Needles in a haystack: questioning the “fluidity” of ELF

As I’ve earlier argued on this blog, sometimes the claims of “fluidity”, “diversity”, and “innovation” found in English as a lingua franca (ELF) research are overstated. It’s so diverse that even ordinary diversity won’t do – it’s “super-diversity” now. It could very well be ultra-mega-diversity-squared, but the question of the prominence of these presumably innovative features is a quantitative one. More specifically, it’s a question of how frequently any variant forms might occur in naturally occurring ELF interaction, relative to the conventional forms. One of my shameless nerd hobbies is writing little Python programs to query corpora, and several of these mini-studies have appeared on this blog. I especially enjoy working with the VOICE corpus, which is great because 1) it contains a million words of unelicited ELF interaction; 2) it’s ready for processing as well-formed XML; and 3) it has been meticulously part-of-speech (POS) tagged for both the form and function of each word in the corpus.

The value of this double form-function tag is that it reveals every token in the corpus where a word like fluently, which is formally recognisable as an adverb, functions in a different way, like as an adjective: i think you are very fluently in english. This example of fluently from VOICE has a form tag of RB (adverb), but a function tag of JJ (adjective) to reflect that fluently seems to be serving in an adjectival function. This kind of form-function variation in ELF is presumably prominent enough that it necessitates this double tagging to adequately describe the fluidity. The VOICE team was kind enough to carry out this formidable task involving manual inspection of all million words. Now that this resource is in place (and freely available), the instances of these form-function mismatches can be easily found, counted, and viewed in context.

I’ve wondered for some time how often these variant form-function tokens occur overall, in relation to their conventional forms. My interest was renewed by the recent paper by VOICE project researcher Ruth Osimk-Teasdale in the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. One of the main workers on the VOICE POS-tagging project, she investigates word class shifts in VOICE. She narrows her data to double form-function tags that reflect a shift of category across word classes (like from adverb to adjective). These inter-categorical word class shifts therefore exclude variations within a word class, like singular nouns which are treated as plural. She focuses on items like fluently above, where word class conversion occurs without any change to the form of the word itself.

Assigning these form-function tags – and the analysis of them – are directly linked to the fluidity of ELF: Keep reading…

Tagged

Publishing in English as an academic lingua franca

Happy Summer from the ELFA project.© Nina Valtavirta

Happy Summer from the ELFA project.
© Nina Valtavirta

Few researchers would disagree that publishing in English is a necessity. The pressure to publish in high-ranking journals means publishing in English-language journals, and academics using English as a second or foreign language often find an uneven linguistic playing field. This has received a good deal of attention in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), even branching out into a designated field of English for Research Publication Purposes, or ERPP. The importance of English can’t be ignored, but an English-centered approach can fail to take note of how English functions alongside other languages used by multilingual academics.

Questions surrounding English in multilingual research settings are explored in a special issue of the Journal of English for Academic Purposes (vol. 13) entitled “Writing for publication in multilingual contexts“. Edited by Maria Kuteeva of Stockholm University and Anna Mauranen of the University of Helsinki, the special issue features six articles investigating the multilingual practices of local communities of academics in locations such as Romania, Germany, Sweden, China and Canada. The studies are primarily qualitative, exploring the researchers’ attitudes toward and experiences with the use of English for disseminating research alongside their first and additional languages (click here to view the issue’s table of contents).

These studies dealing with attitudes and experiences give insights that supplement (and are supplemented by) descriptive linguistic research. While the researchers in the special issue study experiences of using the language, other work investigates the language itself in use. For this, databases of naturally occurring English are needed that represent the English produced by academics from a variety of first-language backgrounds. Here in Helsinki, Anna Mauranen’s group has made progress on compiling the WrELFA corpus of written academic ELF (English as a lingua franca), and a companion corpus of research articles by multilingual academics – SciELF – is also underway. As these resources are naturally of interest to researchers of English as an academic lingua franca, it’s no surprise that some contributors to the JEAP special issue are also contributors to the SciELF corpus. Keep reading…

ELF corpora in the mainstream: notes from the ICAME 35 conference

Nottingham Castle, the site of the conference excursion dinner.© Sebastian Hoffman

Nottingham Castle, the site of the conference excursion dinner.
© Sebastian Hoffman

Last month I presented a paper at the ICAME 35 corpus linguistics conference at the University of Nottingham, and I was happy to find that I wasn’t the only one there combining an ELF research perspective with a corpus methodology. Two other major ELF corpus projects were also represented at the conference, and it was nice to hear about the different research questions and ELF data that are being investigated. Though ELF research is still seen as controversial in some quarters, our papers and poster seemed to be well-received. Other researchers can see that lingua franca data is linguistically relevant and can be fruitfully investigated without foregrounding ideological concerns.

My own paper was drawn from my PhD research, a corpus-based study of fluency in spoken academic ELF. This data is drawn from ELFA corpus and SELF project data, all of which is naturally occurring spoken ELF from university settings. In addition to this data from relatively formal settings, a new corpus of informal academic ELF talk is being compiled at the University of Saarland. In their paper at ICAME 35, Stefan Diemer, Marie-Louise Brunner & Selina Schmidt shared early findings from CASE (Corpus of Academic Spoken English), made up of recorded interactions on Skype. But first, I want to discuss a project from Linnaeus University in Sweden, where an ELF research perspective is integrated into a corpus-based study of ongoing change in English.

ELF & the big picture: ongoing grammatical changes in English

Click to view the poster presented by Mikko Laitinen, Magnus Levin & Alexander Lakaw at ICAME 35, 30 April–4 May, 2014.

Mikko Laitinen, Magnus Levin and Alexander Lakaw presented a poster entitled “Ongoing grammatical change and the new Englishes: Towards a set of corpora of English use in the expanding circle” (link to pdf, or click on the image at left). Their project, led by Prof. Laitinen at Linnaeus University, is compiling two corpora of contemporary English in Sweden and Finland. Laitinen’s linguistic roots are in the VARIENG research unit here in Helsinki, and this background in the diachronic study of change in English (change over time) is here directed toward the “Expanding Circle” – the growing number of second-language users of English in countries like Sweden and Finland, and who are increasingly likely to both reflect and influence ongoing changes in English. Their research tests the applicability of some of the methods and theories used in empirical historical linguistics to the study of present-day ELF use and language contact. They ask questions such as to what extent global ELF uses contribute to language variability and whether ongoing grammatical changes are accelerated or slowed down by ELF speakers/writers. Keep reading…

What do we mean by “I mean”?

Click image to jump to Fernández-Polo, F. J. (2014) The role of I mean in conference presentations by ELF speakers. English for Specific Purposes 34, 58-67. (behind paywall)

Click image to jump to Fernández-Polo, F. J. (2014) The role of I mean in conference presentations by ELF speakers. English for Specific Purposes 34, 58-67. (behind paywall)

When analysing spoken English, it doesn’t take long to encounter discourse markers, the single words or phrases that speakers commonly use to mark their stance or organise their message. Common discourse markers include well, now, you know and i mean. In the April 2014 issue of English for Specific Purposes, Francisco Javier Fernández-Polo examines the discourse marker i mean in conference presentations included in the ELFA corpus. This subcorpus includes 34 conference presentations in English by speakers of 21 different first languages. Recorded at universities in Finland, the data consist of naturally occurring English used as a lingua franca (ELF) in academic settings.

Fernández-Polo’s study is qualitative, involving a close analysis of a small number of cases toward determining the functions of i mean in context. There are only 56 occurrences of i mean in this conference presentation subcorpus (94,314 words1), and Fernández-Polo takes 48 of them into his analysis. He classifies these into four different categories – correcting mistakes and dysfluencies; enhancing clarity and explicitness; organising text; and marking certainty and salience (see Table 1 below). Examples of each are discussed in turn.

A striking finding from the paper concerns the wide inter-speaker variation in the use of i mean. Fewer than half of the 34 presenters use i mean at least once, with a single speaker producing 20% of the occurrences, and five speakers contributing two thirds of all hits. To see if a different distribution might be found in similar English as a native language (ENL) data, Fernández-Polo consulted the monologic lectures in the American MICASE corpus. He found that i mean occurs in the MICASE lectures with the same standardised frequency (5 per 10,000 words) and with similar inter-speaker variation – one speaker in MICASE produced 27% of occurrences, with 14 speakers producing 60% of hits. It thus appears that the choice of discourse markers varies a lot based on a speaker’s preference or habit. Keep reading…

Tagged

Why mixing languages isn’t so bad after all

Kaisa Pietikäinen is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, where she carries out research in the field of English as a lingua franca (ELF)

Kaisa Pietikäinen is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, where she carries out research in the field of English as a lingua franca (ELF)

by Kaisa Pietikäinen

You know those moments when you’re speaking English (as a lingua franca, or ELF), and all of a sudden your mind goes blank? You know the word you’re looking for, but you just can’t get it into your head. You might remember it in another language, but your brain just isn’t connecting to the English equivalent. Fear not – it’s more common than you think. And if your interlocutor isn’t a complete monolingual, you can try code-switching into a different language to resolve the situation.

I’ve been studying code-switching among ELF couples – couples who come from different cultures and language backgrounds, who have found each other and established a relationship despite the fact that neither partner uses his or her first language as the language of the relationship. (Actually, this might even make their relationship more equal.) These couples are very interesting as subjects of ELF research because they are much more established in their use of ELF than the traditional subjects in ELF studies – students, academics, and business people. ELF couples also make great subjects for the study of long term ELF: They use ELF every day with the same person, year after year. They open us a view to the future of ELF, on what established ELF could be like. Also, their use of ELF can give us important insight into what strategies work in the long run – and seems like code-switching is one of them!

In fact, code-switching is a very flexible device. In an earlier study (Pietikäinen 2012, available here), I discovered it can be used not only for covering for linguistic gaps, but also for

  • demonstrating use of a language
  • replacing nontranslatables, terms that do not quite catch their original meaning in English
  • specifying addressees by switching into another language, and
  • message emphasis.

In addition, sometimes code-switching seemed to emerge completely automatically, without any preparing cues or flagging, and interestingly, these instances of automatic code-switching seemed to pass without specific attention from either partner, which would suggest that code-switching is considered pretty normal an activity among ELF couples. Keep reading…

The decline of the monolingual English native speaker

Click the image to jump to "The English empire" from the Schumpeter blog on the Economist website.

Click the image to jump to “The English empire” from the Schumpeter blog on the Economist website.

I like to watch for articles and commentary on the role of English in the world today. Linguists live in a world of their own, and it’s nice to see what the broader world has to say about my research subject. From time to time, an online news source publishes something on English as a lingua franca (ELF), and especially its spread in international business. Usually the stories themselves are fairly dull, but the public forum for comment and discussion can be an informal barometer for language attitudes and ideologies surrounding English.

Last week’s column in the Economist (Schumpeter, 15.2) was no exception. Entitled “The English empire”, the article reads like an advertisement for global English. A long list of multinational companies are listed where English has been adopted as an official language and serves as a lingua franca between non-native speakers and users of English. This spread of English as a business lingua franca (BELF) is hardly news, but the column helpfully gives a list of quotes from various experts who think this is a good and natural development. Then, three obligatory components that must be included in articles like this:

  1. taking a shot at the EU translation regime – “a babbling army of translators costing $1.5 billion a year”
  2. a gratuitous reference to colonialism – “English is the language on which the sun never sets”
  3. a token finger-wag toward monolingual English native speakers – “Too many of them [English native speakers] risk mistaking their fluency in meetings for actual accomplishments”

As with an article from the Guardian that I earlier discussed on this blog, the interesting part comes in the reader discussions which follow. Sure, there’s the expected snobbery of language purists toward non-native English speakers1 (and toward American English, of course), along with suitably indignant replies. But in the midst of this and other folk linguistic speculations on the suitability of Mandarin Chinese to be a global lingua franca, an interesting theme emerges – the decline of the monolingual English native speaker. Keep reading…

Whose English? A window into written academic ELF

A February sunset in Helsinki.© Nina Valtavirta

A February sunset in Helsinki.
© Nina Valtavirta

Though it’s easy to see that English has become the lingua franca of academia, it’s not always clear how widespread it is within a specific institution. Moreover, it’s not always clear whose English we’re talking about – while English is increasingly used as a lingua franca (ELF) between non-native English speakers and authors, English as a native language (ENL) is still in the mix. In an internationally oriented university such as here in Helsinki, how much of a presence does English have? And are we talking about ENL – native-speaker varieties such as in the US/UK – or English as a lingua franca (ELF)?

Any number of approaches could be put to this question, but our recent work on the WrELFA corpus of written academic ELF offers an intriguing look into language use within the University of Helsinki. We just finished compiling a subcorpus of preliminary examiners’ statements – the written evaluations by senior academics of newly submitted PhD theses. In Finland, PhD candidates must first submit their theses to obtain permission for a public defence. Typically two examiners evaluate the work and either grant or deny the permission to defend it.

These examiners’ statements are intriguing data for two reasons. First, they comprise a high-stakes academic genre that is part of the public examination as well as a demonstration of the author’s expertise. Second, they offer a unique source of written academic ELF. The examiners are often non-native English users who are writing statements to be read by Finnish students and faculty members. There are not native English gatekeepers in the writing process – as there are, for instance, in academic publishing – but ENL authors are also active in submitting evaluations. In short, it’s an unregulated window into linguistic practices within and across academic fields and faculties. Keep reading…

ELFA project 2013: the year in review

The public defense of Diane Pilkinton-Pihko, Dec. 13, 2013. From left to right: Prof. Sauli Takala, opponent; Prof. Anna Mauranen, kustos; and Diane Pilkinton-Pihko.© Diane Pilkinton-Pihko

The public defense of Diane Pilkinton-Pihko, Dec. 13, 2013. From left to right: Prof. Sauli Takala, opponent; Prof. Anna Mauranen, kustos; and Diane Pilkinton-Pihko.
© Diane Pilkinton-Pihko

I started hanging around Prof. Anna Mauranen’s ELFA project in 2008, the year in which the ELFA corpus was completed and the first international ELF conference was held at the University of Helsinki. Since then, momentum in the project has only grown, and 2013 has been a turning point for project members individually and collectively. From the public release of the ELFA corpus to successfully defended PhDs to new funding and new corpus compilation, the ELFA project is stronger than ever.

ELFA doctors: the first generation

After Jaana Suviniitty became the first project member to defend her thesis in late 2012 (read the research blog on her thesis), three more first-generation ELFA doctorates were awarded in 2013. Two of the ELFA corpus compilers – Niina Hynninen and Elina Ranta – defended their theses, along with the just-defended thesis of Diane Pilkinton-Pihko. Niina’s thesis, Language Regulation in English as a Lingua Franca: Exploring language-regulatory practices in academic spoken discourse, has been discussed in depth on this blog. Elina’s and Diane’s work are fresh off the presses.

In Universals in a Universal Language? Exploring Verb-Syntactic Features in English as a Lingua Franca, Elina Ranta has produced the first PhD based on ELFA corpus data. It is freely available online, and I will be blogging on it here in coming months. Diane Pilkinton-Pihko just defended her thesis, English-medium instruction: Seeking assessment criteria for spoken professional English, earlier this month. Also available online, it draws on her work in the Aalto University Language Centre here in Helsinki. Keep reading…

On the other side: variations in organising chunks in ELF

Variations in organising chunks aren't that common, but they do tend to stand out.Source: Livio Bourbon via The Telegraph

Variations in organising chunks aren’t that common, but they do tend to stand out.
Source: Livio Bourbon via The Telegraph

When working with ELF data – English used as a lingua franca between second/foreign-language speakers – one of the things that stands out are slight variations in conventional chunks of language. A formulaic chunk like as a matter of fact might be realised as as the matter of fact, or you could hear now that you mention it spoken as now that you say it. There’s no sense in calling them errors, since the variants won’t cause miscommunication, they resemble their conventional counterparts in both function and form, and the less-preferred variant is likely found elsewhere. It’s just not the English native-speaker preference.

These variations are interesting linguistically and they tend to stand out impressionistically for researchers, but I’ve wondered how often these variations actually occur in ELF – both in frequency and also in their distribution relative to conventional forms. It’s not an easy question to answer. Many of these formulaic chunks of language occur infrequently, so finding a couple variants doesn’t really tell you much. The example above of now that you say it occurs twice in the million-word ELFA corpus, with just one instance of the conventional form. Alternatively, as the matter of fact is found in ELFA 21 times compared to just eight occurrences of the expected chunk, but only two speakers account for those 21 instances.

We can see from these examples that a formulaic chunk that rarely shows up won’t reveal much about how often variation occurs among ELF users, across speech events, in different times and places. To find out more, I wanted to start with the highest frequency chunks I could find. These are described by Linear Unit Grammar as organising chunks, the recurring and relatively fixed chunks we use to structure our speech and writing, like on the other hand. Using the corpus freeware AntConc, I looked at the most frequent 3-, 4- and 5-word clusters (aka n-grams) in the ELFA corpus of spoken academic ELF. Keep reading…

Tagged , , ,

“I cannot avoid mixing an asiatic tincture”: a historical perspective on ESL

The life of Joseph Emin (1726-1809) gave us a historical perspective on learning and using English in the 18th century.Source: Emin 1792[1918]: 129.

The life of Joseph Emin (1726-1809) gave us a historical perspective on learning and using English in the 18th century.
Source: Emin 1792[1918]: 129.

A busy month for ELFA seminars came to a close Oct. 31 with a visit from Anni Sairio from the VARIENG (Variation, Contacts & Change in English) research unit here in University of Helsinki. As a historical sociolinguist, she’s investigating the experiences of English as a second language (ESL) learners and users in earlier centuries. In a similar vein, English as a lingua franca (ELF) research investigates second- and foreign-language users in contemporary settings. Our parallel research interests made it an insightful look into language learning and global English in the 1700s.

Anni’s latest project-in-progress is the Corpus of Historical English as a Second Language (CHESL). Now in the planning stages, it will provide a welcome perspective on the historical roots of ESL, linking today’s diverse Englishes with a time when English was one of several global lingua francas. To give a sense of the type of data she’s working with, Anni presented a case study of Joseph Emin, an 18th century multilingual. An Armenian born in Persia, Emin moved to Calcutta in his youth, where he learned English with determined enthusiasm.

Nothing drives learning like learner motivation, and Emin was driven to learn English and acquire the English cultural knowledge that was famed in its day – how to efficiently kill people. He was determined to liberate Armenia from Persia and the Ottoman Empire, and he knew it would require military training and discipline. He couldn’t let his father know that he intended to travel to England, and Emin’s autobiography describes how he concealed his enthusiasm for studying English from his father. Keep reading…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 55 other followers