Language regulation in academic ELF interaction

This is the first in a series of posts on the recently defended doctoral dissertation of Niina Hynninen. Click on the image for a link to the dissertation's full text.

This is the first in a series of posts on the recently defended doctoral dissertation of Niina Hynninen. Click on the image for a link to the dissertation’s full text.

When English is used as a lingua franca (ELF) between second-language speakers, there is still the question of what is normative – what is acceptable English in a lingua franca setting, and in a group of speakers with diverse backgrounds, which linguistic norms can be said to shape the interaction? These are questions that go beyond talk about “good English” or who can claim ownership of a language. This involves what ELF users themselves believe about acceptable English, and also what they actually do in interaction.

This construction of “living norms”, or norms that are co-constructed in interaction, was a topic of Niina Hynninen’s PhD dissertation, Language Regulation in English as a Lingua Franca: Exploring language-regulatory practices in academic spoken discourse. Language regulation is a broad concept covering the many ways we orient to what is appropriate language, from prescriptive grammatical rules to the ways we correct ourselves and others in interaction. If standardised rules are seen as “top-down” regulators of language, then Niina’s research focused on the “bottom-up” language regulation that is enacted by real people in authentic lingua franca interaction.

The construction of living norms in interaction might well incorporate these prescriptive norms, but not necessarily. Niina clarifies the distinction as follows:

Living, or non-codified, norms emerge as a result of acceptability negotiation in interaction, whereas prescriptive, or codified, norms arise as a consequence of linguistic description and codification. What is crucial, however, is that codified norms are not treated as relevant at the outset, but rather only to the extent that they are maintained and accepted in interaction.

(Hynninen 2013: 22)

In other words, prescriptive norms become living norms when they are realised in interaction. But this also highlights the gap between belief and behavior, which may not correspond in practice. What ELF users believe about acceptable English and how they actually negotiate acceptable ELF in interaction are two questions that must be studied separately. Niina also points out the need to distinguish between beliefs and normative expectations in specific contexts, including academic discourse. This is not so much a question of “correctness” as how to function appropriately or according to expectations within a community of practice.

Studying in English as a Lingua Franca

Niina’s research was carried out within the SELF project (Studying in English as a Lingua Franca), a more ethnographically oriented follow-up project to the ELFA corpus compilation. In order to study both normative beliefs and language regulatory behavior, she would need both interview data and interactive data from the same sets of participants. Ideally, these participants could be recorded over a longer period of time, at least over several meetings. As an added challenge, the interactions must be naturally occurring and not elicited for research purposes.

Niina found her participants from English-medium master’s degree programmes within the University of Helsinki. She observed and recorded multiple meetings in three “study events”:

The first languages and additional languages of participants in the teacher-led course.

The first languages and additional languages of participants in the teacher-led course (Hynninen 2013: 66).

  • a teacher-led course over five meetings (7.5 hours of interaction). Two Finnish instructors lead a course in tropical forestry with 11 international students from seven first-language backgrounds (see the table at right)
  • out-of-class group work guided by mentors over six meetings (8.75 hours of interaction). Two Finnish junior scholars assist a group of five MA students to prepare a group presentation in conservation biology
  • student-only group work over three meetings in eight days (~4.5 hours of interaction). Five MA students prepare a group presentation on sustainable management of natural resources

In addition to this interactive data, Niina conducted thematic, semi-structured interviews with all five of the teachers/mentors and 13 students, including all the student members from the two group work events. This impressive database was further supplemented by field notes and written course material. Happily, this field work with Niina was also how I got my start as a SELF project assistant, and my observations and recordings of additional ELF-based student group work became the basis of my own MA research.

What do you mean by regulatory features?

I’ll discuss Niina’s findings from the interviews in a follow-up post, but I’ll focus first on the interactive data – how are living norms enacted via language regulation? And what are identifiable regulatory features in interaction? I already mentioned that our own self-rephrasing (also known as self-repairs) can be seen as language regulation, but we also monitor each others’ speech based on our expectations of acceptable language. Niina restricts her interactive analysis to five regulatory features involving responses or reactions to others’ use of language:

  • language correcting – correcting the language of another speaker (e.g. Speaker A gives Speaker B a preferable word or pronunciation)
  • commentary on language – when language itself is taken up as a topic of discussion (e.g. Speaker A comments on the quality of Speaker B’s English language skills)
  • embedded repairs – like a correction, but it’s “embedded” in a response, and therefore less direct (e.g. when responding to Speaker A, Speaker B replaces a dispreferred word used by Speaker A with a preferable word in its place)
  • reformulation/mediation – rephrasing performed by another speaker (e.g. Speaker A asks a question of Speaker B, who doesn’t understand; Speaker C mediates by explaining “What Speaker A is asking is…”)
  • lexical accommodation – the reuse of lexical items by other speakers (e.g. Speaker A uses an unusual or unexpected word, and Speaker B adopts it in the same or a future interaction)

In the next post in this series on Niina’s PhD research, I’ll go deeper into her findings on these regulatory features in her database of academic ELF interaction. How do ELF users co-construct living norms of acceptable English in lingua franca interaction? And who takes on the role of language expert in these settings? After looking at the interactive findings, we’ll follow Niina’s analysis to how the same participants describe their own normative beliefs and expectations as users of ELF.

See also:

Part 2: “I am going to looks like stupid”: language commentary & correction in spoken ELF

Part 3: Who’s in charge of English? Uses and descriptions of ELF


Hynninen, Niina (2013) Language Regulation in English as a Lingua Franca: Exploring language-regulatory practices in academic spoken discourse. Doctoral dissertation, University of Helsinki. Available online:


3 thoughts on “Language regulation in academic ELF interaction

  1. Matt Halsdorff says:

    As always, it’s great to hear about the research going on in ELF situations. I’m looking forward to reading the future posts on the results! It’s also great that you’ve provided a link to the dissertation – wonderful.

    I’m also curious to see if the norms changed depending on the given situations – in the study group compared to the teacher led course for example – and if so… was there a difference in how they were established?

    How much influence does the first language/culture play into the 5 regulatory features? Was there any correlation? Would somebody coming from a more indirect style of communication prefer to use the somewhat indirect “embedded repairs”? So many questions to ask 🙂

    • Ray Carey says:

      Hi Matt, situation-specific norms (including field-specific norms) are one of the things Niina was interested in, so the different makeup of the groups is indeed relevant. There will something more about this, but I blog as I’m reading through the dissertation, so I’ll also be learning as I go.

      As for first language(L1)/cultural influence, it’s not the main interest in ELF research — the interest is in the lingua franca mixture itself. I don’t find the monolithic conception of L1/cultural influence convincing, especially when there are speakers of multiple L1s interacting in a second language. So, maybe everyone in Culture A does in fact (insert novel trait) when they (insert communicative act), but what do they do when no one else from Culture A is around, but they’re interacting with Cultures B-F, simultaneously, in a high-stakes event like a business meeting?

      The interesting part is the local mix — how do a group of speakers negotiate norms of acceptable English in a diverse lingua franca setting, regardless of L1/cultural background, different proficiency levels, and different levels of authority/expertise (this is especially relevant for academic ELF). Niina’s research is intended to provide a microscope into these processes with three local groups of ELF users, not make generalisations about what different L1 speakers do/don’t do.

      Sorry if this sounds a bit preachy, but the question of L1 influence comes up all the time, and it’s one of the areas that ELF research differs from intercultural communication and learner language research. L1 influence is there, but it’s not the whole story.

      I should also mention that there’s a couple of English native speakers in the ELF mixtures in Niina’s group work and interview data, so it will be interesting to see how they factor into those local ELF norms. More to come!

      – Ray

      • Matt Halsdorff says:

        Hello Ray. No worries about sounding preachy… it didn’t sound that way. In fact your reply helped me understand ELF research a bit more clearly – you can see that I’m still learning here – so thank you for that. 🙂

        I imagine that there is some L1/cultural influence under the service, but in an ELF situation the norms are being created spontaneously within the group of speakers, and therefore those “influences” may become a moot point…. or as you said, they are not the whole story…

        Anyhow, it will be interesting to see the differences (if there are any) between the settings and group constructions. It’s especially interesting to see if the accepted norms changed in relation to different levels of authority/expertise. As you noted, this is of particular interest to academic ELF, though I also believe it would play a role in BELF – for example, how would the presence of a boss or perceived authority figure change things.

        Would it? I often hear learners discuss this here in Germany – about how when a perceived authority figure enters the room/conversation (in business), a certain level of speaking more “professional” may be attempted or expected. When they say more professional they basically are suggesting that a more native-like standard is expected. Interesting, as in my opinion a native standard does not necessarily make things more professional or successful in international business, but that is what the expectation seems to be. This is what they say of course – what actually happens in the ELF conversation is another thing. I do wonder however what this effect may have on the accepted norms, if any.

        It sounds like through Niina’s research we will get an insight into this in relation to academic ELF…

        Thanks again for sharing!

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