ELFA project

The Guardian: chat on English in higher education


What better way to start an ELF blog than with ELF in the news – our very own Anna Mauranen was a guest for today’s live chat on English in higher education, hosted by The Guardian. The two-hour chat, entitled “Is English still the dominant language of higher education?“, was sponsored by TOEFL, who is understandably concerned with the question of dominance. The six panel participants reflected the Anglo-American orientation generally, with Anna being the only expert from outside the US/UK.

In terms of “camps”, there were two British Council administrators, and opposing voices from Theresa Lillis and Mary Jane Curry, who are critics of the disadvantages faced by academics outside the US and UK. Ben Wildavsky, an American scholar from the prominent Brookings Institute think-tank, presented another US viewpoint. Anna was thus the only voice from outside these “Inner Circle” settings.

ELF is multilingual

Anna’s comments centered on the importance of multilingualism in higher education, and she argued against the idea that English and other languages are somehow mutually exclusive. I thought this quote from one of her posts was worth mentioning:

“A lingua franca does not mean the exclusion of other languages; it’s the one chosen for particular communicative purposes and it necessarily involves the simultaneous presence of other languages”

I suppose one could counter by saying that English in academia is no longer “chosen”; it’s become a language of necessity. But in naturally occurring ELF data, such as that in the ELFA corpus, the multilingual repertoire of ELF users is apparent. An MA thesis was recently completed on code-switching (using more than one language in an utterance) in the ELFA corpus, and I’ll review it in coming weeks.

A wolf in ELF’s clothing?

One of the things I found striking during the chat was that the term “lingua franca” has entered these native English discourses, though without any reference to or awareness of the ELF research paradigm. Wildavsky used the term several times, and this concerned me, as there was no doubt “whose” English he was talking about. In calling for higher proficiency among teachers and students using English as a second language, he writes:

“I was recently at a large Texas university and heard a student complain of great difficult understanding his foreign-born teaching assistants. Similarly, a friend at the University of Maryland worries that her some of her foreign graduate students’ poor English skills will be a huge professional hindrance.”

So, let’s be clear about the “international” higher education we’re talking about. And while the ELF paradigm does not advocate an “anything goes” attitude toward proficiency, it’s telling that the incomprehensible foreigner must be solely to blame, and not the young Texan. We can see that accommodation should occur in one direction.

Positive connotations

Interestingly, Mary Jane Curry rejects the term “lingua franca” outright. In a response to Wildavsky, she writes:

“I would argue against the use of the term ‘lingua franca’ which has too many positive connotations for the real challenges and pressures felt by most multilingual scholars (as evidenced in our and others’ research and interactions with scholars).”

I don’t know which “positive connotations” she’s referring to, but I was in agreement on Curry’s criticisms of the US/UK bias in academic journals, especially as linguistic gatekeepers. Clearly there is not a level playing field. To me, this is the point of departure for describing academic ELF, not as “learner language”, but as high-level scientific discourse that may not be native-like.

In a way, the discussion seemed like the beneficiaries of this imbalance arguing over others’ fates. I thought that Anna’s voice got drowned out in the discussion, which needed more actual ELF users to speak for themselves. And this might be the best summary of empirical ELF research: letting the world’s users of English speak for themselves. Maybe this was the positive connotation that Curry was referring to.

You can read the complete discussion here.