Dec 192010

Carl Dowse has put videos of Mark Powell’s plenary from the recent BESIG conference up on Youtube. It was such a terrific talk, just in case you missed it, I’ve stuck all the videos at the bottom of this post.

There are lots of great jokes and ideas here and I love Mark’s pragmatism. Like ‘English as a lingua franca’ (ELF) researchers, Mark is urging us to set sensible priorities for what we teach and it makes a lot of sense. For the many English learners who won’t be needing English to communicate for native speakers (NSs), why faff around with frilly stuff that will have little value when we can go ‘lean’.

Mark had me chuckling with what he had to say about business English text books’ obsession with phrase banks. (Video 4 below) Ha! Yeah, they bother me too. I enjoyed hearing his current thinking on the lexical approach (Video 3) and would have loved to hear more on that. And I also enjoyed his thoughts on performatives, hedging and indirectness. (Video 1 below) He describes a class with French and German speakers where his students were converging on forms that worked for all. Speech accommodation like this seems to be a key feature in ELF conversations.

There was something that puzzled me though. After enjoying watching Mark argue what seemed like an extremist ELF position in the early part of his talk (“The German version works better”), I was surprised to hear him to dismiss ELF as “just pretty obvious” at the end. (Video 5 below) Does anyone else find this puzzling?

So hat’s off to the BESIG BOT for capturing this gem on video for us and hats off to Mark for giving us lots to think about and lots of fun.  And, as always, I’d love to know what you think.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm

  14 Responses to “Lean language and ELF”

  1. These are really informative and entertaining – thanks for making them available. I have very limited experience of Business English as I do ‘general’ and EAP, but I have certainly long since given up the ‘can I just come in here?’ / ‘I’m not at all unsure that I entirely agree’ stuff for seminar-speak. Nobody ever uses them or sees why they should.

    Thanks too for the link to my blog (lathophobic aphasia)Glad it amuses you.

  2. Only had time to watch the first video so far and it’s very entertaining and makes plenty of sense. However, when I try to to explain the joys of ELF/ a lean approach to punters their faces tend to clould over. Many feel they’re being denied “real” English and that I am trying to take unjustified short cuts. The idea that what comes out of native speakers mouths IS English can be a very hard one to shake. Also, they know I’m a native speaker and what they’re looking to access from me is my native speakerness and not my fancy ideas acquired doing an MA or whatever.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, Marcia Lima. Marcia Lima said: Lean language and ELF via @AddToAny […]

  4. Where do you draw the line?
    How do you draw the line?
    (Is there a line?)
    French business folk communicate very well in English using only the present tense, everyone understands them, they don’t need an an “s” on the third person present to be able to be understood.
    They don’t need the present continuous either and “will” does the future.
    And i guess that goes for everyone else too.

  5. Yeah, about ELF, we don’t need to teach people about their own typical ELFisms, not necessarily, but we obviously have to teach them everbody else’s, or at least the ELFisms of the groups they are gearing up to encounter. My brother was telling me about a conference in Malaysia, where he couldn’t understand the Malaysians and the Chinese and the other Asians, but they had no trouble at all understanding each other’s English.

  6. By the way, this isn’t really connected to you (excellent) post but i was eating Christmas dinner today, pulled a cracker and found this joke.
    What did the sick gnome do?
    Contacted the elf-service.

    Happy Christmas Vicki

  7. Oh thank you so much everyone for these great comments and I’m truly sorry for my late replies. I’ve been very distracted by other fun stuff this holiday season.
    Eamonn, one of the complaints that’s often leveled against ELF researchers is that they are suggesting we teach an impoverished form of English, which your students cloudy faces indicate they are definitely don’t want. But as I understand it, that’s not what they are saying. They want to know more what’s happening to the language as it changes so the choices we make about what we teach can be better informed.
    The thing is we are already making choices. So when we decide to spend ten minutes practicing the pronunciation of ‘th’ say, presumably we’re doing it to help students sound more native-speaker-like. (Or have I got that wrong?) And that’s great if the students want to sound more native-speaker-like and it sounds like yours do. And I think maybe you’re making a point here that’s not brought up enough. It’s not just about getting your meaning across for many ELF speakers. They also want to look good while they are doing it. Part of that could mean adherence to certain native speaker standards. How core that is is the question though because getting the job done is generally key and there are so many other important things involved in making a good impression. Maybe we’ll find that that ten minutes would be better spent on rapport building or impression management activities instead, for instance. It’s finding out what matters most that’s key.
    So Chris, yes, I think where do you draw the line is the big question and of course it will be different for every student. But time is limited so analyzing speech data to work out what does and doesn’t matter in ELF conversations should help us make better choices.
    I think currently we tend to go by our gut instincts and a lot of the time that works pretty well. But surprising and non-intuitive things always come up when you take a step back and start looking at speech data. My gut instincts say that Mark was right about performative verbs in the context he cited (video 1) and the German way probably was better. But where Mark and I differ is, I don’t think ELF is ‘just obvious’ (video 5) We’re talking about huge global changes in the language here. So call me Mrs Picky but I’d like to see more data before I start teaching German-style performatives to a Brazilian who will be talking to a Chinese counterpart, say. Anne, I think that ties in with the point you’re making as well. Thank you for that lovely Asian-English example.
    Chris- loved the ELF joke! It crackered me up. Thank you!

  8. Apologies for my even later reply than Vicki’s! I’ve made up for it with a post of biblical proportions. Sorry about that. And thanks to the people who said they enjoyed Carl’s video of the Bielefeld talk. The funny thing for me was that I actually started out as an ELF-sceptic, but, in the process of developing the talk, I kind of defected to the other side – at least, in part.

    It’s true that nowadays we routinely heap scorn on the fixed expressions of yesteryear (‘If I could just come in here for a moment’; ‘We seem to be talking at cross-purposes’; ’I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one’ etc.), but a quick flip through even the latest BELT publications shows that functional exponents like these are very much alive and kicking. Problem is that most published materials seem to base their language input more on previously published materials than on the real thing. And those previous publications were similarly flawed. So the modern course book tends to be at least three times removed from any kind of authentic source and a lot of its syllabus verges on urban legend (eg. ‘I’m a bit tied up on Thursday’ – did someone somewhere, probably British, once say that?). This is not really the fault of authors, however. Until very recently, sufficiently large spoken BE corpora were rather thin on the ground. Now that we have a few such corpora emerging and growing, what we’re finding is that not only are such fixed expressions pretty much non-existent (as many of us predicted), but fixed expressions of any kind over three or four words long are incredibly rare as well (which we generally didn’t predict).

    So there is an awful lot of flab in the published stuff to get rid of. I wouldn’t just slag it off as hopelessly wedded to the NS model, though, because most of it bears no resemblance to what either NSs or NNSs actually say!

    What NSs and NNSs do actually say (so far as we can tell at this relatively early stage from corpora like CANBEC and VOICE) is a lot more interesting. Both turn out to be doing some highly innovative things (as well as some odd, communicatively unhelpful things) which course books have largely missed. As BE trainers, I think our job is to take ‘best practice’ from both and encourage our learners to adopt it (if they are not doing so already), whilst warning them off the NS or NNS model wherever it fails communicatively in an international context. This is what I call Lean Language – performance without waste. Some may now be calling it BELF.
    In terms of what NNS are doing (ELF) there are roughly two kinds of things, I think – ‘errors’ and ‘innovations’. Errors like missing off third person –s, using the wrong relative pronoun, treating uncountable nouns as countable (‘informations’), dropping a morpheme in an adverb (‘terrible sorry’) or adding redundant prepositions (‘discuss about’) don’t seem to impede communication and may, in some cases, even facilitate it between some NNSs (because the errors are largely shared). These are the kind of typical ‘mistakes’ all EFL teachers are familiar with and these are what I’m referring to when I say ‘a lot of ELF is pretty obvious’. Barbara Seidlhofer mentions some of these in her writing on ELF and there was a very extensive list of them compiled by Christine Johnson and Cath Bartlett, based on their classroom research and published in the BESIG Business Issues Vol. 3 way back in 1999. No-one (I think!) is suggesting we actually ‘teach’ these errors. Our learners will make them anyway in spite of our best efforts. But what we can do is resist overenthusiastic correction in these areas when there are other more important things to deal with. An easily correctable error is never a communicative error. Think about it. If you can actually correct me, you must have known what I meant. ‘I have been here yesterday’ – totally comprehensible. And let’s be clear, it’s not just grammar errors we’re talking about. ‘I made an interview for the job’ is also OK by me. Lexical pedantry is just as bad as structural pedantry when our learners have busy lives and just want to do their job better in English. I sometimes think, in freeing us from the tyranny of grammar, the Lexical Approach has just landed us with another (much more arbitrary) set of rules to internalise.

    Of course, some errors do need fixing because they are not shared across cultures. When a German says ‘in the moment’ (‘im Moment’) instead of ‘at the moment’, we don’t care or even notice the error. Maybe it’s better – aren’t we all supposed to live in the moment? When they say ‘I will’ instead of ‘I want’, there may be a problem. L1 interference may need robust correction.

    So that’s errors. And some of them could even be seen as innovative in that they actually smooth international business communication. What about true ‘innovations’? I briefly mention some of these in my BESIG talk – explicit performatives (noticed in Germans), invariant question tags (noticed in Spaniards, no?), but there are many others – avoidance of the passive and tense backshift in reported speech, dropped auxiliaries in questions, conjoined rather than embedded clauses. None of these formulations is technically an error – NS make them too, though much more rarely. What they are is simpler (dare I say more efficient?) variants on the NS model. And, frankly, I’m all for these. Sometimes it may be helpful to point out to French speakers, say, that German speakers have a neat way of doing something in English that they might like to emulate. It might also be worth briefing a Swedish speaker on some of the features of ‘Chinese English’ if they are going to be doing business with China. But a surprising number of NNS innovations cross cultural boundaries, partly because all learners have some of the same difficulties with learning English and they either fix them or (a tribute to their ingenuity) get round them. When they get round them, they seem, more often than not, to do so in similar ways.

    Now what about NS innovations? Within EIL, ELF and Global English circles the NS model tends to get short shrift. It seems to be the Great Wall of English the ‘Elves’ are trying to breach. On a structural, lexical and phonological level I sympathise with this view. NS English is (like most languages) unnecessarily complicated when your need for it is mostly utilitarian. However, on a communicative level NSs do some pretty neat and eminently learnable things which could be an excellent model for NNS users. In my talk I had no time to mention these, but they include things like the use of selective repetition – an amazing device that can be used for emphasis, agreement, disagreement and rejection in meetings, query and confirmation on the phone, empathy-building in social situations as well as rhetorical impact in presentations. We need a lot more research here. Much language in use consists of modified reformulations of what your interlocutor has just said rather than firing back fixed expressions. The better your listening skills, the less lexical firepower you need.

    So that’s my take on where we are with developing BELF from both NS and NNS data. I do say ‘developing’ not ‘discovering’ because I am in favour of some prescriptiveness here. That’s not a popular approach in our business, I know, but I do feel we (who else?) should be trying to offer our learners a fast-track to communicative competence for business purposes and not detaining them unduly with the finer points of anybody’s English, least of all the Queen’s or President’s. Pending conclusive evidence from the corpora, can’t we come up with something better than the Business EFL we peddle at the moment?

    But what if our learners insist on the ‘real thing’, as some of you point out in this blog? Well, far be it from me to deny my clients what they want, but I think we owe it to them to at least offer a more efficient alternative. Sure, some do want to be more than competent in English, to impress – but just who they are impressing when most of the people they do business with aren’t at a sufficiently high level of English to be impressed? NSs are in many ways some of the least understood in international interactions. Who would want to aspire to that?

    But I appreciate there’s a problem of perception. All the Business Spotlight surveys show a strong preference in most learners for NS trainers, though I think that’s partly because they still wrongly associate NNSs with the kind of language teaching they’ve had in the past and the NSs with the newer more communicative approach they’re now paying for. And publishers with their essentially NS model both exploit and perpetuate this prejudice, however global they like to make their materials sound. But here are a couple of course book titles I found recently that unashamedly say what they mean: ‘Speak Business English Like an American’ and ‘Speak Better Business English and Make More Money‘. Both genuine titles, I swear! And, actually, when you think about it, though the first is clearly some kind of cultural assimilation programme no doubt larded with sports and war idioms and glossy Americanisms, the second could be, truth to tell, just what our learners want. But will the author mean the same thing by ‘better’ as I do? Hm. I think I’ll leave that a mystery.

    You can follow this discussion further in a couple of hours (Fri Feb 7, CET 2pm) in the BESIG ELF and BELF webinar. Details of how to log on at the BESIG website ( How’s that for late publicity?



  9. very interesting comment. regarding this….

    “a strong preference in most learners for NS trainers, though I think that’s partly because they still wrongly associate NNSs with the kind of language teaching they’ve had in the past and the NSs with the newer more communicative approach they’re now paying for.”

    I’m not so sure. Leearners can’t really imagine that they’re going to get more up to date teaching methods from a feckless CELTA graduate (and in many cases not even that)on their gap year than they are from an NNS teacher who may be a graduate from a four or five year teacher training program, can they?

    I think NSs are still seen by learners as bearing some inner flame of authenticity and value that NNSs can’t match no matter how well trained.

    The native speaker aura convinces even very smart and well-educated people. I’m interested in academic writing and recently left a comment on a blog frequented by philosophers imploring them to – when giving anonymous peer review – not suggest that papers whose English they judged to be defective be revised “a native speaker”. I got a lot of negative reaction.

  10. Hi Eamonn

    Well, let’s not lump all NS teachers into the backpack brigade! I do agree with you that many are underqualified. But this raises a different issue – professionalism (or lack of it – at least on the training front) in ELT. Don’t get me started on that. In BE I think standards are somewhat higher than GE, but, of course, NNS teachers have usually had a much more rigorous educational preparation for ELT of all types.

    But, yes, I do think learners expect (wrongly, as I say) a NS teacher to be able to teach them stuff the NNS can’t. And this is bound up with their perception that the NS model is the goal. Dethrone – or at least demote the importance of – the NS model and you change the status of the NNS teacher as well.

  11. I started as a feckless CELTA (as it then wasn’t) free traveller myself :=))

  12. […] thanks for this Mark and if you’d like to watch the original talk – click here and for the ELF Webinar video ad – click here. The actual webinar video will be posted […]

  13. […] A talk on lean language by Mark Powell and some later elaboration […]

  14. […] relevant from our MELTA 20th annivrsary party with David Graddol, Vicki Hollett, Evan Frendo and Mark Powell’s plenary at BESIG, and one I could relate to my experience. Evan organized a professional development session for […]

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