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

  9 Responses to “English as a Lingua Franca and native speakers”

  1. Vicki,

    What a funny video! I can’t imagine getting 6 pound cakes. I think ELF is a very important topic. I heard Penny Ur speak on this and she made some great points about how some words are more cultural, while others are more recognized. I began to think of words from my culture, being Mexican American, and realized that some phrases and words are not recognized everywhere but as an English teacher I may take this for granted. When moving to Germany this became more noticeable when I traveled to London and thought the “to let” signs must be missing the “I” for the toilet. In America, we have “for rent” signs. In this situation, what do we teach our students? I teach context and if I know pinpoint differences. However, I am sure there are better ways to approach this.

  2. What caused Jay’s breakfast woes? aha! Well his taking for granted that a pancake is a pancake and can be understood everywhere. When I see a strange face after i’ve uttered a word, I stop and ask “did I say something wrong? is a pancake the round thin thing you can roll to put lemon and sugar in? humm… not exactly? how do you call them then? crêpes ! aaah ok! same word then!

    British people are often too polite to stop and ask me what I mean. But the French often embarrass me when they stop foreigners for details !!! if the conversation goes without any hindrances or uncertainties, why stop? As a teacher we may have different attitudes according to the students, their progress, their readiness to join in etc… but as an invidual enjoying talking a foreign language for the sake of it, or just enjoying the company of foreign people, why stop the flow if it flows well?
    (vous pouvez répondre en français si vous voulez !)


  3. Krissie, my wife (British), can get pretty grumpy when she’s tired.
    We were in America, travelling, she was tired, pregnant and at the end of a long day suddenly very hungry.
    The only place on the horizon was a Mc Donald’s so reluctantly (both vegetarians at the time) we entered and she asked…
    Can I have some chips?
    Sorry ma’am, we don’t serve them.
    Believing repetition can sometimes solve this kind of problem, she tried again.
    I just want some chips.
    Sorry ma’am, we don’t serve them.
    She snapped.
    Look, this is Mc Donald’s – right?
    Yes ma’am.
    Then give me some chips.
    Sorry ma’am, we don’t serve them.
    Of course you do! I want some chips!!
    I think she might have sworn.
    Sometimes hunger; irritability, tiredness or pregnancy can hinder fixing things.
    Ps. What ARE pound cakes?

  4. Loved your TO(I)LET reasoning Shelly. It’s interesting how our brains hunt for logical explanations for new phenomena that fit in with what we know first of all – some of which can later turn out to be pretty crazy.

    My first earthquake in Japan, I woke up seeing the ceiling going up and down and walls going in and out and thought there must be a wild party on the floor above with 50 people jumping up and down in unison. It really was my first conclusion.

    Then I realised, that makes no sense – this has to be an earthquake and thought AARGH!!!

  5. Alice, how about you talk French and I smile and nod and act like I understand, even when I haven’t a clue? I think I am pretty good at that. 🙂
    I reckon you’re right about Jay – those chefs made it pretty clear they didn’t understand so I’m inclined to think he deserved the wrong breakfast. Why didn’t he check?
    But perhaps he was tired, travelling or pregnant, like Chris’ Krissie.
    Chris, as I understand it (and ‘mericans, please put me right about this if I’ve misunderstood) a pound cake is what we might call a sponge cake in BrE. It seems to be a pretty heavy dense sponge, often made in the shape of a loaf or in a round mould with a hole in the middle. I tried to post some pictures, but WordPress doesn’t seem to allow them in these comments.

  6. Your definition of a pound cake is spot on. So named because the traditional recipe calls for a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, and maybe a pound of some other things.

    Regarding the pancake/crepes distinction which Alice alluded to, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene from the film in Talladega Nights in which Sacha Baron Cohen explains to Will Ferrell the similarities between the two.

    I can’t vouch for SBC’s French accent, but I think Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly do a fairly decent job of a North Carolina-ish drawl (or at least it sounds that way to these homesick ears).

  7. Oh thanks for the pound cake info Nicky – so it was a pound of this and a pound of that and the other. Well, how logical. And thank you for the video too!

  8. “Alice, how about you talk French and I smile and nod and act like I understand, even when I haven’t a clue? I think I am pretty good at that”

    Aha! but then I would most certainly feel you haven’t got a clue! as teachers, we *know* that kind of things, don’t we? I’m sure you do read your students’ faces when teaching, every tiny face reaction is a *clue* for the teacher, isn’t it?
    Language is nt just about talking, it’s about reacting, about watching, about noticing and face reading.

    Bonne journée !


  9. Elf conversations are how all people learning to master a language speck at first and then pronounce a word correctly. Learning through exercises, watching and listening to native speakers also help’s elf conversations for better language use. I have a Scottish accent and some people at first misunderstand me in the classroom and can be humours for both parties. Learning and especially learning a language is about practice with native speakers and at time you as a learner will mis-spell words and say some words that do not have the correct meaning for a particular sentence or situation.

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