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

  19 Responses to “ELF & models”

  1. I love the topic!!! Good to have this book now!!
    I’ve been reading Jennifer Jenkins’ work on the main features of the Lingua Franca Core and found it very useful.
    In general,most corporate business English students lack time, and with the little time they have to devote to their English training, we need to focus on the pronunciation factors that affect communication.
    Thanks Robin for your post and the book!
    Thanks Vicki for your blog and your contributions to our never ending learning and development!

  2. Thanks for mentioning me in your interesting post, Robin! But simply asserting that something is “ill-founded” is not enough. And, once again in the ELF debate, there is enormous confusion about the meaning of terms. I’d like to try to clarify a few points, because, in some areas, there really is no disagreement between us and in other areas, there certainly is.

    1) I am still baffled by the way ELF researchers constantly criticize the terms “native speaker” and “non-native speaker” but use them all the time to make their own distinctions.
    2) ELF researchers (and Robin here) confuse NS with RP in the pronunciation area. I – and other critics – have never suggested that the only NS pronunciation model is the RP one. In fact, quite the opposite precisely because, as Robin says, very few people speak RP – I don’t either.
    3) Yes, all NS teachers (whatever accent) and all NNS teachers (whatever accent) can potentially be equally effective role models depending on the context – assuming they are intelligible to their learners and are good teachers (this applies equally to both groups!). I find these “one group is better at teaching than the other” statements intolerable and divisive (in either direction). Hedging the statements with expressions like “in some ways” and “can be” doesn’t make it better – or rather, it shows how weak the statements really are.
    4) Yes, there are lots of potential models out there if by that we mean “role models”, which is the sense that Robin uses the word in this post. But that is not the sense that I have used “model” in my criticisms (see next point). So, once again, the ELF researchers set up a straw man and knock him down easily.
    5) My criticism of the lack of an alternative ELF model refers to the actual words that people use – the grammar and vocabulary – not role models for pronunciation (an area where I explicitly said the ELF research has been most helpful). For grammar and vocabulary, the ELF research has so far failed to come up with a alternative codified version of English so that teachers can say “this is ELF and it is significantly different from a NS model”. Indeed, in the recent debate, Barbara Seidlhofer, who originally proposed the codifying of such an alternative variety, wanted to move attention away from “lists” of common ELF features that deviate from the NS models/versions. No wonder, because the lists of these common features that the ELF researchers started making have stopped growing. So the goalposts have now been moved: ELF has simply become another way of saying “effective communication” and we can all agree that that is the goal, rather than trying to turn learners into native speakers.

    Far from being ill-founded, the criticism that ELF has not yet produced an alternative model/version/variety of English remains very well-founded. And it is much more eloquently expressed by Michael Swan in this interview (the relevant bit starts at 12.55):

  3. Ian, thanks so much for this. Connection difficulties during that webinar made it difficult for your voice to be heard, so I’m glad the important points you were making haven’t been dropped. I’m sure you already realize that Robin was referencing your contribution to the debate as his starting point here, rather than trying to reference your views throughout his post.

    As I understand it (and correct me if I have misunderstood) your key point is teachers should have a model of grammar and vocabulary for students to copy and learn from. You’re saying that while some things have been codified in terms of ELF pronunciation, we’re still a long way from knowing what an ELF model for grammar and vocabulary would be – if indeed it exists at all, which is questionable. And you’re echoing Michael Swan’s views in the video who is saying that language should be at the centre of language teaching (‘language teaching is teaching language’) The idea that ELF could become an independent model seems off the wall to him because Greeks will speak Greek English, Danes will speak Danish English, Japanese will speak Japanese English and so on. (Gosh, now I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing Michael Swan as well – Please check out Ian’s video link folks and chip in if you think I have erred)

    I agree that providing a model is a very sensible way to go in the language class and I also agree that no teachable model of ELF grammar and vocabulary exists. I think it’d be great to have models of ELF grammar and vocabulary if they exist and I’d be really interested if they emerge from ELF data, but I’m not convinced they will either.

    Personally speaking, I’m actually more interested in what ELF research is revealing about the processes that go on as people share meanings in ELF contexts. Sticking to conventional NS variety grammar and vocabulary seems to work a lot of the time, but not always. Sometimes what ELF speakers need to do to be successful actually contradicts what we’d normally view as demonstrating linguistic competence in NS terms. So I reason there must be other stuff going on here and hence, from my perspective, hunting for grammar and vocabulary features seems like a red herring. I think models showing different ways in which people accommodate to the people they’re talking to is likely to be more useful.

    And I get Michael Swan’s point about people having been focused on the meaning, use, function and activity end of the spectrum rather than the ‘language centre’ (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation and how to use them, as he puts it). But sticking to his language centre seems like a hard line to follow in practice to me. The thing is many business English teachers are working with students who just see language as a means to an end – successful communication being their bigger goal. Restricting ourselves to language in his terms seems to imply ignoring more soft skills stuff to do with culture and pragmatics. So I’m more inclined to take a Henry Widdowson’s line on this and say let’s think beyond just competence in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Are there broader capabilities we can develop here (eg. communication strategies like signalling understanding, paraphrasing, summarizing, requesting clarification, evaluating) that might serve as an investment for future learning?

  4. Another different issue regarding models kept running through my mind as I read Robin’s excellent post. Should we be making a distinction between receptive models and productive models here?

    It reminded me of a meeting I took part in way back in the 1980s. We sat around a table at Oxford University Press talking about a business English course we were working on and the question came up: ‘What about the audio materials?’ We all felt it was important to accustom students to different foreign accents so we should record NNSs. It was unusual back then but it seemed like a no brainer to us and luckily OUP had a sound recording team that was up to the task of finding lots of foreign actors. So great – that was way we went. But what about the words they would be saying? I wrote the words that the foreign actors would say. We realised the accents would be ‘authentic’, but the ideas would be framed by a NS. The conference room fell into silence as we contemplated the broader implications of what that meant.

    I think receptive and productive models have generally been conflated in ELT materials and decades on, I don’t think that conundrum has ever really gone way. We still hear foreign actors producing NS-like speech. Are we sure that’s doing the job? I hope ELF speech data can help us provide better productive and receptive models (which are quite possibly different) by giving us a better understanding of what capabilities our students need to develop in ELF contexts.

  5. Hi Vicki. Thanks for that.

    I am certainly not saying that language is the only thing. Indeed, the Business Skills articles by Bob Dignen in Business Spotlight over the past 10 years emphasize precisely the importance of all the other stuff that is going on in communication, the paralinguistic, pragmatic stuff, accommodation etc. Indeed, Bob – and I agree with him entirely – specifically tries to draw attention away from the pure language side. This is emphasized very much in the new book we have co-authored called Communicating Internationally in English. (Could a plug be more blatant?) 😉

    So, I agree that the ELF findings in this area are very interesting – though I suspect that much of the accommodation stuff that goes on in NNS-NNS communication, will also be found in NS-NNS and even NS-NS communication. I would love to see comparative studies here.

    My main point is that, as you say, no alternative ELF teaching model of English has been produced, leaving, by default the NS model as the reality for most teachers. And this, after all, was the starting point of ELF – that the actual version of English is different and that NS models are less relevant. I seriously doubt that, as far as language teaching goes.

    Indeed the whole ELF discussion more or less ignores the actual teaching of language, which raises the question as to where NNS actually get any language from in the first place. ELF strikes me – as far as grammar and vocabulary go at least – as a kind of “post language-teaching and acquisition world” in which other (important) communication skills are looked at.

    In summary, we need both. Someone actually has to teach learners language so they have something to say! And this model I believe will normally be a NS-one (or something very close). And we also need to look at all the other communication issues that ELF research looks at – but which other people (such as Bob Dignen) having been talking about for yours independently of the ELF discussions.

    As for audio, I agree with you. Learners need to hear both NS and NNS speakers (because both cause problems), and they need to hear both groups causing the problems they really do cause in “real life”: talking too quickly, talking unclearly, difficult accents, idiomatic language, deviations from standard usage etc. Not always easy to do in practice – though one or two new products, coming out soon (not just from us) are looking at exactly this. And as you say, the ELF research may help us in this respect to understand the speech patterns of (and difficulties caused by) NNS.

  6. This is enormously interesting, and I enjoyed both videos. I’ve ordered this book because I do think there are certain issues in pronunciation that need more work than others, and hope the book helps in terms of providing a practical way in, but think Swan makes a very eloquent and conclusive point that ELF describes a situation, rather than a new variety.

  7. Have you all seen this article and video about Germany being attractive for international students? The German students and lecturers are using the type of English we trainers are invited to help them use more skillfully. One of the lecturers calls it “sort of general international English”. What would you call it?
    I’m confused by the terms “non-bilingual speaker of English” and “non-native speaker of English”. Who defines who is what?

  8. Very interesting video and article, Anne

    Actually, the article is filed under “knowledge economy”. This is something I mentioned in my talk in the BESIG conference last year. We are living in a knowledge economy that focuses on the production and management of knowledge and this production and knowledge sharing is mostly done through English.
    The point is: what English? This is the English that native and non native speakers use to be able to enrich and generate new knowledge, disseminate, and apply this knowledge.

    I think researchers are examining this English, the one that is actually being used.

  9. This debate is far from being settled, but would like to add my two shillings worth by taking up two points.

    Firstly Ian makes a valid point concerning communication and comprehensibility and in Business English more than anywhere else, this is necessary. The ability to be easily understood comes from a clarity that not only is about pronunciation, but word and phrasal choice as well as adjustment to context and recipient.
    This I think is as trainers what we should be concerned about regardless of material trying to propose any kind of model. The trouble with any kind of “typical” model being set up as a standard or a benchmark is that at some point individuals or even organizations may decide that it no longer is relevant. as happened with RP or do not approve or perceive it as a good example of a model.

    The second point made by Vicki is this concept of receptive and productive. The skill set needed to do both well is surely an aim we should be looking at facilitating our learners towards.

    The thing I find often with any audio material is it hard to be authentic, which is necessary for the receptive skill. Especially when I hear the same voice doing different accents or dialects from a broad region. Often the case with Asian voice over artists.

    On a slight tangent, I would just like to consider more the process of the audio production. One thing that may benefit material development is to try to utilize those native and non native speakers we already have in ESL/EFL training as the voice overs for some of the material.

    This authenticity I previously is hard to achieve even with good voice over artists. To sound natural in a recording process is a hard thing to master, just as much as mastering this “typical” model for pronunciation.

  10. Ha! No problem with your utterly shameless plugging of the Spotlight materials Ian, and apologies for my late reply.

    Oddly enough, I’ve seen some papers on how NS accommodate too. ELF researchers differ in terms of how they categorize their data, but the VOICE project doesn’t exclude NS-NNS interactions. And its goal is to chart language change, so yes, you’re right that it ignores the teaching of language. I think we’ve just happened to hit lucky that many of the people involved have a practical background in teaching so sometimes they point us towards stuff they think we might want to know. But it’s not part of their remit, which is to describe, and Barbara Seidlhofer has been clear that application to teaching should fall to applied linguists and teachers rather than the collectors of the data. I think we’re seeing the start of that happening now actually as corpus data becomes more accessible and materials writers and teachers start thinking about it and saying, hey, look at this or that.

    I think there may be lots of different kinds of models that teachers can build from the ELF lexico-grammar data. A model in the form of a kind of inventory of grammar structures and vocabulary is one kind, and I’m sure we’d find it very interesting if it ever happens, but I suspect that kind of model would turn out to have much less practical teaching value than folks might imagine. I’d have some of the same qualms about using it as I have about the recent EAQUALS core inventory. To me it seems to make more sense to begin with contexts of use and needs and then move onto language (Some thoughts on that are in comments on Evan’s blog here

    I’m no doubt biased by what turns me on, but I’d lay bets that the most useful teaching stuff that’ll emerge from ELF lexico-grammar data will be observed at discourse (rather than sentence) level. Think of Almut Koester’s NS workplace data – sure we can see frequency data on modal verbs, but it’s pretty meaningless for a course book writer or teacher. But when she shows us how different people employ modals in different contexts it starts getting useful (and really interesting). And I agree that people have been talking about the soft skills issues for a long time, but there’s nothing like seeing the data. When we see the processes at work, things become concrete, and there are always interesting surprises.

  11. Yes, this is what ELF theorists have been saying too, Anne. And another thing about the term ‘variety’ is it is has traditionally been used to describe language bounded my geographical limits, which is not what we’re seeing with ELF. New ways of living – new terms needed.
    PS Thanks very much for breakfast – it was wonderful! xxx

  12. Oh great to hear from you Stew and yes, audio production is always an interesting challenge.

    To repeat the oft quoted Widdowson point on authenticity, any text is going to lose authenticity as soon as it hits the classroom as it’ll be read out of context for its intended readers – authenticity being about the way the readers interract with the texts rather than the actual texts themselves. That said, I think we should strive for credibility, but that can be a vexing issue too.

    It’s always hard to set the context up quickly in audio recordings so listeners know who is talking to who and where. Screen writers face similar issues but generally have longer to overcome them. Somehow EFL writers have to accomplish it with characters that live and die over just a few minutes or less.

    Can you tell us more about what you were thinking about utilizing native and non native speakers we already have in ESL/EFL training? Were you thinking of recordings of students, for example? Would be very interested to hear more!

    Oddly enough I’m coming at it from a different angle at the moment – using video rather than audio. I’m reasoning that the pictures will be very handy because they can help set the context quicker.

    And finally – so sorry I haven’t responded sooner – been away and tied up – but would love to explore this more.

  13. Robin Walker has recorded NNS talking about their perception of language and ELF for this book, which is as authentic as it gets.

    I’m feeling just slightly frustrated by the gap between authentic listening of any kind – be it NS or NNS – and the bits of language from those listenings distilled for use in teaching materials. In real life we have all the time we choose to have, soaking up what we hear and making sense of it. Errors are barely relevant except perhaps to raiuse our awareness as listeners, and problems understanding each other’s accents can be overcome in so many ways. Communication, after all, is a two-way street. Yet when it comes down to producing teaching materials, it all gets cropped down to the bare essentials. My interview partner made an error in the recording? We can’t use it. Her accent won’t cut it with the B1-going on B2 learners? Let’s get a native speaker to play her.

    Glad you’re back on your blog 🙂

  14. Welcome back, Vicki. Yes, I agree with you on pretty much all of that, including the importance of work such as Almut’s of course (much/most of which is actually NS conversations). Of course, it is ironic that after Henry Widdowson’s criticisms of the use of corpus data for drawing teaching implications, the ELF research may, er, lead to exactly the same process. But I think if we agree that corpora — whether NS or NNS or NS/NNS – can indeed give us insights but that their findings shouldn’t be applied slavishly – and that context is always the important thing – we could save a lot of unnecessary debate. We could also finally get away from this awful NS-NNS divide, which, again ironically, I feel that the presentation of the ELF ideas has actually fostered.

  15. I wonder if teaching this skill of adjusting your language for other (often lower level) speakers could actually help the long term language development of our students – assuming you could even teach it. I’ve read a couple of times that some students with very good communication strategies find their language development stuck, perhaps as they don’t need any more language (although they still keep coming to class as if they believe that they do).

  16. PS

    I haven’t got as far as the activities part of Robin’s book yet, so I wonder what he thinks about shadow reading as an activity and who can and can’t be used as models.

  17. Great to see you Alex! Love the sound of the Singlish and Konglish lessons and yes, along with ‘interlanguage’, the term ‘fossilization’ also requires a rethink from an ELF perspective.

  18. … or maybe the term “EFL” requires a rethink from a fossilization perspective.

  19. I meant

    or maybe the term “ELF” requires a rethink from a fossilization perspective. My fingers just type “EFL” automatically (they did the same again when I started writing this!)

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