Dec 102010

HourglassAbout ten years ago, my editor passed me a book that she had commissioned and edited for OUP’s applied linguistics list. The author had done some very practical research and, from my perspective, the book was essentially about time management. She had understood a major problem we face when we’re learning and teaching a language: there’s so much to do and there aren’t enough hours in the day. So she’d set out to discover where our time and effort would best be spent and help us prioritise our work.

The book was a refreshing read. The author didn’t tell us to strive for the unachievable. She pointed out that most of us could never reach the standards we were aiming at. Her solution was not to lower our standards, but to re-examine them. For many of us, to achieve our goals there were things we had to do and others that made no difference. She worked out which were which by studying conversations between non-native speakers and noting what worked and what failed. In this way, she identified what really mattered for most learners of English, so we knew where our energy would be best spent.

• What was the book?

• Who was the author?

• What were the unachievable standards we were all striving for?

• What were the things she identified that really mattered?

• Did you like the book too?

(Please post your answers in the comments and I’ll post mine on Saturday!)

 Posted by at 3:32 am
Dec 092009

English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) seems to be a very accommodating kind of English. It’s spoken by people with different abilities in English using non-standard forms and bringing different sociopragmatic norms to the table. Heck, you’ve got to be accommodating to speak ELF.

ELF conversations seem to be characterised by folks trying to get along, and if they can’t understand what someone’s saying, rather than fix it they’ll often let it pass. I do this all the time myself when I’m speaking French – smile, nod and hope all will become clear later. And of course I do get caught out, but it’s surprising how often I get away with it.

I’ve just come across a terrific MA dissertation by Matthew Watterson on communication strategies in trouble talk in ELF  – available on the web here . (Free research!) The ELF speakers in Matthew’s study often cited ‘face’ issues as their reason for not fixing things. It was going to be embarrassing to stop the course of the conversation to negotiate meaning, so why do that unless you absolutely have to?

Here is Jay Leno (a ‘merican native speaker)  with a tale about not fixing things:

Ah, sadly the video has disappeared since I posted it. _ sorry folks!

So what caused Jay’s breakfast woes here? Could they have been avoided without anyone losing face? And is anyone in particular responsible: the chef, Jay or someone else perhaps?

And I wonder if we all need to be equally accommodating here when we’re divvying up the responsibility for locating and avoiding pitfalls and fixing things? Or might native speakers bear extra responsibilities for achieving shared meaning?

 Posted by at 10:09 pm
Oct 292009


Many thanks to Darren Elliott for raising some interesting questions about English as an International Language (EIL). Here are my initial thoughts on them, and please chip in folks and add your answers too.


1. Is it right for language teachers to impose the communication style of a native speaker culture on the language learner?

No. And actually I’m not sure how it would be possible, even if we wanted to. But I do think we should be providing information on different communication styles. That way the learners can better understand where the folks they’re trying to communicate with might be coming from, and make more informed decisions about what they want to do.

2. Does English as an international language mean that we all have to do business like the Americans?

I don’t think there’s anything prescriptive about EIL. There are lots of different Englishes and American is just one of them, albeit a pretty influential one. I see EIL research as useful for informing us about what we should be spending classroom time on – what’s likely to provide learners with the biggest bang for their buck, as it were.

3. And what happens when a Greek talks to a Korean?

Yes, English might be used by a Greek talking to a Korean, or a Dane talking to a Saudi or a Thai talking to a Brazilian – there are so many combinations. And we could just throw up our hands in horror and say it’s all too complex and we should restrict ourselves to native varieties and not bother looking at what communication issues might arise. But I think this would be a bit of a cop-out. A lot of my students use English to speak to other non-native speakers.

Central to EIL research is the idea that there are core features of English which are essential for intelligibility – otherwise English couldn’t function as an international language or lingua franca. They might be pronunciation features or lexico-grammar features or sociolinguistic features. We’ve tended to hear more about the first two, but there are folks doing research into the last one as well.

I’m hazarding guesses here, but I think to explore core sociolinguistic features we’ll need to address issues like politeness, turn-taking, indirectness, and compare how we accomplish things like showing approval, negotiating disagreements, and getting people to do what we want. And it’s not easy because a lot of the language we use for discussing these things is culturally loaded. But more on that another day…

Over to you…

 Posted by at 5:07 pm