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

  14 Responses to “ELF, BELF & SLA”

  1. Super useful post as always Vicki. I’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit recently (you got the wheels-a-churning) and I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to do with it. Let me see what I’m trying to say… it’s that we’ve all noticed this sort of thing happening in our classes and it’s awful hard to pin down and even remember the examples (I know my IT students from one company told me something that they’d heard from some Indonesians and then the same week I heard it again from students talking to Spanish students…and it wasn’t “English”) but… because it wasn’t English I didn’t record it and because I didn’t hear it again, I didn’t set it up as a “common error” post.

    I’m still not saying what I want to say…

    Are we supposed to let these through now? Or… do we still correct them? We’re not supposed to teach them, are we?

    What’s the objective behind building the awareness of BELFs? And um, tell me if I’m totally confused and not reading head from tails – I don’t mind being criticized, I’m sincerely interested.



  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BELTfree, ELT feeds. ELT feeds said: ELF, BELF & SLA: When we’ve thought about second language acquistion (SLA), traditionally we’ve thought in … http://bit.ly/h9nwpL #elt […]

  3. Hi Karenne and many thanks for asking this.

    You mentioned on the BESIG ning that there are a lot of new words coming into the language via IT and I think IT is a very good example of fast language change. A lot of new stuff is happening and new needs require new language. Contact is another immensely powerful force for change. The growth in contact between languages that global business creates (and that modern modes of communication facilitate) means language change is happening at a speed and on a scale that’s unprecedented.

    But along with new words and meanings that are taking hold around the world, there are a lot more meanings getting negotiated and invented between folks like Messers Hansen and Akkad to meet particular needs. They are transitory and specific. I don’t see how we could teach them even if we wanted to. I think rather than focussing on new ELF words it makes more sense to focus on the development of more general capabilities that will help our students collaborate in international contexts.

    In my view, something appealing about what ELF & BELF researchers are suggesting is rather than focusing on what’s deficient, let’s also look at what works. Re-correction, we certainly still need to provide it but the focus needs to shift. Rather than asking ourselves ‘Was that correct in NS terms?’, we’re going to be asking ‘Was that likely to be successful in ELF contexts?’ My guess is traditional sentence level grammar is likely to become less significant when we answer that, and the content of the message and how well its adapted to its audiences will matter more.

  4. Hi Vicki
    Interesting post. I find this happening all the time.Many Indian software Engineers who have worked in the US have adopted American words and spellings. When they have to work with other cultures they find that they have learn all over again.
    The problem some of them face( those who are mainly in support roles) is that they may be coversing with an Australian in the morning, soemone from Germany in the afternoon and an American or a South American in the evening. Here they need to adjust with three different cultures on the same day- a Herculean task!

  5. So …what do we do as teachers?


    The closest i can see that you answer the question (blimey what a mess language wise i offer here)posed by Karren is that “it makes more sense to focus on the development of more general capabilities that will help our students collaborate in international contexts.”


    These general capabilities would seem to be improvisation, openness, adaptability etc …. and probably we would need to call orselves life coaches and not english teachers?

    What i don’t also understand concerning the dialogue between Egypt and Denmark is that they both use “correct” terms – ferment and go off – to create understanding.

    Perhaps the subsequent use of “blow” is more and example of establishing complicity?

    And is less an example of – i learn’t from you – more of an example of – you are an important business contact, see, i listen to you?

  6. Thanks Chris!

    I think it’s a definite possibility that ‘you are an important business contact – I listen to you’ was at play here. As I understand it, Mr Akkad was rather like Mr Hansen’s customer, so ‘the customer is always right’ principle could well have been an influence. Or it might just have been expediency – we’ll never really know.

    Openness, improvisation, and adaptability all sound pretty good. Some specific things we can do came up in the seminar the other day. More practice with summarizing and evaluating, exploring metaphors and more emphasis on features of language occurring at a larger discourse level rather than at sentence level. Also picking up on opportunities that might arise to highlight idiosyncrasies there might be in our students own languages. For example, native English speakers are pretty peculiar about the way they use (or don’t use) performatives, and all languages have their different peculiarities. Just as most NSs are pretty unaware that they use performatives in unusual ways, so our students might be unaware of unusual things about their own languages. And some of that starts bordering on teaching intercultural issues of course, but I think that’s bound to be the case as languages get inextricably bound up with culture.

    I think another specific thing we can do is ask ourselves why am I teaching this or that and why am I correcting this or that. And often there will be a good reason, but sometimes it’ll just be a hangover from the past. If we say we’re not just going to think of learning in terms of the old deficit model, there are a lot of old concepts around that need a rethink.

    And I realize that many people would feel more comfortable if ELF reserachers were offering models to teach here, like start with the present simple (with or without the ‘s’ and them move onto the future or the past or whatever. But the existing NS models are actually guesses anyway.

    I don’t think we need operate so much in the dark now because we have a growing body of ELF speech data to look at. So we have more opportunities now to figure out what’s going on when communication is successful. Take rapport building with international visitors, for example. We see people doing things like making caring comments: (We hope the cold weather will not spoil your visit. Are you tired after your journey? We have arranged a very simple schedule for today because we know you had a long journey and we didn’t want to give you too much work today.) We see them claiming common ground by referring to shared acquaintances and shared places they know and looking for ways to pay compliments and be co-operative. Looking at what people are doing successfully in ELF contexts provides us better opportunities to work out what’s important.

  7. Great to hear from you Lalitha! Yes, a Herculean task indeed – yet it’s one that so many suceed at.

  8. To follow up on Chris’s questions – Like? How? – One activity I use with my German learners is based on a recording of a conversation between German and Chinese speakers, both using English to communicate. There are clearly misunderstandings in the conversation, but the problems they have are not lexical – they are socioclinguistic and sociopragmatic. I ask the learners to analyse what is happening in the conversation, and then I give my own interpretation, stressing that it is an interpretation, not “the answer”. And then we move into a discussion about how we can deal with such conversations in real life. I have done this several times with different groups and each time there are “wow” moments as people realise that it’s not only about grammar and vocabulary.

    Jonathan Newton has done some research on using activities like this and has written a paper called “Adapting authentic workplace talk for workplace training”, which is well worth reading. You can find it in Kotthoff & Spencer-Oatey (2009) Handbook of Intercultural Communication, Mouton de Gruyter.

  9. Thanks Evan – good practical suggestions.

  10. I’ve done a couple of lessons that tie in with this topic. The most recent was a lesson on Konglish (“made in Korea” expressions from English words) for Japanese students who work for a Korean company, where they tried to guess the meaning of the words from their constituent parts. It worked well because they could take it two ways depending on their views on ELF – as a lesson on English that they might need in their particular circumstances, or as a lesson of things they might hear which aren’t “proper English” and how British and American people would say the same thing. It also worked for getting them less self-conscious about the similar “Japanese English” expressions, and as practice of guessing the meanings of words from their constituent parts.

    The other was a lesson on Singlish for a Japanese person who was moving to the regional headquarters there. Again, they could take it as presenting the Singlish or “correcting” the Singlish as they wished.

  11. […] I I have just discovered that Alan Firth has a blog too! It’s […]

  12. […] 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) […]

  13. Thanks very much for such an interesting discussion on my research with Johannes Wagner. You may be interested to know that we are currently working on a monograph on L2 use and learning.

    Best regards

    Alan Firth

  14. […] Vicki Hollett shares thoughts on ground-breaking research as well as stories of non-English speakers discussing cheese. […]

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