Number one for English language teachers

Challenges in ELT: English as a Lingua Franca

Type: Article

DELTA-qualified teacher and materials writer Katy Simpson takes a closer look at English as a Lingua Franca.

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When you do a needs analysis, do you ask students who they use English with? This is one of the questions in onestopenglish’s list of suggestions for completing a needs analysis, and it is a crucial question if you want to know whether your learners use English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). For many people, the answer is likely to be: with other people who do not speak English as a first language. Even with young learners, who might not have an immediate need for English, we can predict that they are more likely to use ELF in the future – as a common language to communicate with people of a different first-language background to themselves. There are an estimated 1.2 billion people who speak English as a second language, compared to only 400 million who speak it as their first language (Crystal (2003), as cited in Walker (2010: 73)).

So, if you have a Japanese student, for example, who mostly speaks English with employees of a German company, how do you prepare them for this? Their priority is clear communication, not integrating into a specific speech community. What kind of materials can you use, and in what ways do you need to adapt your teaching? These are issues that myself and co-blogger Laura Patsko have been addressing for the past three years at ELFpron, sharing materials like syllabus documents and videos of pronunciation teaching techniques, all aimed at helping teachers who want to respond to the needs of ELF users in their classrooms. Here are a few of the challenges we’ve found along the way …

1) Listening and pronunciation exercises often assume students are most interested in British or American English

Learners often complain that so-called ‘native speakers’ of English ‘eat their words’. Yet many pronunciation exercises encourage students to speak in the same way. Asking students to produce weak forms and connected speech, for example, could make their speaking less clear. One challenge for teachers is to decide which exercises labeled ‘pronunciation’ are relevant as productive pronunciation exercises and which are receptive pronunciation exercises.

Another challenge is the limited range of accents used in most listening exercises. Consider again the Japanese learner who needs to communicate with a German company. They might benefit from working with audio materials featuring German speakers of English. But this would currently involve the teacher designing their own materials – not something everyone has time for. However, there are some solutions to this problem:

Here’s something to try …

  • Learn which pronunciation features are important to make speakers intelligible. Research by Jennifer Jenkins led to the creation of the Lingua Franca Core (LFC), which is a list of pronunciation features crucial for intelligibility. Jenkins published the LFC after studying interactions between pairs of ELF users and analysing which features of pronunciation led to communication breakdown. See Robin Walker’s Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca for an accessible and practical guide to the LFC. Broadly speaking:
  1. Consonant sounds, vowel length distinctions, and sentence stress are important for maintaining intelligibility.
  2. Vowel quality is generally not important, e.g. it does not matter if you pronounce the word bus with a vowel sound more like /ʊ/, or more like /ʌ/, as long as you are consistent.
  3. Features of connected speech make people sound less clear.
  • Direct students to my site, My English Voice, where they can download free self-study listening lessons featuring speakers from around the world (teachers are also welcome to use the materials in class).
  • Look on YouTube for audio with a range of accents to develop your learners’ listening skills. Choose speakers with accents your students are unfamiliar with and/or accents your students are likely to hear outside the classroom in the future.
  • If you speak the same first language as your students, you can be a role model for your students. See our TEFLequity piece for more on this topic.
  • If you do not speak the same first language as your students, look on YouTube for relevant role models, i.e. proficient speakers of English who speak the same first language as your students.
  • Consider the messages you implicitly convey in class about ownership of English. For example, if English is your first language and you use the word ‘we’ in class, e.g. ‘we say it like this’ – what impact does that have on your learners? If your learners are most likely to use English as a Lingua Franca, be careful when implying that ‘natural’ is better, e.g. ‘It sounds more natural like this.’ Natural for whom? Is this relevant to your students?

2) Assessment descriptors often imply there is a ‘correct’ way to speak, but ELF interactions are fluid and dynamic

Assessment is a big part of our industry, and this poses an interesting problem for the teacher preparing learners to use English as a Lingua Franca. There is an understandable desire among teachers, learners and assessors to look for a ‘standard’ that can be used as a fixed reference point. One of the biggest exams in the industry relies on descriptors, some of which conflict with key features of ELF interactions. For example, they refer to ‘mispronunciations’, implying that a ‘correct’ pronunciation also exists. But does it? To go back to the example of the Japanese speaker communicating in English with the German speaker, whose pronunciation is ‘correct’? As neat as it would be to have one standard pronunciation, the reality is that the spoken language is much messier. This is not to say that ELF interactions are impossible to assess, but more research is needed in this area.

Here’s something to try …

  • If you are responsible for designing speaking tests for your school, try testing students in pairs and use communicative activities like information gaps. Try assessing students on their ability to use communication strategies, e.g. explaining the meaning of a word in another way, or asking the other person for clarification.
  • If you have a higher level class of teens or adults, raise students’ awareness of issues surrounding language variation, accent and identity, and ownership of English by designing questions for speaking or writing tests which require students to engage with these topics. While I was teaching on Durham University’s pre-sessional course, hiring practices in ELT was the topic of the first model essay that a group of Chinese post-graduate business students was asked to analyse. It was a great way to start the course, to reflect on their previous English learning experiences and to challenge their preconceptions about teachers who speak English as a first language compared to teachers who speak English as a second language.
  • If you are preparing students for an exam like IELTS, you may only have limited time for pronunciation work, so it is probably still worth looking at the LFC (see point 1) when you are doing your diagnostic tests.

3) Many users of English want to change the way they speak because they fear accent discrimination

Whilst reading the point above, there may have been a voice in your head arguing that there is a standard. It’s true that Received Pronunciation (RP) is perceived to be a standard, but it is actually only spoken by a ‘minute’ population nowadays (Cruttenden, 2001: 81). General American (GA) is another accent people consider to be a standard, but it is only one of many north American accents (you can hear some others here). The fact remains, however, that many learners state a preference for these prestige varieties. There are plenty of English language schools and teachers willing to capitalise on this – just type ‘accent reduction’ into YouTube. So why would people want to change their accent? Because accent discrimination is real. Karin Krummenacher talks about prejudices in the ELT industry in her piece in this Challenges in ELT series – and the ELT industry is not alone. So here is the issue for teachers: do we perpetuate that discrimination in our classrooms by feeding into the perception that some varieties of English are more ‘valid’ than others? To what extent is it our role to challenge the preconceptions of learners, other teachers, and stakeholders like parents and Ministries of Education?

Here’s something to try …

  • Give learners choices. Don’t assume that their goal is to sound like a so-called ‘native-speaker’. Make sure your needs analysis documents ask students who they speak English with.
  • If learners state a preference, e.g. ‘I want to sound British,’ help them to reflect on what they mean by that. E.g. which British accent? Why is this their goal? Is it really the most appropriate goal for them?
  • Raise awareness in your staffroom of the issues surrounding ELF by holding a training session for colleagues (and feel free to get in touch with me for any extra materials you might need).

Conclusion

While there are challenges, people are becoming more aware of the importance of considering ELF users in the classroom – and everyone reading this article can be part of the solution.

  • If you find useful audio content featuring a wider range of accents, write up a lesson plan and share it online.
  • If you are a materials writer, ask your publisher to use actors for audio recordings who do not have British or North American accents. Even if they say no, the more people who ask, the more this will raise their awareness of the lack of diversity.
  • If you are a teacher, contact a publisher and volunteer to trial their materials. If their listening lessons only feature British or North American accents, make sure you comment on this. If the pronunciation section does not differentiate between receptive or productive exercises, question whether the publisher assumes students want to sound like ‘native speakers’.
  • If you are a teacher trainer, make sure your course includes a session on ELF.
  • If you are interested in action research, experiment with different materials or types of assessments more suitable for ELF users. Share your findings on a blog or in a journal. The IH Journal, for example, welcomes submissions from teachers outside the International House network.

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