Why is ELF still on the shelf?

In today’s world, 80% of communication in English occurs between speakers whose first language is not English. I live in Glasgow, Scotland, an English-speaking country and this is apparent even here. Sometimes I meet my friend at the local skate park where her kid likes to whizz around after school, and I’m always interested to hear the chatter between local mums. They speak in English, though they are from all over the world. Likewise, with the staff in most of the shops, restaurants and cafes in the area. While I was at university for the first time, I worked in a Mexican restaurant and communicated in English with people from Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Libya, France and Poland. And in class, my students communicate and make social connections with learners from Syria, Iran, China, Poland, Eritrea, El Salvador, et al.  

TEFL, or Teaching English as a Foreign Language, essentially refers to teaching English in a country where English is not the first language. It focuses on teaching English as a means to communicate with ‘native speakers’ of English and therefore uses ‘native speaker’ models in pronunciation and listening activities. It also may teach little tidbits of ‘culture’ from English speaking countries, like how everyone in Scotland eats deep fried Mars bars every day. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point.  

TELF, or Teaching English as a Lingua Franca, is much more inclusive. Its focus is on being understood in international contexts. Rather than attempting to have students pronounce English words in a standard English or American accent, TELF embraces global English and focuses on being intelligible. It gives communication strategies for mutual understanding and considers cultures to be dynamic. The Accentricity podcast has a great episode on actors learning accents. Think of how many bad accents you’ve heard in films over the years. Learning a new accent is hard. Plus, I don’t have a standard English accent, and nor do I want one, so why should my students work so hard for something unnecessary and in many cases unattainable? TELF provides a range of model accents from around the world, supports students to explore their own pronunciation goals and aims for speakers to communicate successfully in international contexts.  

Help us get ELF off the shelf!

You may have noticed my use of quotation marks in ‘culture’ and ‘native speaker’ above. My reason for doing so is to consider what is ‘culture’ and who is a ‘native speaker’? Let’s look at culture first. When people think of culture, they may think of how a group of people do things – their beliefs, religion, music, art, food, social norms, etc. But the danger there is getting mixed up in stereotypes.  Every group, and sub-group is different and unique. For example, I am Scottish, but I don’t wear tartan, listen to bagpipes or eat haggis every day (though I do enjoy each on occasion). Culture is not merely related to nationality but also related to organisations, cities, groups of friends and families, etc.  People act differently in different situations. For example, do you behave the same way around close friends as you do colleagues? Communicating effectively with someone from another ‘culture’ is therefore a negotiation. It takes understanding, patience and adaptability from everyone involved and can’t be learned as sets of rules.

Now, let’s look at ‘native speakers’. Alan Davies defined ‘native speaker’ proficiency as early childhood acquisition, grammatical intuition, fluency, creativity in writing, ability to translate into L1 and creative communication. My Polish friend moved to Ireland when she was 16, speaks with an Irish twang, uses better grammar than her Irish other half, is fluent, creative, can translate, has completed a Master’s Degree at Belfast University and can use slang Scots, Irish and English words as she’s lived all over the UK. So, by Davies’ definition, and through her proficiency in English, she’s a native speaker. Though because she was born in Poland, many people may consider her to be a ‘non-native speaker’. 

There are five times as many ‘non-native English Speakers’ in the world as ‘native’ English speakers. By teaching ELF, we can teach our students how to communicate with all English users intelligibly. It is an inclusive way to teach as all accents and cultures are embraced.  

I speak English with a Scottish accent, and I have always felt that my accent just wasn’t ‘correct’ when it came to teaching pronunciation. Whilst doing my diploma, I’d look at transcriptions of words whilst thinking ‘This isn’t how I say it.’, but Adrian Underhill’s table is focused on RP, so doesn’t use some of the sounds I use. When I’d notice the pronunciation focus in a coursebook lesson was /u:/ or /ʊ/ my heart would sink and I’d think ‘Great – boot and bull. But they’re the same sound?!’ Then I’d dutifully play the audio, use my accent as a comparison, and have a class full of very confused students wondering how they’ll ever learn English ‘properly’ in Scotland.  

But since I’ve discovered the wonderful world of TELF, this is no longer the case. In TELF, vowel quality is not so important, as long as students get the vowel length right. So students should aim to say blue or shoe with a long vowel as close to /u/ as they can, and sugar and woman with a shorter vowel similar to /u/. If they say it intelligibly, that’s all that matters. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca’ is an unbelievably helpful guide. It lays out the Lingua Franca Core, or key features of pronunciation necessary to be intelligible as focusing on consonants (except /ð/and /θ/), consonant clusters, vowel length and nuclear stress.

Overall, ELFpron coaches students to communicate successfully with others, so focuses not only on speaking clearly, but also on strategies for being understood such as rephrasing, enunciating, using explanations and non-verbal communication. It also differentiates between what students should be able to understand and what they should be able to say. For example, teaching students to produce connected speech actually hinders intelligibility, as squishing all your words together essentially makes you difficult to understand. But it can be beneficial for them in a receptive sense.

In a nutshell, ELF is gloriously global and embraces the diverse world that we live in.

So, my question is this. Why is ELF still on the shelf? If the majority of communication in English is taking place between speakers with a vast array of beautiful accents, why are we still insisting on providing ‘native speaker’ models for learners? Why haven’t we adopted the LFC? And why does EFL still dominate ELT pedagogy, methodology, teacher training courses, books and classrooms? Isn’t it time we put EFL on the shelf in preference for its forward thinking, global, intelligibility focused, inclusive alternative?  

In this blog post, I have only scratched the surface of the wonders of TELF. I plan on writing more on the topic in time, but if you’re intrigued, check out the following sites and books:  

TEFL Equity advocates 

ELFpron blog

ETProfressional – Teaching English? Or teaching English culture?

Teaching English as a Lingua Franca, Marek Kiczkowiak

Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, Robin Walker

Successful International Communication, Chia Suan Chong 

 

 

 

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