When in Rome: thoughts from the ELF6 conference

The open dome of the Pantheon casting light on the entrance to the temple.© Nina Valtavirta

The open dome of the Pantheon casting light on the entrance to the temple.
© Nina Valtavirta

I returned this week from Rome, where I attended the 6th annual conference of English as a lingua franca (ELF6) held at Roma Tre University. I’m not much of a conference lover, so it helps when they’re held in interesting places I haven’t been before. Following the ELF5 conference at Bogazici University in Istanbul, I’ve enjoyed my tours of the capitals of the Roman Empire. I also managed to squeeze in some academic distractions as well.

The ELFA project was well-represented in Rome with six members presenting their work. Project director Anna Mauranen spoke in the “ELF in higher education” colloquium convened by Jennifer Jenkins. Anna’s talk, entitled “ELF for academic publishing – the remaining taboo”, discussed the gap between spoken and written ELF research and the need for empirical description of written forms of ELF interaction. She highlighted our compilation of the written WrELFA corpus, the current status of which I’ll update here next week.

Among the ELFA doctors, Niina Hynninen gave a paper based on her PhD, entitled “How do speakers regulate language in English as a Lingua Franca interaction?” I’m currently blogging through her doctoral thesis (parts 1 and 2 here), with a final post in the works. Also, Jaana Suviniitty’s talk on “Interactional Features and Lecturing in ELF” was based on her PhD thesis, which you can also read about on this blog (parts 1, 2, and 3).

Click on the image to view the poster, "Perceived lecture comprehension: ELF students adapt to their lecturer’s English" by Diane Pilkinton-Pihko, as a pdf file

Click on the image to view the poster, “Perceived lecture comprehension: ELF students adapt to their lecturer’s English” by Diane Pilkinton-Pihko, as a pdf file

Three PhD students were also present. Diane Pilkinton-Pihko presented a poster entitled “English-medium instruction: Students adapt to their lecturer’s English“, which shows her findings on student perceptions of a lecturer’s English at the start and end of a course (view poster as pdf). Svetlana Vetchinnikova gave a paper on “Phraseological competence of ELF users“, based on recent findings from her PhD research. Her data combines students’ MA thesis drafts, word association tasks, and an input corpus of their theses’ cited articles to look for evidence that students store and produce multi-word units.

Finally, Ray Carey (that’s me) gave two unrelated talks. The first was a paper in the colloquium “ELF in computer-mediated online communication: characteristics & implications“, convened by Paola Vettorel and Valeria Francesci of the University of Verona. Based on Niina Hynninen’s findings from spoken academic ELF, my presentation was on language regulation in academic ELF blog discussions, looking at data from the recently-finished research blog component of the WrELFA corpus. Secondly, I gave a short presentation on the methodological challenges of my PhD research applying Linear Unit Grammar (LUG) to spoken academic ELF. This was part of the PhD workshop organised by Henry Widdowson.

This was the third ELF conference I’ve attended, including the first one in Helsinki in 2008, and I thought I’d give a few personal impressions of the present state of ELF research.

English teachers have taken over

The ELF paradigm has always taken a reorientation of English language teaching (ELT) as a primary motivation. And rightly so – the native-speakerism in ELT that long went unquestioned no longer makes sense in today’s world. But it seems to me that research focused on English pedagogy has become the dominant trend in ELF today. Reading through the conference abstracts reinforces this impression, with an apparent majority of topics dealing with ELF-based English teaching and lots of English classroom data to go with it.

This of course isn’t a bad thing in itself. A positive aspect is that a number of papers go beyond ideological philosophising and deal with the results of pilot applications of ELF-informed classroom activities, like telecollaboration projects between English learners in different countries. At the same time, I wonder if ELF is becoming just ideologically re-oriented learner language / ELT research. There’s still a good deal of data drawn from professional language users in academic and business ELF research, but as a hard-boiled corpus linguist who has enjoyed an ELT-free career, I had trouble finding papers that interest me.

The theme of last year's ELF5 conference in Istanbul was "Pedagogical Implications of ELF in the Expanding Circle", reflecting the interests in the field© Nina Valtavirta

The theme of last year’s ELF5 conference in Istanbul was “Pedagogical Implications of ELF in the Expanding Circle”, reflecting the interests in the field
© Nina Valtavirta

The thing that attracted me to ELF research back at the first ELF conference in 2008 was the emphasis on researching used language – the naturally occurring linguistic output of ELF users doing something for a reason. This emphasis has lost ground since then, and in the roundtable discussion at last year’s ELF conference in Istanbul, it was suggested that ELF research needs less description and more conceptualisation. It seems people have listened, since the pedagogical conceptualisations were thick in the air in Rome, and work based on the two major ELF corpora – ELFA and VOICE – is in the background by comparison.

Some scholars will be fine with this situation, and it reflects the interest in the field, but the linguistic description of English used as a lingua franca has not been of a sufficient quality or depth to warrant the entire ELF community’s collective dusting off the hands at a job well done. The job is not done, nor has it been done particularly well. I appreciate ELT professionals’ urgency for bringing English teaching into the 21st century, but 2008 was only five years ago. The descriptive work is just beginning.

Intercultural Communication: data not included

The theme of the ELF6 conference was “Intercultural communication: new perspectives from ELF”. I completed a minor subject degree in this area a few years ago, and I can’t say I’m overjoyed to see IC (Intercultural Communication) gaining strength in ELF research. ELF is inherently intercultural; it’s woven into the fabric of a lingua franca. But I’ve always felt that ELF has a single huge advantage over IC research – linguistic data. Without this data, IC devolves into the most primitive form of humanistic amoeba, the copy-paste study.

Without getting too specific, I saw more than a few IC-oriented presenters with no original research or linguistic data. Instead, I sat in a room in one of the most interesting cities on earth and was shown a succession of copy-pasted block quotes from other people’s dataless studies (that’s when I left for Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum). Obviously my bias is toward empirical research, and when the theorisers, philosophisers, and conceptualisers can predict the phenomena in my data, I’ll start coming back to their talks.

All roads lead to Helsinki

ELF10 returns to Helsinki, the site of the ELF Forum 2008: The First International Conference of English as a Lingua FrancaSource: City of Helsinki Tourist & Convention Bureau / Niko Soveri

ELF10 returns to Helsinki, the site of the ELF Forum 2008: The First International Conference of English as a Lingua Franca
Source: City of Helsinki Tourist & Convention Bureau / Niko Soveri

The current ELF tour through the Greco-Roman world will conclude next year with ELF7 in Athens, after passing through Rome and Istanbul (with Constantinople right downstairs). The locations of the upcoming ELF conferences through 2017 were also announced, with China to follow in 2015, Spain in 2016, and for ELF10, it’s back to where it started in 2008 – right here at University of Helsinki. This means I’ll be involved in organising three conferences in five years, the recent Changing English (ChangE 2013) conference in June, its follow-up in 2015, and ELF10 in 2017, at which time I should also be defending my PhD thesis and making arrangements for an emotional collapse. At least in the process I’ll get to visit more interesting places.

One thought on “When in Rome: thoughts from the ELF6 conference

  1. Shona Whyte says:

    I scooped your blog post here http://sco.lt/7YAgev and you have a comment over there …

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