Apr 152015

‘Suggest’ is a performative verbs, so one of those verbs like ‘declare’, ‘order’ and ‘quit’ where we perform an action by saying it.

It can be tricky for English learners in a couple of ways. One issue is structure. There are a number of forms that can follow ‘suggest’, but also some that can’t. So, for example, we can suggest something to someone but we can’t suggest someone something.

The other issue is appropriacy. ‘I suggest…’ is marked in native speaker (NS) speech. It’s generally used in contexts where there’s a need to be clear and explicit. NSs are more likely to use forms like ‘How about…?’ or ‘Why don’t we…?’ to make run of the mill suggestions. But I don’t think that’s the case for English learners. I hear ‘I suggest…’ used with higher frequency in class conversations and here’s my theory on that…

English is used increasingly as a lingua franca because it happens to be the language most people share. In contexts where English is a second or third language for many users, there is a greater need to be explicit and clear. (There’s a lot of ELF research to back that up.) Performative verbs have a special role to play in clarity because they are explicit. Add to this the fact that languages change as they come into contact and I think we can expect to see the frequency of verbs like ‘suggest’ (and other performatives) rising. It’s natural that English will be adapted to meet the needs of its new users so ‘suggest’ is going to be an interesting verb to track for language change.

But I digress. Let me get back to our video. It addresses the issue of sentence structure, and we’ve also tried to demonstrate how NSs might use ‘suggest’. Essentially we’re trying to teach the pragmatics of ‘suggest’ here – the hidden meanings that go along with the word.

We were very lucky to have an all star cast helping us make this video. You can check out some of their other work here:
Rachel’s English: https://www.youtube.com/user/rachelsenglish
Jennifer ESL: https://www.youtube.com/user/JenniferESL
Jason R Levine (aka Fluency MC): https://www.youtube.com/user/collolearn
Kathy Fagan’s blog: http://www.freerangekef.blogspot.com

Hope you like it!

 Posted by at 2:30 pm
Jan 262012

Alex Case of the wonderful Tefltastic blog wrote to me a little while ago with some questions about teaching functional language and English as a lingua Franca. Oooooo, two irresistable topics that were bound to get me started. It resulted in a long piece that you can read on his blog here: Me vs Vicki Hollett on functional language and ELF

I’ll be taking part in a whole day on the subject of ELF and BELF at a pre-conference event prior to the BESIG conference in Glasgow. (Today is the last day to get the early bird discount for that so sign up now if you can.) Chia Suan Chong and Mark Powell will both be speaking too, and what’s exciting about that is we’ll be trying to move the discussion on from theory to practice, something that has come up in this blog before.

And finally, to refresh your memories on some of the issues, here’s another link to the video about ELF and BELF that I made for a webinar we had last year. Hope to see y’all at IATEFL.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm
Jun 242011

Over on the east coast (where I’m based) it’s easy to forget that Spanish is the second most used language in the United States. According to Wikipedia it’s spoken at home by more than 35.5 million people aged 5 or older.

So I was tickled by this video of Tom Hanks delivering the weather forecast on a Spanish TV channel. Lots of ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) features are evident here:

  • if you don’t understand, keep smiling and hope you’ll catch on later ( ‘letting it pass’ is the term coined by Alan Firth – see more on that here)
  • people will speak slowly to accommodate (It’s just good manners. Ettiquette may vary in all sorts of ways across cultures but it’s the human condition to want to help)
  • on a similar point – look at all the code switching that’s going on here. Hey Tom, we don’t care if you answer us in whatever language you can cope with and think is going to be most comprehensible and express your thoughts best. We’ll adapt.
  • a lot of shared understanding transcends language and derives from modern culture (e.g. we all know that newscasters performing in front of a greenscreen can’t actually see what region on a map they are pointing to)

Hope you enjoyed it too. If so, let me know with a thumbs up or comment. I’d love to know what mainland Spanish speakers might think of this too.


 Posted by at 4:43 am
Mar 032011

I’m thrilled to have a guest post today from Robin Walker addressing the really practical question of models and ELF. So without ado, it’s over to Robin…

Models for (B)ELF pronunciation

During the recent BESIG webinar on Business English as a Lingua Franca (BELF) panellist Ian McMaster raised a crucial issue regarding teaching ELF in the BE classroom. Ian was concerned about the lack of a clear model for teachers, and this very real concern needs addressing. The fear is that if the current native-speaker models are removed, with nothing there to put in their place, teachers will be at a loss as to what to teach, whilst learners will have nothing to guide them towards their desired goal.

Ian is not the first colleague to voice this concern, but if we look at the situation a little more closely, we will see that these fears as to the impact of an ‘absent’ NS-model are ill-founded. In the area of pronunciation, where my own work on ELF has been focused, there are three options that are immediately available:

  • Existing native-speaker materials. There is currently an almost complete absence of pronunciation materials that employ a NNS voice as the model, but this is not a cause for despair. The majority of features of NS pronunciation are also features of ELF pronunciation. This should not come as a surprise – when we talk about ELF we are not talking about another language. It is still English. Thus, while we wait for ELF-specific materials to come onto the market, we can still use existing RP or GA based materials. The only precaution that we need to take is to avoid working on those NS features that have been identified as either not being helpful, or as being potentially damaging, to intelligibility in ELF contexts.
  • Recordings of competent BELF users. The internet is an endless source of audio and video material of NNS sports celebrities, film-stars, and leading business or political figures speaking in English in ELF contexts. Learners can be invited to find recordings of a figure that they admire, and to use this person’s pronunciation as a model for their own. Although ‘cloning’ in this way is clearly less-structured and more holistic than traditional approaches to pronunciation practice, the power of ‘modelling’ your pronunciation on that of an international figure your strongly admire, is not to be lightly dismissed.
  • The teacher. As teachers we have always been models for our learners. This is also true for BELF, where teachers who know from personal experience that their pronunciation is intelligible in ELF contexts, can confidently act as a models for their learners. Indeed, if we look back over the history of ELT, we will see that in practice countless NS teacher who do not speak with a standard accent such as RP or GA, have successfully acted as models by using their own natural accents. ELF merely extends this prerogative to NNS teachers. We mustn’t forget that in ELF contexts accents are valid if they are intelligible, rather than because of their socio-geographic origin and status.

Interestingly, for BELF, where the goal in pronunciation is not proximity to a NS norm, but competence in the features that will ensure international intelligibility, competent NNS teachers are at least equal to competent NS teachers as models for pronunciation. Indeed, in some ways they may even be better. NNS teachers can get ‘into the skin’ of their learners more easily as they have already suffered the process of learning the new pronunciation. Secondly, because they have made the same journey that their learners are embarked upon, they often know ‘tricks’ that they can pass on, often based upon the mother tongue phonology. In addition, NNS teachers constitute living examples of what is possible, and learners can realistically expect to achieve what their NNS teachers have achieved.

 Robin Walker will be a familiar face to folks who have watched the video on ELF and BELF that I posted a few weeks ago. Based in Spain, Robin is a freelance teacher, teacher educator and materials writer and also the author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. (link) Robin gave a terrific talk on ‘The globalization of English: Implications for the business English classroom’  at IATEFL last year, which can be accessed via the IATEFL website  

 Posted by at 7:18 pm
Feb 142011

When we’ve thought about second language acquistion (SLA), traditionally we’ve thought in terms of language learners  gradually progressing up a scale of levels as they acquire more language, and we use the term ‘interlanguage’ to refer to the emerging language they use along the way. It’s ‘inter’ because it’s not L1 and it’s not L2 but it’s in between. As learners progress, we expect their language will diverge less from native speaker (NS) norms, so there’s an assumption that NS-like language is the ultimate goal. 

This take on learning, while prevalent, is problematic in some ways. What constitutes a NS? Which NS norms should we measure emergent language against? And do all English learners really aspire to talk like NSs? For many of my students English is a necessary tool – something they need to communicate because they’re working in contexts where English is being used as a lingua franca (ELF) because it’s the language that’s shared. But rather than ‘sounding like a native speaker’, ‘being able to successfully get things done in English’ would generally be a more accurate description of their ultimate goal. 

But surely ‘sounding like a native speaker’ will help them successfully get things done, you may be thinking. Well yes. I think that’s often true and we can find plenty of examples of that in speech data from ELF conversations. But it’s not always true and there are also many instances where it’s not the case. And in successful ELF interactions there often seems to be a different kind of learning going on. Instead of learning that extends over a period of time and heads towards a NS standard, it’s “learning in action” as Alan Firth, a researcher at Newcastle University, puts it. We see people “acquiring language on the fly”, and converging on non-NS standard forms.

When Alan Firth and Johannes Wagner were studying workplace ELF  (BELF) interactions in the 1990s, they had problems applying many of the traditional concepts of SLA to the audio recordings they’d collected. They were looking at the talk of people who were using English to successfully conduct big business deals all the time. But when they turned to the SLA literature, instead of describing what these people were doing, it seemed to focus on linguistic deficiencies. As they later described it:

Rather than depictions of interactional success in a foreign, second or ‘other’ language, we found an overwhelming emphasis on and preoccupation with the individual’s linguistic and pragmatic ‘failure’. Rather than talk we found ‘input’. Rather than achievement we found an abundance of ‘problem-sources’. Rather than collaboration, invention and an extraordinarily creative use of shared resources (which, to us, was ‘learning-in-action’), we found references to ‘errors’, ‘input modifications’, ‘interference’ and ‘fossilizations’ 

 Try as they might, they couldn’t get the traditional SLA theories and concepts to fit their speech data

So in a paper published in 1997, they called for a reconceptualization of SLA that broadened boundaries of research. It drew a lot of attention and here’s my favorite bit of speech data from that paper. It comes from a telephone conversation between Mr Hansen, the sales manager at a Danish cheese producer and Mr Akkad, a wholesaler in Egypt:

A: So I told him not to uh send the cheese after the- the blowing in the customs…We don’t want the order after the cheese is uh blowing. 

H: I see, yes. 

A: So I don’t know what we can uh do with the order now. What do you think we should uh do with this is all blowing Mister Hansen? … 

H: I’m not uh blowing uh what uh, what is this uh too big or what? 

A: No the cheese is bad Mister Hansen. It is like fermenting in the customs’ cool rooms 

H: Ah it’s gone off 

A: Yes it’s gone off 

H: Well you know you don’t have to uh do uh anything because it’s not…. 

Notice that when Mr Hansen said ‘I see, yes’, he didn’t see at all. Ha! I do that a lot myself when I don’t understand what someone is saying in another language – nod, smile and hope that if they go on a bit more I’ll be able to work it out. Alan Firth coined the term ‘letting it pass’ to describe this practice, and ELF speakers do a lot of it. 

And then we saw Mr Hansen coming clean and admitting he doesn’t know what Mr Akkad is talking about. But when he heard the cheese is bad, he worked out that the blowing must mean it had ‘gone off’. (Most probably the plastic wrap blows up as the cheese ferments). And now notice what happens when he calls Mr Akkad up a couple of days later to discuss the problem further: 

A: Yes Mister Hansen 

H: Hello Mister Akkad. We haf some informations for you about the cheese… with the blowing 

A; Yes Mister Hansen 

So this time it’s Mr Hansen that refers to cheese as ‘blowing’. He adjusted his language away from (rather than towards) a NS standard. He must know the correct NS term would be ‘gone off’ because he used the phrase two days earlier. Presumably it’s not that he’s ‘unlearnt’ it somehow. He’s just being practical – why use the NS term and possibly screw things up? He’d learnt what Mr Akkad called it. 

There’s a lot of learning like this that goes on on-the-fly in ELF interactions. It’s very specific to local needs and contexts. And while Mr Hansen was Danish – so a non native English speaker –  there are lots of instances in other data of NSs doing this too. Successful ELF speakers calibrate for competence. They estimate how much they think the person they’re talking to will understand, and then adjust what they say accordingly. They accommodate. 

Can and should we be helping our students to develop abilities to calibrate for competence in our classes? Is adjusting your language according to your listeners a skill that can or should be taught and practiced? In exams, can and should we be rewarding or penalizing students who can accommodate like Mr Hansen, and if so how? I think it raises so many interesting questions and challenges.

Firth, A. & Wagner, J. (1997). On Discourse, Communication, and (Some) Fundamental Concepts in Second Language Acquisition Research. Modern Language Journal. 81,3: 285-300. 

Firth, A. & Wagner, J. (2007). Second/Foreign Language Learning as a Social Accomplishment: Elaborations on a Reconceptualized SLA. Modern Language Journal (Special Focus Issue on: The impact of the ideas of Firth & Wagner on SLA), vol. 91: 798-817. 

Other posts on ELF you might like:

My promo video for a BESIG webinar on ELF and BELF

A talk on lean language by Mark Powell and some later elaboration

A post about Jennifer Jenkin’s first book on ELF, and another

Also over at Darren Elliot’s blog, there’s a terrific audio  interview he recorded with Jenny Jenkins

And over at Evan Frendo’s blog there’s a great post about BELF (Business English as a lingua franca)


 Posted by at 4:17 pm
Feb 072011

A while ago I posted videos of Mark Powell’s plenary talk at the last annual BESIG conference. Mark responded today, and I thought it was so interesting and raised so many issues we didn’t have time to discuss in the webinar today – so I thought I’d post it here now as a separate post. Over to Mark…

Thanks to the people who said they enjoyed Carl’s video of the Bielefeld talk. The funny thing for me was that I actually started out as an ELF-sceptic, but, in the process of developing the talk, I kind of defected to the other side – at least, in part.

It’s true that nowadays we routinely heap scorn on the fixed expressions of yesteryear (‘If I could just come in here for a moment’; ‘We seem to be talking at cross-purposes’; ’I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one’ etc.), but a quick flip through even the latest BELT publications shows that functional exponents like these are very much alive and kicking. Problem is that most published materials seem to base their language input more on previously published materials than on the real thing. And those previous publications were similarly flawed. So the modern course book tends to be at least three times removed from any kind of authentic source and a lot of its syllabus verges on urban legend (eg. ‘I’m a bit tied up on Thursday’ – did someone somewhere, probably British, once say that?). This is not really the fault of authors, however. Until very recently, sufficiently large spoken BE corpora were rather thin on the ground. Now that we have a few such corpora emerging and growing, what we’re finding is that not only are such fixed expressions pretty much non-existent (as many of us predicted), but fixed expressions of any kind over three or four words long are incredibly rare as well (which we generally didn’t predict).

So there is an awful lot of flab in the published stuff to get rid of. I wouldn’t just slag it off as hopelessly wedded to the NS model, though, because most of it bears no resemblance to what either NSs or NNSs actually say!

What NSs and NNSs do actually say (so far as we can tell at this relatively early stage from corpora like CANBEC and VOICE) is a lot more interesting. Both turn out to be doing some highly innovative things (as well as some odd, communicatively unhelpful things) which course books have largely missed. As BE trainers, I think our job is to take ‘best practice’ from both and encourage our learners to adopt it (if they are not doing so already), whilst warning them off the NS or NNS model wherever it fails communicatively in an international context. This is what I call Lean Language – performance without waste. Some may now be calling it BELF.
In terms of what NNS are doing (ELF) there are roughly two kinds of things, I think – ‘errors’ and ‘innovations’. Errors like missing off third person –s, using the wrong relative pronoun, treating uncountable nouns as countable (‘informations’), dropping a morpheme in an adverb (‘terrible sorry’) or adding redundant prepositions (‘discuss about’) don’t seem to impede communication and may, in some cases, even facilitate it between some NNSs (because the errors are largely shared). These are the kind of typical ‘mistakes’ all EFL teachers are familiar with and these are what I’m referring to when I say ‘a lot of ELF is pretty obvious’. Barbara Seidlhofer mentions some of these in her writing on ELF and there was a very extensive list of them compiled by Christine Johnson and Cath Bartlett, based on their classroom research and published in the BESIG Business Issues Vol. 3 way back in 1999. No-one (I think!) is suggesting we actually ‘teach’ these errors. Our learners will make them anyway in spite of our best efforts. But what we can do is resist overenthusiastic correction in these areas when there are other more important things to deal with. An easily correctable error is never a communicative error. Think about it. If you can actually correct me, you must have known what I meant. ‘I have been here yesterday’ – totally comprehensible. And let’s be clear, it’s not just grammar errors we’re talking about. ‘I made an interview for the job’ is also OK by me. Lexical pedantry is just as bad as structural pedantry when our learners have busy lives and just want to do their job better in English. I sometimes think, in freeing us from the tyranny of grammar, the Lexical Approach has just landed us with another (much more arbitrary) set of rules to internalise.

Of course, some errors do need fixing because they are not shared across cultures. When a German says ‘in the moment’ (‘im Moment’) instead of ‘at the moment’, we don’t care or even notice the error. Maybe it’s better – aren’t we all supposed to live in the moment? When they say ‘I will’ instead of ‘I want’, there may be a problem. L1 interference may need robust correction.

So that’s errors. And some of them could even be seen as innovative in that they actually smooth international business communication. What about true ‘innovations’? I briefly mention some of these in my BESIG talk – explicit performatives (noticed in Germans), invariant question tags (noticed in Spaniards, no?), but there are many others – avoidance of the passive and tense backshift in reported speech, dropped auxiliaries in questions, conjoined rather than embedded clauses. None of these formulations is technically an error – NS make them too, though much more rarely. What they are is simpler (dare I say more efficient?) variants on the NS model. And, frankly, I’m all for these. Sometimes it may be helpful to point out to French speakers, say, that German speakers have a neat way of doing something in English that they might like to emulate. It might also be worth briefing a Swedish speaker on some of the features of ‘Chinese English’ if they are going to be doing business with China. But a surprising number of NNS innovations cross cultural boundaries, partly because all learners have some of the same difficulties with learning English and they either fix them or (a tribute to their ingenuity) get round them. When they get round them, they seem, more often than not, to do so in similar ways.

Now what about NS innovations? Within EIL, ELF and Global English circles the NS model tends to get short shrift. It seems to be the Great Wall of English the ‘Elves’ are trying to breach. On a structural, lexical and phonological level I sympathise with this view. NS English is (like most languages) unnecessarily complicated when your need for it is mostly utilitarian. However, on a communicative level NSs do some pretty neat and eminently learnable things which could be an excellent model for NNS users. In my talk I had no time to mention these, but they include things like the use of selective repetition – an amazing device that can be used for emphasis, agreement, disagreement and rejection in meetings, query and confirmation on the phone, empathy-building in social situations as well as rhetorical impact in presentations. We need a lot more research here. Much language in use consists of modified reformulations of what your interlocutor has just said rather than firing back fixed expressions. The better your listening skills, the less lexical firepower you need.

So that’s my take on where we are with developing BELF from both NS and NNS data. I do say ‘developing’ not ‘discovering’ because I am in favour of some prescriptiveness here. That’s not a popular approach in our business, I know, but I do feel we (who else?) should be trying to offer our learners a fast-track to communicative competence for business purposes and not detaining them unduly with the finer points of anybody’s English, least of all the Queen’s or President’s. Pending conclusive evidence from the corpora, can’t we come up with something better than the Business EFL we peddle at the moment?

But what if our learners insist on the ‘real thing’, as some of you point out in this blog? Well, far be it from me to deny my clients what they want, but I think we owe it to them to at least offer a more efficient alternative. Sure, some do want to be more than competent in English, to impress – but just who they are impressing when most of the people they do business with aren’t at a sufficiently high level of English to be impressed? NSs are in many ways some of the least understood in international interactions. Who would want to aspire to that?

But I appreciate there’s a problem of perception. All the Business Spotlight surveys show a strong preference in most learners for NS trainers, though I think that’s partly because they still wrongly associate NNSs with the kind of language teaching they’ve had in the past and the NSs with the newer more communicative approach they’re now paying for. And publishers with their essentially NS model both exploit and perpetuate this prejudice, however global they like to make their materials sound. But here are a couple of course book titles I found recently that unashamedly say what they mean: ‘Speak Business English Like an American’ and ‘Speak Better Business English and Make More Money‘. Both genuine titles, I swear! And, actually, when you think about it, though the first is clearly some kind of cultural assimilation programme no doubt larded with sports and war idioms and glossy Americanisms, the second could be, truth to tell, just what our learners want. But will the author mean the same thing by ‘better’ as I do? Hm. I think I’ll leave that a mystery.

Many thanks for this Mark and if you’d like to watch the original talk – click here and for the ELF Webinar video ad – click here. The actual webinar video will be posted later.

 Posted by at 5:45 pm
Jan 272011

I need to thank all the folks who kindly let me use their voices and images in this video.

And I’d also like to mention something that troubles me about it. I hunted hard for audio and video materials and maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but I found no sources with non-native speaker (NNS) voices. It seems a bit absurd to have no NNS speaker voices in a video on ELF. But actually I think it might reflect the nature of our industry. NSs seem to get videoed more than NNSs! Perhaps we could rethink that?

But anyway, please put this date in your diaries! 14.00 (CET) on 7 February 2011. Click here to check your local time: Local time. Hope to see you there!

UPDATE: For those who cannot access youtube, you can also find the video at Vimeo here: http://vimeo.com/19269725

 Posted by at 1:50 pm
Dec 192010

Carl Dowse has put videos of Mark Powell’s plenary from the recent BESIG conference up on Youtube. It was such a terrific talk, just in case you missed it, I’ve stuck all the videos at the bottom of this post.

There are lots of great jokes and ideas here and I love Mark’s pragmatism. Like ‘English as a lingua franca’ (ELF) researchers, Mark is urging us to set sensible priorities for what we teach and it makes a lot of sense. For the many English learners who won’t be needing English to communicate for native speakers (NSs), why faff around with frilly stuff that will have little value when we can go ‘lean’.

Mark had me chuckling with what he had to say about business English text books’ obsession with phrase banks. (Video 4 below) Ha! Yeah, they bother me too. I enjoyed hearing his current thinking on the lexical approach (Video 3) and would have loved to hear more on that. And I also enjoyed his thoughts on performatives, hedging and indirectness. (Video 1 below) He describes a class with French and German speakers where his students were converging on forms that worked for all. Speech accommodation like this seems to be a key feature in ELF conversations.

There was something that puzzled me though. After enjoying watching Mark argue what seemed like an extremist ELF position in the early part of his talk (“The German version works better”), I was surprised to hear him to dismiss ELF as “just pretty obvious” at the end. (Video 5 below) Does anyone else find this puzzling?

So hat’s off to the BESIG BOT for capturing this gem on video for us and hats off to Mark for giving us lots to think about and lots of fun.  And, as always, I’d love to know what you think.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Dec 112010

I posted a riddle last Thursday and Jessica and Darren cracked it right away! Ha! You guys are so sharp!

Yeah, the book I was talking about was The Phonology of English as an International Language: New Models, New Norms, New Goals (Oxford Applied Linguistics)

The author was Jennifer Jenkins.

The unattainable standards we were striving for were a NS accent, and often received pronunciation or general American.

The things Jenny identified as really important for speakers of English as a Lingua Franca were:

  • the consonants (except voiced and voiceless TH)
  • consonant clusters (especially word initial)
  • vowel length (especially when the vowel is followed by a voiceless consonant, which shortens it)
  • sentence stress (also known as tonic or nuclear stress)

There’s a terrific interview with Jenny over at Darren Elliott’s superb ‘the lives of teachers’ blog. And very excitingly Jenny has agreed to be a panelist in a forthcoming BESIG panel discussion on ELF. Wehey! (More details on that later.)

Many thanks to Robin Walker for helping me get the pronunciation stuff right above. (Hoping to bring you more from Robin later!)

I’ve never really understood why Jenny’s work has attracted the controversy it has. Did I miss the point? It seems so benign and practical to me. Anyway, I’m interested in BELF (business English as a lingua franca) and I plan to be writing more about about that. So please stay tuned.

 Posted by at 10:30 am