Oct 292009


Many thanks to Darren Elliott for raising some interesting questions about English as an International Language (EIL). Here are my initial thoughts on them, and please chip in folks and add your answers too.


1. Is it right for language teachers to impose the communication style of a native speaker culture on the language learner?

No. And actually I’m not sure how it would be possible, even if we wanted to. But I do think we should be providing information on different communication styles. That way the learners can better understand where the folks they’re trying to communicate with might be coming from, and make more informed decisions about what they want to do.

2. Does English as an international language mean that we all have to do business like the Americans?

I don’t think there’s anything prescriptive about EIL. There are lots of different Englishes and American is just one of them, albeit a pretty influential one. I see EIL research as useful for informing us about what we should be spending classroom time on – what’s likely to provide learners with the biggest bang for their buck, as it were.

3. And what happens when a Greek talks to a Korean?

Yes, English might be used by a Greek talking to a Korean, or a Dane talking to a Saudi or a Thai talking to a Brazilian – there are so many combinations. And we could just throw up our hands in horror and say it’s all too complex and we should restrict ourselves to native varieties and not bother looking at what communication issues might arise. But I think this would be a bit of a cop-out. A lot of my students use English to speak to other non-native speakers.

Central to EIL research is the idea that there are core features of English which are essential for intelligibility – otherwise English couldn’t function as an international language or lingua franca. They might be pronunciation features or lexico-grammar features or sociolinguistic features. We’ve tended to hear more about the first two, but there are folks doing research into the last one as well.

I’m hazarding guesses here, but I think to explore core sociolinguistic features we’ll need to address issues like politeness, turn-taking, indirectness, and compare how we accomplish things like showing approval, negotiating disagreements, and getting people to do what we want. And it’s not easy because a lot of the language we use for discussing these things is culturally loaded. But more on that another day…

Over to you…

 Posted by at 5:07 pm

  10 Responses to “Q & A: English as an International Language”

  1. That was quick!

    As I understand it, most work into EIL has been on its phonological aspects – Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core being one of the best known examples as you point out. So when I asked “Do we have to do business like Americans” (and I’m not making any judgement on the way Americans do business, it was just an example!), I was referring explicitly to the last of those three points – not the lexico-grammar features, nor the phonological ones, but the sociolinguistic features.

    As you mention EIL is something of a buzz topic in ELT these days. Cross-cultural communication is also an established field of study – where is the overlap? Is there a Lingua Franca Core of English sociolinguistics?

    Never mind a blog post, this is a PhD thesis…. ; D

  2. Oh more interesting questions.

    Well, of course there’s lots of speech act research comparing English with other languages which is both very sociolinguistic and cross-cultural. And then there’s Anna Weierzbicka who manages to combine both with semantics. (I should post about her semantic primes).

    But what’s the core? Hmmm… Well, Alan Firth is my favourite sociolinguistic ELF researcher and he identified the strategy of ‘letting it pass’, ie. nodding and acting like you know what someone means, and only coming clean and confessing you haven’t a clue when there’s no alternative. I’ve done precisely that myself and could imagine it being the central core sociolinguistic feature of EIL. 🙂

  3. Funnily enough, I use the “letting it pass” strategy when involved in conversations about EIL. Don’t think anyone’s caught me out yet…

  4. Course not Alex.

    I use it all the time. I think that’s how I ended up married.

  5. Ha!
    Think it’s an essential strategy for staying married too.

  6. Can I add that I think that the whole world needs a modern lingua franca, as well 🙂

    My vote goes to the planned language, Esperanto. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Your readers may be interested in the following video which can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator for the United Nations in Geneva

    A glimpse of the Esperanto language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  7. My apologies for not approving this comment sooner Brian. I’m afraid it got tangled up in my spam queue. Welcome and thank you very much for joining in.
    I wonder if any visitors here speak Esperanto. Any thoughts anyone?

  8. I speak Esperanto.

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in about fifteen countries over recent years.

    Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise.

    And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

  9. I speak Esperanto.

  10. I speak Esperanto.

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