08 Nov One More Step towards ELF
Article originally published in the IH Journal, issue 45. Author: Anna Golc.
Wait! Is that the all so familiar EFL, up in the headline? Or something else? It’s actually ELF. Not “English as a foreign language”, but “English as a lingua franca”. A momentum-gaining approach to English teaching that’s less Britain-centred and more globe-friendly. What about the “proper accent”? What about the pronunciation? This article explains what changes in English teaching that shift of focus implies. Read it and see how you can tweak your own teaching and what resources you can access to keep up with the trend.
Teaching English as a Lingua Franca is not a new concept in EFL. This article focuses on pronunciation in ELF, describes its importance and offers a few practical ideas on how to incorporate it into the language classroom.
Whilst studying English in high school, about fifteen years ago, all of my textbooks included sections devoted to the culture of English-speaking countries, mainly the United Kingdom. I clearly remember pictures of red phone boxes and double-decker buses, articles about British festivals and drinking tea. The assumption was that I would one day travel to the UK and use the language to talk to native-speakers. Fifteen years have passed since then and the reasons that we teach English have evolved so much that we don’t tend to see those culture sections in course books anymore. In fact, some course books have even started introducing different non-native accents in listening materials. We now better understand that a lot of students are learning English to communicate with the whole world, not just with native-speakers.
The focus is shifting from EFL to ELF – teaching English as a Lingua Franca – a language used for communication across cultures and mainly between those who have different mother tongues. There still is, however, a lot more we can do in terms of teaching pronunciation in order to prepare our students to face the challenges of using English as a world language.
Why Change it at All?
Why not? It is unrealistic to teach only one accent, both receptively and productively, and expect our students to understand and be understood in English everywhere they go. Since there is such a wide variety of native accents that we can teach, why should we consider a perfectly intelligible French accent in English any worse? Teaching ELF is about raising awareness of the diversity of the different “Englishes” used all around the world.
Another significant argument worth mentioning relates to the make-up of those who actually speak English: native speakers make only a small fraction of all people who can communicate in English. In the EU 94% of secondary students are learning English. After Brexit, only 1% of the EU population will be native-speakers with English most likely remaining one of the official languages of the union (O’Grady, 2017). It seems clear that, given current trends, ELF will continue to gain importance.
Imagine an Italian winery doing business with Australian and Chilean companies. During the employee’s English lessons, a textbook focusing on British English, both in listening and pronunciation exercises, is used. In this scenario, an important step was clearly omitted: needs analysis and follow-up. At the beginning of a course it is, of course, important to get to know the learners, check in what situations they use English outside of the classroom, who they talk to and what they actually want to learn. It is clear that this winery’s employees need to be able to understand Australian and Chilean accents in English; therefore, these are the accents to which they should be primarily (but not exclusively) exposed.
In terms of pronunciation, Laura Patsko and Katy Simpson in their blog ELF Pronunciation describe an excellent way of analysing what problems need to be addressed with a particular group of learners (Patsko, 2013). Since many students will expect to hear and learn British or American pronunciation during lessons, as with anything else in the classroom, it is crucial to talk to students and explain why certain materials and activities are being used. Of course, certain students might strive to sound like a native-speaker, especially when they want to integrate in a native-English country, and, if that is what they want and need, then they should be encouraged and supported to achieve their aim.
Textbook listening materials are no longer as native-speaker centred as they used to be, but it is still necessary to bear in mind our learners’ needs and to expose them to different accents, especially the ones they have contact with in real life. This should allow students to exercise their flexibility and practice their understanding of various accents. Listening to international speakers may also normalize having a non-native accent in English and increase our students’ confidence when speaking. I believe that it is also a good idea to discuss those accents and their characteristics with the learners so they are consciously aware of them and in order to improve their bottom-up listening skills.
In multilingual groups all students listen to and get used to their classmates’ accents during each lesson. Teachers of monolingual groups, however, need to make special efforts to provide that opportunity to their students. Materials with a meaningful content may be used to expose students to alternative models of English. For example, teachers could use:
- News from around the world – It is important to not only listen to accents our learners will deal with but also to learn about the way of life in the places they are from. According to Bayyurt and Akcan, news stories from across the world represent the diversity of linguistic norms as well as cultural values of the place (Bayyurt and Akcan, 2015: 40).
- Katy Simpson’s myenglishvoice.com. A website with ready-to-use lesson plans featuring videos of people from around the world speaking English.
- Ted Talks by people with different accents in English, YouTube videos, also available with subtitles.
- Speeches and interviews with singers, actors, politicians, etc., from different parts of the world.
- ‘Skype dates’, WhatsApp audio conversations, sharing video recordings with IH students from different parts of the world.
Having an accent helps some people to feel that they remain themselves even though they’re speaking another language. A speaker’s pronunciation can tell us much more about the person than the words they are saying, for instance, their regional, social and cultural background (Ożóg, 2017). Our learners should be aware of the fact that it’s ok to have an accent as long as it doesn’t break down communication.
Jennifer Jenkins published a list of features, based on her research, that are necessary in order to be understood in English (Jenkins, 2000). The book is eighteen years old, yet textbooks still insist on teaching RP or, less frequently, American English pronunciation. In ELF, being intelligible is the main goal of pronunciation, unless our students strive specifically to sound more like native speakers.
When looking at pronunciation exercises in a coursebook, I would always consider whether it aids with intelligibility or helps to sound more like a native speaker. If being easily understood is what my students are striving for in pronunciation then instead of drilling the ‘th’ sound we should focus on the features of our learners’ pronunciation that Jenkins (2000: 132) describes as crucial to being intelligible:
- Nuclear stress
- Vowel /ɜː/ and length of vowels in general
- Consonant sounds and consonant clusters.
According to Jenkins (2000), consonant sounds are important to be intelligible in English, so, for instance, working on the difference between ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds with Japanese students is crucial. It is, however, equally important to raise awareness of other nationalities that their Japanese interlocutors may have problems pronouncing them, so instead of working towards perfect RP pronunciation we are working together towards better mutual understanding in a global sense. Of course, not all accents can be taught to all students and this is why the needs analysis mentioned before is useful when teaching or correcting features of pronunciation that are problematic to your students.
During the last week I have used English to speak to people from Ireland and Britain, as well as Italy, Switzerland, Mexico, Ukraine, Greece and a variety of other non-English speaking countries. Fifteen years ago, my school wasn’t preparing me for these sorts of interactions – perhaps it should have been. Given that English is used so widely today, I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in another decade or two. Teaching English as a Lingua Franca merely means helping our learners to step into that world.
Bayyurt, Y. and Akcan, S. (2015). Current Perspectives on Pedagogy for English as a Lingua Franca. Walter de Gruyter
Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an International Language. OUP
O’Grady, C. (2017). After Brexit, EU English will be free to morph into a distinct variety. The Guardian. [Online] 25 September. Available from: www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2017/sep/25/without-uk-influence-eu-english-will-be-free-to-morph-into-a-distinct-variety [Accessed: 5 October 2018]
Ożóg, C. (2017). “I don’t have an accent” said Alison from Sussex. World of Better Learning. [Online] 7 August. Available from: http://www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2017/08/07/dont-have-an-accent/ [Accessed: 22 October 2018]
Patsko, L. (2013). How to do a needs analysis with a multilingual class. ELF Pronunciation. [Online] 21 November. Available from: https://elfpron.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/needs-analysis-multilingual/ [Accessed: 4 October 2018]
Author’s Bio: Anna has ten years of experience in teaching, is DELTA-qualified and has an MA in English Philology specialising in teaching. She currently works in IH Rome, and has taught in Poland, China, Spain and Ireland before.