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:
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)