Academia is a world of its own. Linguistic controversies are fought among scholars with little interest from the outside world. There was outrage in response to early propositions that English used as a lingua franca (ELF) should be studied as a legitimate form of English in its own right, and not as perpetually deficient “learner language”. Yet, the ELF world outside kept communicating, and 15-or-so years since the pioneers of ELF research fought their early battles, academics are gradually recognising the uncontroversial and obvious linguistic reality around them.
While academia moves at the speed of, well, academia, I’ve always had more hope for business. English as a lingua franca of business (BELF) is nothing new, and as with academic ELF, there are English native speakers in the mix. How do they adjust to their ELF surroundings? People in business are motivated by money, which motivates efficiency, which motivates doing things right the first time. The same goes for communication. If there was ever a domain in which efficient communication should be a priority, it would be business. Forget about language ideologies of ownership and “purity”. Profit is the ideology of business.
It makes me happy to find people outside academia who “get” ELF. You don’t have to be a linguist to understand the need for English native speakers to adjust to a lingua franca world. So I’ve enjoyed following the Global English for Business Blog by fellow ex-Californian Matt Halsdorff, a business English trainer based in Germany. His blog isn’t devoted to his non-native English-speaking clients, however. Matt blogs on the ways that English native speakers can successfully adjust their English skills to an ELF world of international business.
His introductory post points out an important gap in conventional business English training. Why does this training focus solely on the non-native users of ELF? This only makes sense if you believe the myth of “perfect” native-speaker English, with everyone else struggling to attain this miraculous achievement of having been born in an English-speaking country. Matt proposes language training for English native speakers, helping raise awareness of how we can adjust to communicate effectively in ELF settings.
Idiomatic language drives me nuts
Matt’s blog deals especially with the priority of clarity and how idiomatic language and cultural references provide problems for everyone who hasn’t grown up in that English-speaking culture (including other English native speakers). My earliest interest in ELF research was how native speakers adjust to ELF interactions, and for my BA research project I looked at this question of “colorful” idiomatic language used by English native speakers in the ELFA corpus of spoken academic ELF recorded at Finnish universities.
Similar to business ELF, academic ELF occurs in high-stakes settings like international conferences and English-medium university courses. My data came from eight hours of recordings and transcriptions from 11 dialogic speech events in the ELFA corpus – seven conference discussions, two seminar discussions, and two discussions from lecture courses. These events involved primarily non-native speakers of English, but 23 native speakers were also in the ELF mix, originating from the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.
I analysed each of their utterances in the corpus to find instances of non-compositional idioms – expressions like “out in left field” (a US baseball idiom), where the meaning isn’t literally in the words themselves and the meaning is often culture-specific. As it turned out, these native speakers seemed pretty communicatively aware overall, as I couldn’t find any of these potentially unclear idioms used by 16 of these speakers. Yet, seven native speakers used an idiom at least once, and three of these used them repeatedly.
One speaker in particular – a senior academic from Australia – used “colorful” expressions as a prominent part of her speech. The following extracts are taken from a few of her speaking turns:
- oh no i’ve gone blank but that that’s certainly erm a very very important er angle on it
- i think teachers are really caught in a very difficult bind
- a word will take on and it’ll be the latest thing like filthy to say something good and that’ll last for a few weeks and then it’ll die away
In these examples, the phrasal verb to take on was unfamiliar to me, though it appears to correspond to the North American to catch on, or become popular. How many people present at the conference (see the composition of the speakers in the table above) were able to recognise all these idiomatic expressions? We can only guess.
Cultural references tick me off
It’s one thing to find these examples, but how do you find evidence of misunderstanding if the listeners don’t say anything? As it turned out, I found evidence from the ELFA corpus itself. The corpus was compiled by a Finnish team of expert users of English, but when listening to the recordings alongside the transcriptions, I found a couple of cases where a cultural reference eluded the transcribers and proofreaders.
The examples came from an American student, ironically enough, in a journalism course discussion on multicultural reporting. He also uses quite a lot of idiomatic language, and when proposing a potentially controversial public survey, he is transcribed as saying:
<NS5> /…/ it might take a lot of people off as well so if you don’t want that it might take people off but it might just spark debate at least /…/
It’s clear to me from the recording, however, that he’s using the idiomatic phrase tick people off, a polite form of “piss people off” or make them angry. In the second example, the same speaker discusses an idea for a series of movie reviews.
<NS5> /…/ i’m not going to (xx) every movie every month but <S1> yeah </S1> many different people might want to </NS5>
The (xx) symbol designates unclear speech that could not be transcribed. But the recording is clear enough. He’s saying i’m not going to hit every movie every month, with the idiomatic verb “to hit” for “to go to” (as in “let’s hit some stores” for “let’s go shopping”). The Finnish instructor (S1) responds with “yeah” as a signal of comprehension, but if a group of highly educated Finns who study English professionally weren’t able to understand this (I almost wrote “weren’t able to make this out”), then do you think the other journalism students with first languages of Slovakian, German, Dutch, Russian, and Latvian had an easier time? At least there was a student from the UK present. Maybe she had better luck.
Twice is nice
If your priority in communication is clarity over color, then why use these culture-bound expressions at all? The fact is, you grow up learning these expressions without thinking about them, and they come out without thinking about them too. In any case, colorful language is a part of ELF interaction, but it has to be balanced with the need for clarity. The commonly observed ELF strategies of repetition and rephrasing can be helpful in this respect.
Despite his recurring use of idiomatic language, the American student who might “tick people off” with his survey still showed some self-awareness with rephrasing. I found examples where he followed a potentially unclear idiom with an immediate revision (a Message Revision or MR chunk in Linear Unit Grammar). In discussing the survey’s target audience, he suggested the uni- university crowd university students, offering a reformulation of the culture-specific “crowd”. Again, when explaining his motivation for a series of movie reviews, he says i’m kind of a movie buff myself i like movies, adding the revision to clarify what, in fact, a movie buff does.
No one is claiming that idiomatic language must be eradicated from English – it’s neither possible nor a meaningful idea. The point is just that ELF-aware native speakers can optimise their speaking habits to be as comprehensible as possible in a world where fewer and fewer English speakers have grown up speaking it as their first language. Considering our undeserved advantages from speaking the global lingua franca as our mother tongue, this is truly the least we can do.