Creativity and color in academic ELF

If you believe the myth that ELF is "colorless" English, then Spock from Star Trek should be the prototypical ELF user.Screenshot borrowed from Wikipedia

If you believe the myth that ELF is “colorless” English, then Spock from Star Trek should be the prototypical ELF user.
Screenshot borrowed from Wikipedia

I was recently addressing some common folk linguistic myths about English, especially the English used as a lingua franca (ELF) between its non-native speakers. One of these myths concerns “color”, or more often than not, “colour”, since it seems the British “owners” of English are the ones most preoccupied with this trait. More specifically, you hear the charge of “colourless” English directed toward ELF speakers. You might come to think there was an expressionless room of Vulcans exchanging robotic strings of linguistic data. You can’t be human in a foreign language, can you?

Believe it or not, ELF users somehow manage to be fully human in English, even in academic settings. I’ve already blogged about the distribution of laughter in the ELFA corpus of spoken academic ELF, and there doesn’t seem to be a big difference in the frequency of laughter in equivalent native-speaker data (MICASE corpus) or between the ELF speakers from different first-language backgrounds. So you’ve got to conclude that there must be some “colour” in there somewhere.

Valeria Franceschi of the University of Verona was a visiting PhD student in Helsinki last year, and she investigated these questions in our academic ELF data. Her findings were just published in the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, and they confirm what has already been known for some time in ELF research – when the sneering critics of “colourless” English are out of the room, ELF speakers don’t hesitate to use idiomatic and metaphoric language, borrow images from their own linguacultures, and create new metaphors on-line (see esp. the work of Marie-Luise Pitzl on metaphoric language in ELF).

Idiomatic language in academic ELF

Colorful or idiomatic language isn’t easy to systematically identify without carefully reading transcriptions of speech. Valeria therefore focused her research on a sample of 16 highly interactive, academic speech events. These consisted of eight sessions of student group work (master’s level) from the SELF project transcriptions; and eight more events from the ELFA corpus, mainly seminar discussions directed by a teacher. Altogether her corpus consisted of just under 190,000 words, with a fairly balanced distribution between humanities, natural science, and social science domains. As typically diverse ELF data, English speakers from over 25 first-language backgrounds are represented in her data.

A frequency-ranked word list from the ELFA corpus. The word "little" occurs at about the same frequency (6.7 times per 10,000 words) as the idiomatic expressions in Valeria Franceschi's academic ELF data.

A frequency-ranked word list from the ELFA corpus. The word “little” occurs at about the same frequency (6.7 times per 10,000 words) as the idiomatic expressions in Valeria Franceschi’s academic ELF data.

Valeria points out that nobody really agrees on what, exactly, idiomatic language is. For the purpose of her study, she excluded phrasal verbs and routine formulas like “excuse me” or “you’re welcome”. Her main criteria was “non-compositionality” – the meaning of the whole chunk isn’t derived from the individual words (to “kick the bucket” is the classic example). In addition, she only considered idiomatic expressions uttered by non-native English speakers, and she checked each instance to see if it was found in a native-speaker reference dictionary of idiomatic language or attested in a native-speaker corpus.

Altogether she found 128 instances of idiomatic language in the ELF data, and all but 11 were multi-word phrases. In terms of frequency, this is 6.7 instances of idiomatic language for each 10,000 words of data. It doesn’t sound like much, but to get an impressionistic idea of what else occurs this often, I generated a frequency-ranked word list using the entire one-million-word ELFA corpus. A word with similar frequency at 674 hits was “little”, and just a couple slots below “after” – not rarities in any kind of talk (see word list at right). So we might still expect to find more idiomatic language in native speaker talk, but it doesn’t seem right to say it’s rare in Valeria’s data, either.

Saying it wrong?

Part of the study design was checking to see if the idiomatic language used by ELF speakers was also attested in native-speaker reference material. Of the 128 instances of idiomatic language she found, 78 were attested. That means the other 50 cases were “wrong”, right? This is where the ELF paradigm parts ways with native-speakerists who call anything that isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary an error or “not a real word” (in other words, “it’s not a real word unless we say it first”). Linguistic creativity is inherent to natural language, and it seems both narrow-minded and counterintuitive to deny this basic linguistic reality to non-native speakers of English.

Some of these 50 instances of unattested idioms are close enough to a conventional expression that they probably wouldn’t even be noticed, e.g. almost to square one and don’t step on each other’s feet. Others seem to be newly created images (he’s already up there with the saint peters), and some are images borrowed from other languages, like red thread from the French fil rouge. In the last case of red thread, I learned this as an English idiom through English-speaking Finns, who are borrowing the image from Finnish, punainen lanka, itself presumably a borrowing from another language! So who was the native speaker again?

Another interesting finding was that these 50 innovative forms didn’t create obvious misunderstandings. One of Valeria’s research questions was whether idiomatic language in the data leads to identifiable signs of misunderstanding. In fact, out of those 128 idiomatic instances, only one was followed by a signal of misunderstanding (i don’t understand), and this was the conventional idiom of hand in hand. The initial speaker merely repeated the expression and the discussion continued without any apparent resolution of the misunderstanding.

Functional creativity

So, what are these idiomatic expressions used for? Valeria looked in depth at the 50 expressions which were unique to the ELF interactions. The main functions she found were social in nature, especially as expressions used by teachers to mitigate face-threat in staff-to-student interactions. Closely connected to this was the use of humor and social cohesion, as in one group work session in which an English native speaker said, it doesn’t make sense to put the cart before the horse. In reply, a non-native speaker unpacked the metaphor to humorous effect by responding, what is the horse and what is the cart?, followed by laughter.

Another important observation from these findings was the co-occurrence of rephrasing. Valeria reports occurrences of immediate rephrasing of non-transparent idioms, such as out of the blue immediately followed by suddenly. Also, the creative example of he’s already up there with the saint peters was directly followed by a clarifying he died a few years ago. However, this order of idiom-clarification isn’t fixed. In this interesting extract from the ELFA corpus, a teacher uses what seems to be a spontaneously created image to build on a conventional metaphor, gaping hole:

i think i would have to say that there seems to be a couple of really big gaping holes of of or a kind of white-spots of knowledge on the map of zambia that you’ve drawn us
(my emphasis added)

The “map of Zambia” mentioned here is itself figurative, as a reference to a just-preceding student presentation. After starting out with the native-speaker attested “gaping hole” idiom signifying a deficit or flaw, he starts to rephrase and uses kind of to flag an innovative image of white-spots of knowledge on the map of zambia. One could even argue that this also reflects a mitigating function, as these white-spots can be seen as a “softer” metaphor than a “gaping hole”.

Valeria’s analysis goes into more detail, but I think this discussion is sufficient to oppose a couple common myths about ELF:

  • First, ELF is not colorless. Non-native speakers are able to manipulate the resources of English creatively and draw upon both conventional idioms and innovative metaphors created for that specific interaction.
  • Second, ELF is not some random mish-mash of confused attempts at communication. We see that ELF users can skillfully use idiomatic language to maintain social bonds in a teaching and learning environment, deploying humor and mitigation strategies to maintain a constructive atmosphere.

This is not to claim that ELF is some kind of linguistic utopia or that misunderstandings don’t occur. But neither can linguistic creativity by non-native speakers be automatically dismissed as “bad English”. ELF users should be given the linguistic credit they deserve.


ResearchBlogging.orgFranceschi, Valeria (2013) Figurative language and ELF: idiomaticity in cross-cultural interaction in university settings. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 2 (1). DOI: 10.1515/jelf-2013-0004.

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One thought on “Creativity and color in academic ELF

  1. […] I was recently addressing some common folk linguistic myths about English, especially the English used as a lingua franca (ELF) between its non-native speakers. One of these myths concerns "color",…  […]

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