What is ELF? Variation, accent and intelligibility

This post is the second in a three-part series based on CPD workshops recently held at SGI in London on the topic of English as a Lingua Franca (“ELF”).

Awareness and research of ELF has been growing steadily over the past 15 years or so, but there still don’t seem to be many people in the English language teaching industry who really appreciate what it’s about, which makes it hard to have an informed opinion on what it might mean for their practice.

The SGI workshops were intended to introduce ELF to teachers and generate some discussion about its implications.

The previous post in this series ended with the following task:

Take these groups:
• American English
• British English
• ‘BBC’ English
• Indian English
• Native speakers
• Non-native speakers

And match them to these numbers of speakers:
• 1200 million
• 400 million
• 230 million
• 200 million
• 57 million
• 1 million

And here’s the answer:

Non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers by approximately 3 to 1, and it’s estimated that some 80% of interactions which take place in English no longer involve any native speaker.

In other words, the most statistically common use of English in the world today—by quite a long way—is between people who don’t speak English as their first language (or “L1”, sometimes also called “mother tongue”).

So whereas English used to be described in terms of where it is used, now it seems to make more sense to talk about how English is used. The different roles the language plays depend on who is speaking to whom, not where they are.

For a real-world example, just imagine a multinational company which employs people across the globe who need to communicate with each other to do business. A German employee and a Japanese employee of this company are probably going to use English together.

In this case, English is their contact language, or their lingua franca.


Variation, accent and intelligibility – English as a Lingua Franca (Part 2 of 3)

This post will focus on three key areas of this new field (English as a lingua franca, or ELF).
1. Variation is a natural part of language.

Think about how you talk to your friends, how you talk to your boss, how you talk to a stranger in the street or employee in a shop, etc.

Think about how your grandparents use your language versus how you do (assuming you speak the same language!).

Think about how you would pronounce particular words, versus how your friends would, or your parents, your colleagues, politicians, people on TV, that nice lady who works in the post office… and so on.
2. Everybody has an accent. It’s a part of your identity. Typically it reveals something about where you’re from (e.g. a city or country). It might also (but not necessarily) give clues as to your education or the people you spend a lot of time with (and their accents).

The associations we make are things we’ve learnt from experience of meeting people with these accents and hearing others’ judgments of those people.

There’s nothing inherently ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about an accent. It’s just a bunch of sounds, really!

Equally, there’s nothing inherently more or less intelligible about a particular accent. Certain regional accents are often ridiculed for being ‘incomprehensible’ (Newcastle, anyone?), but people from those regions, or people who have spent a lot of time in them, don’t have such trouble understanding these accents. It’s just about familiarity.
3. This brings us to intelligibility (for now, let’s define this as ‘whether you can make out what someone’s saying, regardless of context or other clues’).

There’s no question of a particular accent being intelligible or not in itself. We need to take each person individually. Having a strong regional accent does not necessarily imply unintelligible speech. (There’s a lot of interesting research on this.*)
Here’s a great example of two people in conversation, both of whom speak with accents which reveal quite plainly where they come from, and both of whom are perfectly intelligible:

The idea that learners don’t need to sound exactly like native speakers is nothing new. Here’s a quotation from 1949:

“Language learners need no more than a comfortably intelligible pronunciation… which can be understood with little or no conscious effort on the part of the listener.”**

But some have started to ask: ‘Intelligible to whom? What listener?’

If English is being used as a lingua franca, which is very likely nowadays, then the listener is going to be another L2 user of English.

So, about 15 years ago, a researcher called Jennifer Jenkins started recording ELF interaction. She analysed these recordings in detail and came up with a list of features which seemed to be the most important for making one’s speech intelligible in ELF interaction, and which could be taught in classrooms.

Before we reveal the list, have a go at trying to identify what you think would be the priorities from this list of various pronunciation features:

• consonant sounds
• vowel quality (e.g. /æ/ vs /e/)
• vowel length (e.g. /iː/ vs /ɪ/)
• schwa and weak forms
• consonant clusters (e.g. /str/ in ‘street’)
• word stress
• nuclear stress (e.g. ‘I’ll be working next SUNDAY’ vs. ‘I’ll be WORKING next Sunday’)
• connected speech features (e.g. elision, assimilation)
• stress-timing
• tone

Come back for the final post in this ELF series to check your answers…


*For example, see Derwing, T. M. & M. J. Munro (1997). ‘Accent, intelligibility and comprehensibility.’ Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Vol. 20, Issue 1, pp. 1-16.

**This quotation is from Abercrombie, D. (1949). ‘Teaching pronunciation.’ English Language Teaching, Vol. 3, pp. 113-122.

I am also indebted to the following literature for statistics on worldwide English usage and definitions of terms such as ELF and EFL:

Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language (2nd edn.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an International Language: New models, new norms, new goals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Important note: The phenomenon of ELF impacts all areas of language, not just pronunciation. In the recent SGI workshops, we only talked about ELF as related to teaching pronunciation—and so the same is true of these blog posts.


This entry was posted in English as a Lingua Franca, Professional Development, SGI CPD Club and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What is ELF? Variation, accent and intelligibility

  1. Pingback: English as a Lingua Franca – what’s it all about? (Part 1 of 3: English around the world) - Teacher Training Blog

  2. Pingback: The Lingua Franca Core and if/how we might teach it - Teacher Training Blog

  3. Pingback: ELF pronunciation – what’s involved and how to teach the core sounds | Lauraahaha

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