Devil’s Advocate vs Vicki Hollett on ELF

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

So the fifth victim on the hot seat is the lovely Vicki Hollett. 

Vicki Hollett is a business and technical English teacher, teacher trainer and author. British by birth, she now lives in the US where she is learning to speak ’merican and blogging about it here. Her friends at work say she’s now reached intermediate. Yay! She hopes ELF will be easier to learn.

Chia:  Hi Vicki! It’s a real pleasure to have you as our guest on DA today!

Vicki:  Pleasure’s all mine

Chia:  I’ve been told that you are the organiser of the BESIG pre-conference event at the IATEFL Glasgow conference this year, and the theme of the event is ELF (English as a Lingua Franca)?

Vicki: Yes, in fact I’m relying on you to come and be one of our speakers.

Chia:  Shh…I’m pretending to be DA now, so let’s keep my other identity under wraps for now…(hear the Batman theme tune in the background?) hee hee *wink*

So many people have been talking about ELF ad nauseum over the past few years, but just in case our readers don’t know what it is, would you care to explain briefly?

Vicki:  ELF stands for English as a Lingua Franca, and it’s generally used to talk about the English that’s used in communications between NNSs, because it happens to be their shared language. (It’s often used to describe conversations where NSs are present too though.)

Chia:  But whether it’s English used to chat to NSs or NNSs, it is still English, isn’t it? Why are we making such a big deal about it?

Vicki:  It raises many important questions. For example, are NS standards always the best ones to use to assess our students’ output?

And are we working smart and using precious classroom time in the most helpful ways?

Chia:  Wait…are you suggesting that there are other standards by which to assess our students’ output?

Vicki:  Well yes, I think “success” should be the standard. As in ‘Can they get the job done?’

Chia:  Surely, getting the job done means being able to speak English? And we have to teach some kind of English as an end-point, don’t we? Since English belongs to the English, isn’t it only sensible to use proper English as a standard? Plus, in order for successful communication to take place, doesn’t the learner have to speak accurately? If I say, ‘I went to the cinema tomorrow’, you would have no clue what I am saying…

Vicki: English is a means to an end for most students. The bigger goal is being able to communicate successfully with international contacts. Languages are shaped by people using them and there are more NNs in the world than NSs. But the key point here is that no, English doesn’t have to be accurate for successful communication to take place. That’s why the ELF research is so interesting.


Chia:  I am finding it hard to separate the use of the English language from ‘successful communication’.

People learn English so that they can communicate successfully.

We teachers are here to teach them English to enable them to do so.

How does ELF change anything?

What are you suggesting we teach to aid successful communication?

Vicki:  I think we should be trying to develop capabilities that will help them cope in very diverse settings. For example, language for building relationships and rapport, the flexibility of mind to employ empathy and see things from different points of view, and importantly the ability to accommodate and negotiate meanings…

I can’t go into much detail, but for example, raising awareness of different turn taking styles and ways in which linguistic politeness vary, checking and clarifying activities, more work at discourse rather than at sentence level, getting students to adapt messages for different audiences.

Chia:  That all sounds good. But to be honest, it’s what a good Business English trainer/Communications Coach already does. How does ELF change anything?

Vicki:  Well actually, I think we have been doing a lot that’s helpful in business English. (And there are a heck of a lot of successful ELF speakers out there, so there’s proof in a way.)

But I think some areas are lacking. Take relationship building – speech acts and functional phrases are important for that but I think they’re still often taught without context. And then there’s the issue of assessment by NS standards.

Chia:  But I think a lot of what you say really boils down to the English teacher having good idea of what enables successful communication and being able to help students with that, rather than having any knowledge of ELF and its research findings, isn’t it? What was that about letting learners drop the third person ‘s’ and dependent prepositions, and not teaching them to use weakening with the schwa? Surely that’s just bad English???

Vicki:  Not many teachers get the chance to follow their students around and see them in action using English at work, hence research is invaluable…

Re: letting the third person ‘s’ and dependent prepositions go by, it goes back to working smarter. We need to prioritise things that are going to give the biggest bang for our student’s buck. Not weakening with the schwa is interesting because it may sometimes make someone more intelligible to a NNS.

Chia:  Are you therefore saying that if dumbing down enables one to be more intelligible to other NNSs, we should be teaching a dumbed down version of English? Would it not result in ELF becoming a pidgin version of English though?

Vicki:  Actually I’m saying our students need to attain a *higher* level of skill in English. Depending on who they are communicating with, they may need to weaken that schwa or not. It’s a skill we need to be pay more attention to: callibrating for the competence of your interlocutor – so the ability to adapt your message in real time as you gather more information about your interlocutor’s knowledge of the subject and linguistic competence.

Chia:  So this ‘callibrating’ includes dumbing down one’s English then?

Vicki:  Ha! Why yes! It’s an unusual way to state it, because it’s a high level skill. For example, new English teachers often struggle with it. But the ability to grade your language so you can be understood by the person you’re talking to is a key ‘ELF’ skill.

Chia:  How can language teachers teach this though? Surely it’s a skill that one picks up through experience. I mean, some people are just naturally more sensitive to others and adapt more to them. Others just don’t listen and can’t be taught to. Is it really part of our job to teach such skills?

Vicki:  I think it poses particular challenges for teachers working with monolingual classes, but there’s still lots that can be done. Eg. performing a task once, then changing it slightly and doing it again. How did you need to adjust what you said to the new circumstance/interlocutor/context. …

Some people are better at adjusting and accommodating than others. By drawing attention to what they’re doing and offering opportunities to practise it, we can help others get better too.

And yes, absolutely it’s part of our job.

Chia:  All this skills work is probably great. But my students come to me to learn English. And by learning English, they mean they want to be taught the grammar, the lexis and the pronunciation of the English language. They say they want to learn to speak like a NS. And they often don’t feel like they are learning anything unless they are put through grammar exercises and lots of corrections. Are you then saying we should ignore what our students expect of our classes and what they want?

Vicki:  No. I think the customer is king and we should deliver what they want. …

Not only do our students have to invest money, but they also have to invest effort to learn English. It’s foolish to imagine that what we teach will necessarily be learnt. They will weigh the effort required against what they think will be most useful and be selective….

Hey, maybe that’s why so many ELF speakers leave off the third person ‘s’.

Chia:  I get that leaving out the third person ‘s’ may not be detrimental to meaning creation, but what kind of impression is that creating in the fellow interlocutor though?

If an NNS goes for a job interview, or goes on CNBC to be interviewed about their expertise, and they make a seemingly tiny error that does not affect their intelligibility, e.g ‘The government want that the economy recover more’. Although we understand what they mean, but we might not have a very good impression of them…

As much as the liberal ELF proponents would like to seek justice for the NNSs who have been discriminated against for decades, the fact of the matter is the real world is cruel, and it judges you by the kind of English you speak. Even if you are perfectly intelligible, but saying something like ‘He want that I go’ could very well cost you a job.

Vicki:  Sure, impressions can be damaged by poor English. (Particularly so with writing). But there are very proficient NNSs who can sail through a job interview or ace an advanced examination in English and never drop a third person ‘s’. But when they are mixing with other ELF speakers at an international conference, they drop it. They know the rule perfectly well. But in many contexts, the content of the discussion is what matters and adding an ‘s’ or not becomes irrelevant.

Mostly our students want to be known as decent, trustworthy and likable people – the sort you’d like to do business with. Speaking English correctly contributes to that, but some of the other things we’ve mentioned contribute more.

Chia:  So you are saying that there are times when the NNS would need to use NS-normative accurate English, and at other times, they would need to adapt and accommodate other ELF speakers. There was some research done in the field of ELF that found NNSs using the article ‘the’ in a slightly different way from NSs. It was found that ‘the’ was used in expressions like ‘the life is good’ to emphasize the noun ‘life’. But which rule of ‘the’ should the English teacher be teaching? Both? Neither? We need to teach something. And at the moment ELF research looks very much like descriptive linguistics that do not have much pedagogic implications in prescribing what we teach.

Vicki:  Oh I haven’t heard of that research, but it sounds interesting. Researchers have found NSs and NNSs using quite a few bits of language differently. “You know” is another one and ‘disagree’ and a lot of other performative verbs like ‘suggest’, ‘recommend’, ‘propose’ etc.

I think we should be teaching the usages we follow and learning about the new usages that are emerging as fast as we can.

We need to be able to provide our learners with more information so they can make informed decisions.

Chia:  I think you have offered a very fair view of the issue so far, Vicki. Teaching English is not just about discrete items of lexis or grammar, but about helping our learners to become better communicators. And to do this, we have to teach them the skills needed in interacting with our NNSs of different levels of proficiency who might come from different cultures in different contexts. Sounds like teaching ELF is in fact quite the contrary to dumbing down language. What is the opposing of ‘dumbing down’?  Hmm… Are we over-complicating the matter here?

Vicki:  I reckon that in some ways teaching ELF is about a very simple switch in thinking. When we measure students against a NS standard, we tend to wind up focusing on errors, deficiencies and pragmatic failures.

But when we flip the switch and think in terms of what works in ELF contexts, the picture get much rosier. There are new priorities and we stand a better chance of going after (and meeting) the best goals.

Chia:  Thanks for painting such a bright picture of the future, Vicki! And I thought that ELF might just mean the end of our teaching careers! Hahaha

Vicki:  Gosh I hope not!

Chia:  I hope I haven’t given you too hard a time.

Vicki:  Not at all.

Chia:  Shall we just remind everyone that the BESIG PCE is on the 19th March at the IATEFL Glasgow conference, and speaking on the topic of ELF are Vicki Hollett, Mark Powell and myself (not as DA).

Vicki:  Look forward to seeing you at the BESIG PCE in Glasgow

Chia:  Thanks so much for your time, Vicki! See you in Glasgow!

Epilogue: Vicki’s opinions are her own and do not represent any organization she is associated with. Chia was just playing DA. Contrary to Chia’s position on this blogpost, she is actually an ELF convert and will be speaking about her 5-year journey with ELF, alongside Vicki Hollett at the BESIG PCE this March at IATEFL Glasgow 2012.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

46 thoughts on “Devil’s Advocate vs Vicki Hollett on ELF”

  1. Very interesting discussion and a great concept! Many thanks! As a “genuine” DA on this issue — and someone who is deeply convinced of the important role of DAs generally — I still think there is a huge hole in the ELF discussion about the actual language that people should be taught. This is why the average chalk-face teacher has great difficulty making the link between ELF research findings and their teaching. (The best comment I heard on the topic was from a teacher in Munich who said, “I don’t teach ELF, but that’s what my learners end up speaking.”)

    The language teaching issue specifically is nearly always skirted round in the discussions about (very necessary) communication strategies, awareness raising and so on. ELF, like other discussions that focus purely on communication skills, often seems to operate in a world where no actual language teaching takes place. Somehow, the people already miraculously speak English at some sort of intermediate level, and we just work with what they have and improve their communication strategies and don’t waste time trying to correct deviations from native-speaker models as long as they don’t affect communication and/or create a negative impression. (Now, there’s a DA statement!) 😉

    Also, many of the strategies found in ELF communication, while fascinating, are ones used by communicators generally in whatever setting, including “NS to NS” (rephrasing, let it pass, accommodation, grading language, negotiating meaning etc). And much of this has been the discussion of progressive business English training for the past 10-20 years (as, for example, have issues of intercultural competence, which have also been added to the ELF armoury).

    I also have huge problems with this continuing categorisation of people into NS and NNS categories, which some of the earlier ELF discussion actually argued was wrong/meaningless. (See, for example, Sandra Lee Mackay’s “Teaching English as an International Language”). Many people, including myself, are both NS and NNS in different settings and don’t suddenly become different people when they switch from using one language to another. And the strategies we need for good communication are basically the same in all settings.

    Anyway, much to discuss in Glasgow! See you there
    Best wishes

    1. Thanks Ian for your very insightful comments and for really playing DA on the topic!
      I think to start off, ELF is about how we teachers should be prioritising the classroom time, and basically not spending ages on getting learners to produce the third person ‘s’ or the schwa when there are other things (may it be language points or skills) that are worth focussing on in order to make them better communicators.

      Your comment about our assumption that the students already miraculously speak English at intermediate level truly made me laugh out loud. On one hand, I would definitely agree with you that although a lot of recent ELF discussions have been about accommodation and adaptation strategies and awareness raising, this doesn’t mean that no language (i.e. lexico-grammar and phonology teaching) is being taught in class. But it is about not forgetting to include the teaching of those above skills AS WELL AS the language systems.

      On the other hand, one could argue that as English becomes the global lingua franca, more and more countries are implementing English lessons in their national curriculum from a relatively young age, and as Hollywood and American pop culture (Starbucks, Macdonalds, Lady Gaga, Apple, Nike, Brangelina, Justin Bieber, Malborough…the list goes on…) gains a stronger foothold in most countries, alongside the proliferation of the use of English on the internet, the number of English (or ELF) speakers are going to continuously increase and the students that we get would indeed be miraculously speaking English at an Intermediate level by the time they come to us. Already, we know that the number of true adult beginners of English is decreasing rapidly (therefore the common use of the term ‘false beginners’)…and these beginners are going to get rarer and rarer.

      As for your comment about NSs and NNSs, I agree that the categorisation is not the most appropriate. However, I think it is a necessary one mainly because most lay people outside our industry still hang on to those definitions and would say things like ‘I want an NS teacher’ (BTW, look out for the next instalment of DA…I have a feeling you are going to be very interested in the topic.) The use of NNS and NS in ELF discussions is not intended to further separate or segregate them, but yet important so as to highlight the misconceptions that people have about them. It is like the use of Kachru’s concentric circles that, although divides speakers into categories that are not most in line with ELF sentiments, but serve as a useful tool to explain to the newcomer what ELF is about.

      Really great to hear from you, Ian, and I’m certainly looking forward to meeting you in Glasgow and continuing this discussion.


      1. Many thanks for your feedback and comments, Chia, which I very much appreciate. I look forward to meeting you, too, in Glasgow – I am sure there will be plenty to talk about:-)

        I just looked up the definition of Devil’s Advocate in my Oxford Dictionary — by the way, when will the first comprehensive ELF dictionary of English appear with definitions significantly different to a native speaker one? 🙂 Sorry, got sidetracked…

        Anyway, the definition given is “a person who expresses a contentious opinion in order to provoke debate or test the strength of the opposing arguments”. This raises a couple of questions:

        * The definition says the opinions are expressed to “provoke debate or test…”. Actually, this isn’t my intention really. Mine is to put forward what I believe, so I guess I’m not really a true DA after all (well, maybe a tiny bit…).

        * Second, who decides whether an opinion is “contentious”? In this particular debate, is it contentious just because it doesn’t fit in with the current ELF orthodoxy, which, in my view, like ALL orthodoxies, should be treated with upmost scepticism. Too often, though, I have had the feeling that ELF researchers have not welcomed this scepticism and categorize people who raise any objections as “pushing a native-speaker agenda” (which is usually untrue, also in my case) or “not understanding what they are saying” (on this point, if I had been “misunderstood” as often as some of the ELF researchers feel they have, I would question whether I am communicating my message effectively enough).

        And while I welcome the PCE day and am really looking forward to it, it is telling that the panel discussion, as so often at these events, doesn’t include anybody who is really sceptical about ELF as far as I can see (though some, like yourself and Mark Powell, were sceptical in previous incarnations). 😉

        My scepticism is based mainly on what I see as exaggerated claims about ELF research (which, in principle I find very interesting, like all corpus-based research, but which need — as Henry Widdowson himself has pointed out in relation to NS corpora) — treating with great care before they inform classroom teaching).

        Even a few years ago, I (and other sceptics) were laughed at for suggesting that ELF would not be codified as an alternative MODEL of English (as opposed to a form of usage). The list of “ELF-features” was short (the infamous “s”, different use of prepositions, articles etc) and not growing. Now (thankfully), the EFL researchers themselves have said this is not their aim — or, rather, no longer, because it clearly was at the beginning — and that “such lists are not helpful”, as Barbara Seidlhofer said during the BESIG webinar on ELF a year ago. So, at least the debate has moved on there, which is good.

        Also, we often see claims that are not substantiated. One of the first was the famous “80 per cent myth” – in various forms, the idea that 80% of the English spoken (or spoken by “NNSs”) didn’t involve a “NS”. This figure was plucked from thin air and has no statistical basis at all. Didn’t stop people repeating it. 😉

        A more subtle variation that we often now hear is that “most of the English spoken in the world today is spoken by “NNSs””. Really? How do we know that? I have never seen any statistics to back this up. I would agree that most of the SPEAKERS of English in the world are (probably) “NNSs” (usual caveat about definitional problems), but numbers alone say nothing about total usage – you also need to consider the intensity of usage.

        For example, at the company where I work in Germany, there are about 100 employees, of which maybe 25 are native speakers of English. Most most of the rest (from some 20 nationalities, with German being the biggest group) can speak English, and many have to do so at times at work. But of all the English spoken within the company, it is fairly obvious that most it is done by the NS because they use it so much more intensively. (This has interesting implications for who will influence English usage most in the world. Actually, we don’t know – it is an empirical question not one of principle and everyone who uses English, “NS” and NNS”, has a right to take part.)

        That is a nit-picking point, but my basic scepticism about many aspects of ELF remains. I believe ELF research (and other corpus studies, of course) should be faced with the same rigorous scientific criteria as elsewhere. For example:

        * How reliable are the results that have been found?
        * Have they been replicated in different institutional settings and for different L1 combinations? How many different combinations?
        * Have they been contrasted with comparable control groups of “NS” communication so that we can be sure that what we find really are distinguishing features of “ELF” communication, rather than just communication generally?

        I am also often dubious when I read researchers’ interpretations about “why person X used form Y and not form Z in ELF (or NS) corpora”. Again, how do we know? Did we ask them, and if we did, did they know why they chose it? Too often it seems to me, we impute psychological interpretations without being sure that they are right.

        Of course, none of these points takes anything away from the interest and usefulness of ELF (or any other) corpus research or the service done to our way of thinking about English. But, like all research, it should come with a clear safety warning: “Handle with care”.


        PS (Although this is already far too long…). I DO think that much of ELF literature is divisive in its use of NS/NNS, although maybe unintentionally. Take any article at random and see how often it categorizes “NSs” as poor communicators, a problem for communication etc, whereas the strategies, phrases and grammatical forms used by NNS are nearly always presented positively as “solutions” (which they are in many cases, but see my points above and psychological interpretations and the need for control groups to identify specifically ELF features).

        PPS I look forward to the NS/NNS teacher debate. My view is simple: I don’t believe either group is better per se or on average, and so we shouldn’t be talking in such categories. 😉

        1. Thanks so much, Ian, for your lucid comments.
          As much as you might think you are the real deal (the devil himself…mwahahaha…as opposed to his advocate), I suspect we might be singing from the same hymn sheet here (Ooh…that’s an idiom I don’t think I would teach my ELF learners).

          I think the ‘misunderstanding’ that you mention about ELF might just come from the fact that it being quite a new field in Applied Linguistics, the last 15 years have seen very rapid changes in the content and direction of ELF research. At the beginning, there was a lot of talk about the lingua franca core and codifying ELF. This led many practitioners to think that these academics are advocating teaching ELF core features, as opposed to NS-normative standards. But ELF research has progressed and changed since then, and in the area of pragmatics, ELF has been very much about the learner identity and how one uses the language they speak to belong to particular communicates of practice that they participate in. As for pedagogic implications, as Vicky mentioned, a lot of it has been about accommodation and adaptation strategies and the skills involved in making a better communicator. Seeing that you have written a book about that, I suspect you wouldn’t be against helping learners with such skills? (Can I get a signed copy? *wink*)

          The part that makes me think we are indeed singing from the same hymn sheet is the fact that you say we would never teach the ‘whole thing’ and we would combine a mix of varieties of English, and exclude grammar points and culturally specific idiomatic usage. That might seem like common sense to some, but unfortunately, from what I have been hearing, is not what many teachers automatically do.

          I have heard countless number of times from students and from teachers on teacher training courses about how certain things are taught because it is there and is what NSs say. One recent trainee (NNS) was overusing idioms and not exactly in an appropriate way, and when asked, he said, ‘That’s what our teachers told us to do in order to sound more like a NS…a blogpost about this coming soon…)

          I have seen course books that include idioms like ‘to take the mickey out of someone’ and ‘to be knackered’.

          I have met teachers who insist they would spend 3 hours working on students’ accents and pronunciation of the schwa and linking features because that is what they have in their lesson plan for the day.

          I have heard many teachers in England telling students NOT to say something because it’s American English and therefore wrong.

          I have heard teachers talking to each other and saying things like ‘I have spent so much time working on that third person ‘s’ and they still get it wrong! What is wrong with them?’

          These are the teachers/students that I hope our talks and discussions about ELF are speaking to.
          These are the teachers/students that I hope would question their end goals and the journey they are going to take to get there.

          And if you are thinking, ‘Hey, that’s just bad teaching!’ then I think we are definitely singing from the same hymn sheet, Ian. ; )

        2. Hi Chia

          Sorry for not getting back to you earlier – actually I’ve been laughing for days now at the image of the Devil singing from a hymn sheet…but still I guess he/she has some pretty good songs…well, the Rolling Stones certainly had sympathy for him. Maybe you should get the song rights for your blog. 😉

          I do think there are areas of overlap, particularly when it comes to not wasting time on details of grammar (that damn “s” again)/idioms etc. And I recognize all the teachings situations you talk about – that is indeed just bad teaching.

          I think, as I have probably said before, that the progressive business English community (which, of course, is not all business English teaching) took many these “ELF points” on board years ago – which is why I don’t regard them as “ELF points” or particularly new.

          I think the main difference between our views is that I think that the model of language that is / should be taught can still reasonably be described as fundamentally a native-speaker one. But ELF researchers/supporters don’t like to hear that because they are so keen to make this NS-NNS distinction, which I regard as fruitless (not to mention discriminatory in all sorts of ways). So typically the NS-model as parodied as being about the sort of pedantic time-wasting mentioned above and in your comments. A easy straw (wo)man to blow down.

          This means that I’m still not convinced by the concept of “native-speaker meanings” and “non-native speaker meanings” that Vicki refers to. I’m open to further persuasion, but the evidence would have to be very conclusive, found repeatedly, and applicable across wide ranges of NS/NNS groupings.

          And, ironically, for an approach that professes to concentrate on communication strategies, I think the whole ELF program actually puts far too much focus on language (for example, in comparison to the approach that Bob Dignen and I take in our book in which language is presented but not fussed over).

          Anyway, I’ll make sure to bring my horns to Glasgow so that we can continue this fascinating discussion… 😉

          All the best

          PS. I got the hint about the book! 🙂

        3. Hi again Ian,
          As you already know, the devil, being the angel of music himself, often looks like he’s singing from the same hymn sheet, but at a closer look, one realises that intentions differ. Teachers may be teaching the same language items but just the difference in attitude (i.e. ‘I want my learners to speak like NSs’ versus ‘I want my learners to become better communicators’) can make a world of difference in the method and process employed. I know that you resist the differentiation between NS and NNS, but at the moment, I still know so many teachers and learners who are obsessed with emulating the NSs that they fail to see the other important factors that influence communication.

          These conversations have definitely whetted my appetite for more…I’m looking forward to locking horns with you in Glasgow (preferably over a couple of pints) and to reading your book (*wink*)!

          See you soon!

        4. Hi Chia

          I really like this comment of yours: “Teachers may be teaching the same language items but just the difference in attitude (i.e. ‘I want my learners to speak like NSs’ versus ‘I want my learners to become better communicators’) can make a world of difference in the method and process employed”

          I totally agree with you and that could be the basis for a reconciliation of ELF-Heaven and ELF-Sceptic-Hell. So, on that devilishly harmonious note, I’ll sign off until Monday. 😉 See you there!

          Best wishes

  2. Thank you very much for publishing this, Chia.

    I’d like to pick up on one point that Vicki makes. I agree with Vicki’s view that “impressions can be damaged by poor English. (Particularly so with writing).”

    But I can’t agree with the viewpoint “there are very proficient NNSs who can sail through a job interview or ace an advanced examination in English and never drop a third person ‘s’. But when they are mixing with other ELF speakers at an international conference, they drop it. They know the rule perfectly well. But in many contexts, the content of the discussion is what matters and adding an ‘s’ or not becomes irrelevant.”

    If I’ve understood you correctly, Vicki, it sounds like you’re endorsing *deliberately* using incorrect forms of the language in situations where the interlocutor has a lower competence in English than the speaker. In this example (btw, why is third person -s such a commonly quoted example?) it would probably take more effort for the competent speaker of English to remember to drop the -s than simply to speak correct Standard English if “they know the rule perfectly well”, and by that I’m assuming you mean they can competently apply the rule.

    Applying that to the classroom, then, although I agree that the third person -s in this example of using spoken English at an international conference is irrelevant as it doesn’t impede communication, I don’t think we *shouldn’t* be teaching it in our classes. We *should* be teaching it. The question revolves around the *level of importance* (and therefore time and energy) we place (or spend) on it, not around whether it should be taught/practised/corrected or not. Deviations from Standard English should definitely at least be highlighted to our learners.

    Grading one’s language to the level of one’s conversation partner does not mean deliberately speaking incorrectly. It is this skill (i.e. adjusting your use of the language to become a more adept communicator) which we need to be encouraging more advanced English speakers (including those who speak only English) to develop.

    1. Thanks Helen for joining the discussion.

      I think Vicky has answered the point you made about the ‘deliberate’ dropping of the third person ‘s’…

      Indeed, it has been documented that perfectly expert users of ELF have been found to use language items like the third person ‘s’ and articles differently under different circumstances with different interlocutors, and this includes dropping the third person ‘s’ (only of content verbs and not commonly used irregular verbs like ‘to be’, ‘to have’, ‘to do’ etc) when speaking to other NNSs but not dropping it when speaking to NSs.

      It is amazing to find that there is regularity in the way these grammar structures are used about ELF users, and the third person ‘s’ isn’t just haphazardly dropped as and when they remember or forget about it.

      And in ELF scenarios, dropping the third person ‘s’, or what Martin Dewey would call the ‘third person zero’, is not a mistake or speaking incorrectly as such. Just as Ed Pegg said NSs dropping the ‘H’ or using the glottal stop isn’t ‘incorrect English’ but a different ‘code’ that learners might switch in and out of.

      I totally agree that it is indeed all about prioritising the time we have with our learners in the classroom and less about prescribing the features of ELF use described in ELF research. And grading language is definitely a skill that both NSs and NNSs can benefit from a bit more practice of.


      1. Hi Chia,

        Thanks for your reply to my comment. I was fortunate enough to see Vicki yesterday evening in Munich at a Pearson event, so we talked about this topic and cleared up some misunderstandings we’d had here on your blog. I find it’s always preferable to speak face-to-face about such topics but appreciate that that’s not always possible in today’s interconnected yet dispersed world.

        Interestingly, part of the Pearson talk also focused on digital literacies and on contributing to blogs. I have to admit that one of the reasons I don’t post comments on blogs very often is because I find that asynchronous methods of written communication often lead to misunderstandings, as people express their thoughts in writing in different ways. In speaking face-to-face there is opportunity for negotiation of meaning and nipping any potential misinterpretations in the bud before one speaker gets the wrong end of the stick and thunders away with it.

        Anyway, that has nothing to do with ELF. Or does it?

        See you in Glasgow!

        Best wishes,

        1. Yes, Helen, face-to-face communication offers lots that commenting on blogs don’t. Yet, blogging offers a platform for a public discussion and debate on a topic like ELF which is probably much needed too. It would be nice to be able to combine the two – i.e. I wish your conversation with Vicki had been videoed and posted on this blog so we can all be privy to the juicy exchange that went on. ; )
          Failing which you might just have to summarise what was discussed and share it with us here? ; )
          Looking forward to seeing you in Glasgow and continuing our chat.


  3. Echoing Ian’s comment of “très intéressant”.

    So wish I could make it to the panel and IATEFL in general. I would agree that the standard should be ‘Can they get the job done?’ and that we are increasingly noticing intercultural and communication competence strategies in many classes, as that seems to be at least as important as a somewhat non-existent “international ” standard of English.

    Hear, hear for this wonderful blog. Merci to both of you Vicki and Chia. Cheers, Brad

    1. Thanks so much, Brad, for your comment. I do wish you could make it to IATEFL too! We are going to miss you being there! But I hear rumours that you will be able to make it to the BESIG Summer Symposium? Maybe we can continue this debate there?

      You are right in saying that rather than focusing on ‘what standard’ to teach, it is about working with our clients’ needs and help them to ‘get the job done’, and that certainly includes not just linguistic work but also helping them with communication strategies and intercultural awareness. It is no secret that in the field of Business English, such skills work had already been the norm before the discussion of ELF took place. We could perhaps see more importance and value placed on such skills work in not just Business English, but also General English classes (if the term General English isn’t too much of a misnomer as it is…)


  4. Hmmmm is it just me that can’t find it (touch of ELF) or is there no ref to those figures given at the top – I’d love to know where they come from 😉
    I totally agree with Helen’s ” The question revolves around the *level of importance* (and therefore time and energy) we place (or spend) on it, not around whether it should be taught/practised/corrected or not.” and am reminded of Michael McCarthy’s remark in “Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers” about it not being because research has brought something to light, that that it’s forcibly to be used in the classroom. (sorry I don’t have the quote to hand)
    And Brad … doesn’t not being able to go to Glasgow just highlight the limitations of online communication 🙂

    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      Yes, indeed…it is about prioritising our classroom time and utilising the limited time that students have dedicated to learning English so as to make them better communicators rather than simply emulating the NS for its own sake.

      And yes, while it is true that we should not forcibly use or apply research in the classroom, we should also not be shy about letting research inform us on what we do in the classroom, and not stick to what we traditionally are used to doing. Take for example, quite a lot of teachers I know either do not know, do not trust or do not care about the research findings in Second Language Acquisition…and I find that rather disconcerting.

      As Widdowson once said, we need to practise the ‘applied’ part of ‘Applied Linguistics’ more, and I certainly hope to see the gap between the field of Applied Linguistics and the practice of English language teaching and training bridged a lot more.

      What do you think, Elizabeth?


  5. Great discussion you two!
    Ever since I did a short study on ELF, I feel like I’ve become two different teachers in the same room. Right from the start, I tell my trainees that I’ll let them know 1) what’s correct and 2) what gets the job done. In fact, I often incorporate a short lecture on ELF research into my lessons. I feel it’s my duty to let my students know that teachers are having this discussion and that they too can join in on the conversation. I recommend discussing ELF with your students. Why not organize a formal debate about it?

    I am genuinely looking forward to continuing the discussion at the IATEFL BESIG PCE in Glasgow.

    1. Hi Bethany,
      Thanks for your comments. You are absolutely right about getting students in on the debate. I often do the same in my classes too, and it’s always interesting to hear the students’ opinions on the subject while I play Devil’s Advocate to their opinions. Over the years, I have heard many different views on the subject both from students and teachers and it has all served to inform my own stance on the issue.

      I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion at IATEFL BESIG PCE in Glasgow too…the panel discussion should be fiery!


  6. Helen raises a very interesting point and I think it may be difficult for someone who knows the correct form to drop the third person ‘s’, or speak ‘incorrectly’ in other words. If you know the correct way to ride a bike, that’s what you do, otherwise you fall off.

    However, in support of Viki, isn’t there a precedent for this in English native speaker language. The famous dropping of the ‘H’.

    I hail from the interchange between South East London and Surrey and have friends from various geographic and socio-economic groups. I don’t make a conscious choice to do this but I know that my language (pronunciation and lexis) changes as I switch between groups. I’m more likely to use ‘th’ with one group and ‘f’ with the other for example.

    If any native speaker were to analyse their language use in different discourse communities, I’m sure they’d see the same.

    Why is this not also possible for non native speakers and, going back to Ian’s point, isn’t it another communication strategy we might want to teach?

    1. Hi Ed,
      Thanks once again for your interesting comments and thought-provoking insights.
      The phenomenon you are talking about, aka code-switching, does happen with both NS and NNSs’ language.
      We code-switch between genres, between dialects, between registers, between languages and this is affected by the different roles we play and the different uses for language we have. We don’t just code-switch when we are speaking to different people in different contexts. We even code-switch when we are talking about a different topic to the same person. e.g When I am speaking to my boyfriend about work, I use a very different register, different tone of voice and different paralinguistic features from when I am telling him how gorgeous he looks. ; )
      Those who speak different languages have the advantage of code-swtiching between different languages. And with ELF, more people who share the same first language but are also proficient in English (as a lingua franca) have been found to speak to each other in their L1 for certain topics, and switching to English for others.
      For example, research has found that some NNSs report that they feel more comfortable and open talking about relationships, sex, and taboo topics in English (maybe because it doesn’t feel as much of a taboo when spoken about in English), while others report feeling more intimate talking about matters close to the heart in their L1s.

      It’s a fascinating area, and you are right. It should be a communication strategy that we teach, or at least raise awareness of in the classroom.

      Recently, I had a dialogue with my learners about ELF and about code-switching and quite a few of them were surprised to hear me say that it is ‘okay’ to speak their L1 and to code-switch.

      For too long, their teachers (in an attempt to advocate more English practice) have created an atmosphere where it is ‘bad’ to speak their L1 when speaking English. This is compounded by the fact that grammar translation methods have gained so much bad press and we have swung so far the other side that we have forgotten the values and usefulness of using L1 and translation as part of the repertoire of skills that an ELF user should and could have.

      So, even if we don’t ‘teach’ code-switching as such, awareness should be raised of it, and learners should not be made to feel bad for doing it, as it will become a reality that is going to take hold in a world where English is used as a lingua franca.


  7. I think, Ed and Helen, that users of English move through a kaleidiscope of Englishes as they communicate with other users of English, with their range of backgrounds; and effective communicators will naturally adapt their language in many different ways. I agree, this is not just NNS usage. We do it all the time, in all of the languages we speak.
    The value of studying ELF dialogues with our students is making them aware of their linguistic choices, and of the effects those choices have on others.

  8. Ian,
    I don’t understand what you mean by “language teaching” when you say:
    “The language teaching issue specifically is nearly always skirted round in the discussions about (very necessary) communication strategies, awareness raising and so on.”

    The idea that language teaching might not involve communication strategies seems odd to me. Isn’t language always used to communicate?

    Are you advocating we ignore the changes that we see between ELF and NS interactions and stick to the status quo? Or are you advocating something different?

    Let’s take an example: performative verbs (and/or their noun forms if you like). They are more frequent in ELF interactions, presumably because they are explicit and achieving clarity is more difficult in ELF interactions. So, for instance, where we might currently favour teaching forms like “Why don’t we…?”, “How about…?” and “Could we…?” in spoken discussions, should we be adding /substituting “I suggest we…”, “I recommend we…” “I propose we…”? The former are more native-like in spoken communication but the latter are more explicit and hence potentially more helpful in many ELF contexts.

    Another example: phrases like “So are you suggesting that…?” or “So do you mean…?” are commonly used to challenge by NSs and signal disagreement. But when ELF users say them it’s more likely to mean they’re trying to be helpful and clarify. As English gets appropriated by new users, so they shape it to meet different purposes and hence meanings change.

    Do you think we should teach NS meanings, or NNS meanings , or both?

    I didn’t think I was stating a viewpoint when I mentioned proficient speakers sometimes drop third person s’s at conferences. I thought I was stating a fact. It was prompted by an observation made about attendees to an ELF conference in Europe – academics from different linguistic fields and very competent speakers of English. If I can remember where the source is I’ll post it. But I’m a bit surprised you think it doesn’t happen.

    Re endorsing “*deliberately* using incorrect forms of the language in situations where the interlocutor has a lower competence in English than the speaker,” are you asking about learning contexts (in class) or real life contexts (out of class)?

    In learning contexts it’s easy – I can endorse the accommodation but not the form – so praise them for adapting and then teaching everyone the form I would have used.

    In real life contexts, what I’d endorse or not is pretty irrelevant because it’s not my language and they can do whatever they like with it. But I’d certainly approve of my students doing whatever they can to make their intent clear .

    There’s an example of sales man at work here who deliberately used an incorrect form to in order to be understood by his interlocutor. That willingness to accommodate is part of what makes a good salesman in my view.

    1. Hi Vicki

      Many thanks for your comments and sorry for not getting back earlier. This is a great debate and thanks for subjecting yourself to the DA inquisition in the first place!

      Anyway, to answer your questions…

      * Yes, you are right that language is involved in communication strategies (at least the verbal strategies, ignoring body language, proxemics etc). But teaching communication strategies — which I very much favour, and which is also the main subject of the book I wrote recently with Bob Dignen on “Communicating Internationally in English”) — doesn’t necessarily involve TEACHING language. Often, it simply involves helping people to use the language that they already know, but in different ways.

      * So, the question still remains, what basic model of English are people being taught in order to have any language at all to use in their communication? And here I believe there really is only one fundamental model (or rather models): some version of English as a native language. As Barbara Seidlhofer herself said some years ago (am I am paraphrasing, but faithfully): until ELF is codified, the only model that exists is ENL (English as a native language). That means, yes, that, fundamentally, people are taught the grammar rules and word meanings of a native-speaker or “standard” model. This is both the reality on the ground at the moment, what most learners want, and, I would argue, desirable. Not, however, because native-speaker is “better” in an sense, but because, like Everest, these models are there. Or is anybody suggesting that the (in)famous list of ELF features should actively be taught (no “s”, different use of articles, prepositions etc)? I haven’t seen that advocated yet. If not, then we are de facto teaching a fundamentally native-speaker model and shouldn’t be afraid to say so (though maybe we can give it a different name to get away from the value-laden “native speaker”, “standard” names). As a parallel, German has the (for learners) extremely annoying and communicatively mostly useless “der, die, das” thing with definite articles. After 23 years in German I still get some wrong, and I don’t really care any more. But I would never dream of suggesting (nor, do I believe ,does anyone else) that these useless articles shouldn’t be taught. I was taught German as a native language, but inevitably ended up speaking my own idiosyncratic variety (more on this below).

      * Of course, within the “fundamentally native-speaker model”, we have, as teachers, to make choices about what we teach and what we bother correcting, in whatever way. These choices will or should always depend on the language level of the learner, their background, the context of their language use etc. So we never teach “the whole thing” anyway, even if that existed: we are always teaching both some sub-section of the totality and some “variety” or mix of varieties (US/UK /whatever). Our choices to exclude things can obviously include not teaching obscure grammar points, culturally-specific idiomatic language etc. But this in itself doesn’t make the fundamental model any less “native speaker” (gosh, I really wish we could abolish these terms!).

      * One of the influences on our choices of what to teach may — after very careful consideration (à la Widdowson) — be the results from corpus studies, whether native speaker, non-native speaker or a mixture. The examples you give are very interesting and I am all for researching and considering such things, but we have to be extremely sure the results found are reliable and can be generalized before stating: “NNSs” say this and NSs say that (or even “tend to say…”).

      * The first group of examples you give is basically substituting one set of NS phrases (that come, presumbably, either from textbooks or corpora) for another set because we believe the second set might be more appropriate in specific contexts. Again, I agree with this in principle because everything in communication depends on context. But none of these alternatives (“I suggest we…”; “I propose…”; “I recommend”) are fundamentally NNS — indeed they are already found in many standard textbooks (and Business Spotlight!). And are we sure that these alternatives are always clearer and more culturally acceptable etc? I think there is still a lot of darkness here.

      * The second group you give (“so do you mean…”) is slightly different. Here you are saying, if I understood correctly, that the meaning is different (and more positive) when NNSs use these phrases. Again I would ask the same questions: how reliable is this result? Can we generalize across all groups of NS and NNS? I am sceptical, but if the answer to both questions is an unequivocal “yes”, then that is indeed a fascinating result and one that BOTH NS and NNS would have to take into account in their communication, because their interlocuters may be saying something different to what they would mean with the same words. But again, this kind of “what exactly do you mean when you say these words?” syndrome comes up all the time in all conversations (including our dialogue between two NSs, where you had to clarify what I meant by “language teaching”, which might on the surface look like it clear, but wasn’t). Also, I would argue that so much of the meaning of any phrase depends not on whether some is a NS or NNS per se, but on individual communication style, context, tone of voice etc. I can say “So do you mean…?” in both a very friendly and very unfriendly way, and am sure I have done so at times.

      * So, your last question (“Do you think we should teach NS meanings, or NNS meanings , or both?”) I would answer by saying: we should definitely teach NS meaning of words (as well as, where appropriate, any words commonly used worldwide in varieties of English other than US/UK – “prepone” as an example from Indian English, which Lufthansa used recently in an announcement in English. Should we teach alternative NNS meanings of individual words, for example the fact that some — but by no means all — NNS mean something different when they say “actual/aktuell”etc? Again, depending on context we could point out these kinds of false friends. But teaching their active use? I’m still dubious. Would you recommend that? In your reply to Helen you said you while praising the accommodation you would then “teach everyone the form I would have used”. That’s my point. As for “NNS meanings” of phrases, as in the second set of examples you gave, I am dubious again that we can really talk of different NNS meanings as such rather than a much more fluid situation across speakers of any background, depending on tone, context and objective when speaking.

      Finally (if you are still awake…), I read a fascinating article recently by Kurt Kohn, professor at Tübingen University in Germany (and a plenary speaker at the TESOL conference in Philadelphia this year). In summary, he squares (for me at least) the circle between the teaching of a (fundamentally) native speaker model (and the desire of many learners for such a model) and the whole issue of learners’ identity, by pointing out that the input (basically native speaker in most cases) is processed differently by each individual learner depending on their personality, background etc, and the resulting output is what he calls “My English” — individualized, idiosyncratic and unique. (As with my idiosyncratic German as mentioned above, complete with English accent). Kurt’s article is called “English as a lingua franca and the Standard English misunderstanding” and was in the book “English in Europe Today. Sociocultural and Educational Perspectives (John Benjamins, 2011). I can recommend it highly and I believe it will be the basis of Kurt’s talk at TESOL.

      Fundamentally, I think the problem is that — for possibly understandable political (in a good sense) reasons of addressing injustice and discrimination against NNS teachers and learners — we have got far too hung up about the whole native speaker/standard English thing and have been throwing the baby out with the bath water. But I don’t think it’s too late to rescue that baby and maybe Kurt’s article has shown a way forward in reconciling the positions.

      All the best

      1. Hi Ian,
        Thanks for your continued comments here. I think I’m starting to understand your stance a bit better, though you’ll have to put me right if I’ve misunderstood stuff.

        If any readers think ELF researchers might be suggesting we teach students to say things like ‘Actually” when they mean “Currently”, they have misunderstood, and thank you for pointing it out, Ian. Obviously a teacher’s goal is to help students avoid and sort out misunderstandings, not to cause them. So with false friends, we should warn students: “For NSs this words means X. For some NNSs this word means Y.” Our students need to actively learn there could be a problem here, so they know to clarify and check.

        Re the examples, you said that ‘I suggest we… ‘, ‘I propose…’ and ‘I recommend…’ are not fundamentally NNS forms. My point is they are more frequent in NS speech and they are used in different ways (they do not carry the same level of formality as they do in NS interactions). We can’t teach forms without teaching their meanings and uses, hence my question – should we be teaching these forms with their NS meanings and uses or their NNS meanings and uses?

        I never meant to suggest that questions like ‘do you mean…?’ aren’t used benignly by NSs to check understanding. My point is they’re also frequently used to challenge. It always depends on context of course, but folks might like to check out the ‘meetings’ section of the BNC spoken corpus at to see examples of this. I’ve had a hurried look and it’s sometimes hard to tell, but it looks to me like at least half the examples of ‘do you mean’ are signaling disagreement there. I haven’t checked the phrase in the VOICE corpus, but I’d expect to find ‘do you mean’ used more to clarify than challenge. I think it’s the same issue as before. As the language is taken up by new users, so it gets shaped to meet new purposes and hence meanings and uses change. So whose meanings and uses should we be teaching?

        There’s been quite a bit of research done recently into misunderstandings in ELF communications by folks such as House, Kaur, Mauranen and others. ELF speakers often pay meticulous attention to clarity and explicitness, and performatives clearly have a role to play in that. And since Searle, a great deal of research has been done on NSs use of performatives – so we’re talking nearly half a century’s research there where there’s very broad agreement that they are employed to avoid ambiguity and they convey a more formal tone. So unlike you Ian, I think it’s time to re-assess the way we teach performative verbs.

        Paradoxically I think we have often tended to teach ELF meanings and uses in our courses and classes and I have argued for some time that we should instead be teaching both. It would require a shift away from teaching at the phrase and sentence level and looking more at discourse and pragmatics. In the light of recent research, I also find some of Mark Powell’s lean language argument compelling too for lower level language learners – I’m thinking of the bits where he maintains the Germans do it better. (about 3 mins in)

        Look forward to seeing you and carrying on in Glasgow,

        1. Thanks, Vicki! I’m really enjoying this discussion.

          I saw Mark give that talk in Bielefeld and it was not only highly entertaining (of course) but also very stimulating. 🙂 I’m all for simplicity and for teaching as lean a version as of English as possible (without limits: I am not a fan of “Globish”). But I’m not convinced of how generalizable some of these results are, not only across different “NNS groups” but also across different language levels with “NNSs”. Indeed in Mark’s example he actually points out that two different groups of “NNSs” use different strategies – he says the Germans used the “explicit perfomatives” but the French didn’t (although he says the French caught it off the Germans). So, I’m still sceptical about saying “NSs do this” and “NNSs do that”. But, as I said to Chia, I’m open to persuasion…

          See you soon.
          All the best

  9. Hi Chia and Vicki and all,

    My tuppenceworth. I think this current trend in ELF (and BELF even) is of more interest to academics than to business English learners, certainly none of the people I teach would be interested. As customers they expect value, and that means getting as close as possible to native-speaker English. They know that when they use English their professional credibility is on the line. They wouldn’t see mistake-making as code-switching at all.

    1. I’d be quite interested if there’s any research you might point me towards in attitudes towards accuracy in different cultures and contexts with EFL or ELF. Personal experience says that attitudes vary widely between countries, with some far more interested in grammatical precision and NS mimicry while others are far more interested in communication. Attitudes certainly vary in different contexts, as has already been discussed above, and applies equally to NS who code switch as actively as NNS.

      As a side point, some cultures seem positively obsessed with how terrible their accents are (according to them) while others are perfectly happy to speak English as they do without insecurities. It seems that these attitudes are quite influenced by culture, the educational system, and perhaps the level of English that is considered acceptable in each place for adults of a certain educational background/employment status/socio-economic status/etc.

      1. Thanks for your comments, Kate.
        There have been quite a few research papers done on the attitudes towards ELF by both English teachers from different countries, and of students too. It seems to be a popular topic amongst Masters students at King’s College London, so I would suggest you have a look at the dissertations (for MA in Applied Linguistics and ELT) in the King’s Library at Waterloo.

        You are absolutely right in saying that some people are just much more concerned about being NS-like and being accurate, whether it be phonologically, or lexico-grammatically, and culture (both national and group culture) definitely plays a part in this.

        Having said that, by carrying out discussions and debates in the classroom, I find that I am able to get students to question these beliefs they hold and wonder why and how they come to have such beliefs about their learning of English. I don’t do this to try and change their mind; I do it with the intention of giving them a fuller picture so that they are able to make more informed decisions about their language learning process.

        But at the end of the day, if my learner insists that they hate their accent in English and want to sound like Hugh Grant, despite knowing how difficult a journey that would be, who am I to tell them they can’t do so?

    2. Hi Lyle,
      Thanks for taking time to comment. I do agree that there are many business English students who would be hardly interested in the academic discussions of ELF and the descriptions of the English used by NNSs with other NNSs. Having said that, the topic of how to adapt and what strategies to use when communicating with people of different cultures and different L1 backgrounds is often of great use to my learners, and their professional credibility can be affected by much more than their ability to emulate the NS. In fact, a common complaint by ELF users is that many proficient NNSs are often able to understand one another e.g. in meetings or conferences, but the moment an NS walks into the room, most of the NNSs are lost and confused by his ‘code’. I know of professional trainers and consultants who do not just teach NNSs but also NSs to code-switch and learn to communicate better with NNSs in ELF.

      I think one thing that needs clarifying is that ELF is not about teaching learners to deviate from NS English. It is about prioritising the time spent in the classroom so that we are not obsessed with unimportant lexico-grammar and phonological items but shift that focus towards helping our learners be better communicators. Unfortunately, due to the traditions of teaching, many teachers tend to deliver their lessons in the format of language ‘macnuggets’ (Yesterday, we did the third person ‘s’, today, let’s cover this list of 30 idioms, and tomorrow, let’s focus on the schwa and on linking sounds i.e. catenation, elision, intrusion, etc). From an ELF perspective, this would not be a productive use of classroom time, considering that 1. these are not linguistic items that are crucial to meaning negotiation, 2. the idioms and the phonological items could in fact cause problems in other NNSs understanding them and 3. according to SLA research, this just isn’t how languages are learnt.

  10. Thanks for starting this thread, Chia. I find that trying to make sense of EFL is a bit like wading through treacle, and the DA concept is great. The more devilish the better!

    A discussion of practical teaching examples would help to clarify things. Here’s a case in point:

    International House has on its website a ‘Language Awareness Test’ for applicants to the Cambridge ESOL CELTA course.,104,ART.html

    In the first section, takers are asked to identify a mistake in an exchange, suggest a correction and then explain, “as if speaking to a learner”, how to make the correction clear.

    Here’s the first exchange:

    “I’d like some informations about your courses.”
    “Certainly, here’s our brochure.”

    How might EFLy-minded teachers respond to this? Would they see a need for correction or even comment?

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      Thanks for joining the thread, Stephanie. Really pleased to see you here.
      And don’t worry, I figured you meant ELF and not EFL.
      In fact, you are not the first one to make that typo.
      When my BESIG weekend workshop on ‘Politeness and Pragmatics in ELF’ was being publicised on Twitter, it started out as ELF, but after several retweets, it ended up as EFL!

      To answer your question, I believe Barbara Seidlhofer mentions that the use of ‘information’ and ‘luggage’ as countable nouns have already been described as common features of ELF use.
      And in fact, the use of ‘luggage’ as a count noun, as in ‘I have 2 luggages to check in’, is already part of Singaporean English, which is considered by some as an NS variety.

      However, the test you mention is for a candidate wanting to take the CELTA course and become an English teacher.
      I think as a teacher, one needs to know as much as possible about the language, and this includes knowing the rules of the language their teaching, and being able to help learners to know about the rules with the use of learner-involved graded language which hopefully includes elicitation techniques.

      But ELF-aware teachers in a real-life classroom might choose to either ignore it, or to make students aware that in British and American English, ‘information’ is countable, but many NNSs and some outer circle NSs don’t necessary use it in the same way, and let students make up their own mind. But definitely, I wouldn’t spend time on it… ; )

      1. Thanks for the reply Chia. I absolutely agree that as language teachers we should be pointing out different varieties of English to our students, certainly the varieties they are likely to encounter. It extends their repertoire. So, as globetrotting polyglots, they can check in two items of luggage in London and two luggages in Singapore. But is this ELF, or is it just being versatile?

        With regard to ‘information’, if one of my students said “the informations are…”, I wouldn’t spend much time on it either. I’d just give them my gimlet-glare! That usually does the trick – they correct themselves. With some students, a slightly raised eyebrow, a double-take, or pretending to have misheard is enough. If they wrote “the informations are” in a report, I’d definitely correct it – who wouldn’t? It doesn’t happen as much as it used to, possibly because it’s being drummed out of them at school, or they’re using a spell-check. My spell-check marks ‘informations’ in red, but maybe that’s because it’s set to British English!

        Which makes me wonder: Is anyone working on creating an ELF spell-check? Do ELF-aware teachers have different tolerance levels depending on whether something is written or spoken? And if so, why?

  11. Aaarrgh!!!!!!

    I meant ELF not EFL. What a dunderhead I am. Please-oh-please don’t quote me as saying that EFL is like wading through treacle.

    As you can see, all these acronyms are doing my head in.

  12. I am lucky enough to work in a company where Global Business English is the curriculum, which makes my job much easier when choosing material. And I would like echo Chia’s comments that it is not dumbing down the language. In fact it is often the contrary and NS can find it diffucult to ‘internationalize’ their language.

    Essentially we have reduced the amount of phrasal verbs, idiomatic language, metaphor, and constructions which comment on and complicate the sentences such as “This is just an idea I’m throwing out there, but…” In general, one word – one meaning. We teach awareness of NS language useage, but do not encourage adopting it.

    In my opinion, this does tend to give a speaker a rather high register, and sure I think it robs the language of much of its color and flavor. But to be honest, that kind of language play is so cultural it is best kept off the general syllabus. If the learners need it, they will pick it up in the specific area they live/work with. So, teaching different registers becomes almost like ESP. For example, if I were teaching an MTV moderator we would have a unique course plan to fit the discourse community. Accuracy depends on the register.

    One danger I see in this already is that management speak is overused. Specifically I mean abstract nouns. My learners will often say sentences like “I provide customized service solutions, including conceptualization and realization, for a wide range of global industries.” I usually ask… what the hell does that mean?!? But when they use this statement in a NNS environment, it often communicates their job quite clearly.

    Last point… and perhaps a question for Vicki… is the US market ready for Global Business English training? As Chia mentioned, my learners can’t understand what they are saying because they are not monitoring their language use. In fact, they are often being sidelined in international project teams where English is language of communication. Should I move back to the US and be an English trainer?

    1. That’s a really hard question Charles and the more I think about it, the more I don’t know. In some ways to me the US market seems more targetted on teaching the language rather than the skills and capabilities – and cosmopolitan perhaps rather than international. But another part of me is thinking the US market maybe waiting for someone like you to hot foot back here and get cracking. Are you coming to Glasgow?

      1. Yes, but unfortunately I will miss your PCE (arriving Mon pm). Hopefully, at least a synopsis will be available online. However, it would be great to meet you in person and learn from your experience a bit. By the way, I am currently using your Tech Talk Pre-Int book in a course, extremely useful. Thank you.

  13. Hi Chia

    Big thanks to Vicki and yourself for initiating and conducting this blog. This is an area which I need to build my knowledge and the debate; the feedback and all the comments have provided me with a great overview and some useful insights on this topic. Thank you!

    Not sure if I can really contribute to this discussion, but if just for one moment we put all the arguments and hang-ups to one side…. in my opinion isn’t our job, simply to listen to the learner, understand the needs, desires & goals of the learner, build their awareness on topics like this and then use all our skills, expertise and knowledge to help them along on their journey and reach that goal? Be it EFL or ELF?

    I work in Germany for the same Multi-national German company as Charles Rei ( see your previous comment), and yes this company’s educational hierarchy does promote ‘Global English / ELF’ However, do my learners want this? I think I can safely say that a majority of my learners have next to no interest in learning this (what would be in their eyes) a 2nd rate language. They want to learn the colour, the playfulness & beauty of the English language and be able to express themselves like I and other NSs do. They do often agree that communication is the most important factor but accuracy is often a dam close 2nd or sometimes desired more (especially for the Germans).

    Will think some more and come back later…..

    PS. We seem to share the same passions. Second language acquisition. Could you or any of your followers recommend any good books, articles or literature? Would be greatly appreciated.

  14. Another great discussion!

    I think ELF and BELF is very much about your perspective on teaching / learning languages, and relates in many ways to the communicative language teaching (CLT) and the focus-on-form debates of the nineties and the noughties. CLT has many variations, depending partly on the way the teacher and the learners view language learning. If you think teaching is largely about presenting language for learners to imitate, and then practicing that language, then you are probably not going to have an ELF perspective. If you feel, on the other hand, that task based learning and a focus on meaning is the way to go, then ELF makes a lot of sense. But I suspect most practicing teachers are somewhere in the middle, and adjust according to their teaching context.

    For me the main thing ELF and BELF research does is remind us as teachers that many of our learners will need to operate in an ELF environment, not a NS one, and need to be prepared to do so. For business English learners it’s generally about successful communication, not successful language (there’s the CLT debate again). Getting the job done is what is important, not whether or not the language is similar to that used by a NS (whichever variety we pick). For some this may mean a change in priorities, but for others there will be no change at all – as both Chia and Vicki mention, and indeed the discussion on BELF on my own blog last year suggested, in many ways BELF is simply “going back to the roots” of business English training, ie doing a needs analysis, finding out as much as possible about the target discourse, deciding on priorities, and then working on them with the learners. If your learners do not want to focus on ELF, then you shouldn’t be doing it. In fact, I would argue that if you are taking a position for or against ELF you are not doing yourself or your learners any favours – it should depend on their needs, not on your philosophy. As Vicki very clearly states “The customer is king and we should deliver what they want …” But we also need to let them know the options.

    1. Thanks Evan for your lucid comments. I particularly like what you said about teachers who believe in focus on form (for form’s sake…in a grammar macnuggets sort of way), and teachers who believe in more of a focus on meaning (which of course would involve focus on form…no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here) and a task-based learning approach to language acquisition.
      And the discussion of ELF is probably no big surprise to most BESIGers as this is a reality that most business English teachers and clients have had to deal with for the past decade or so. At the end of the day, the clients’ needs is kind indeed…so anyone following a syllabus or a course book blindly without considering the contexts and the people that our clients would be using English with are simply dogmatically refusing to recognise the reality and cater to their learners’ needs. But of course, ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ are two different things, and in order to help our clients be more informed in what they want, we need to raise awareness and provoke discussions of the topic, while getting them to have a better understanding of how languages are learnt and what constitutes a good communicator. I guess that’s what you mean by ‘letting them know the options’.


  15. Dear Chia,

    I have been reading about ELF and currently planning a research on ELF. I am interested in the chart presenting the ELF users and thinking of using it in my work. I am wondering if you could help directing me to the original work of the chart (maybe yours?), or if you have the most updated one, I would be even more grateful. I have tried to track the source for a week but couldn’t find one…

    Best regards,

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