, he seemed to be suggesting, before a radical language shift turned up as a general change.
Val Hennessy talked about how correctness in a language class depended on what we want students to do – successful communication, she reminded her interviewer, does not depend on accuracy alone.
But then they talked to Cambridge ESOL and this (and Jennifer Jenkins’ comments on language teaching) is where it gets interesting – for me, at least. At Cambridge ESOL they will continue demanding accuracy for British English until and unless ELF emerges as a quantifiable, quality-driven variety in its own right. Tests have to test against a standard after all, and British English, for example has one (of course not all language exams focus on accuracy). Jennifer Jenkins, on the other hand, suggested that English langauge teachers don’t like ELF because it suggests they aren’t teaching the right thing, and that they (we) need to adjust their/our views on what is correct/acceptable, and maybe stop trying to force students to do things they are not going to (be able to) do.
Hmm. My own view is that ELF is out there – there are observable phenomena when L2 speakers get together – but that we have to teach something and students DO expect to be told what is or isn’t right. I have argued before that it doesn’t matter WHAT variety of English you teach, provided that it is widely intelligible. British English is a perfectly good variety to teach – but that does not mean it will be used as it is or as it was learned when that learner speaks to someone from a different country who uses a different variety. In other words I think ELF research (and Andy Kirkpatrick was extremely interesting in the programme talking about Asian forms of ELF) is fascinating, but as yet does not have much to say about English teaching.
Of course, if you teach exclusively very British (or American, Singaporean , Irish, Jamaican, Australian etc) English which is not going to ‘travel’ then you’re not doing your students much of a service. But that’s not how it happens, I reckon. But if you teache British English and leaven it with other varieties and accents? Is there anything wrong with that?
What’s your view, I wonder…ELF or non-ELF?