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”:
- 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.
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: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-10-8639-7.