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

The late October view up Unioninkatu toward the Helsinki Cathedral

The late October view up Unioninkatu toward the Helsinki Cathedral

One of the recent topics here has been language regulation – what are the norms of English when it’s used as a lingua franca (ELF), when most of the parties in interaction aren’t native speakers of English? The only way to find out is to investigate the practices of ELF users in naturally occurring interaction, and also to inquire into their beliefs and expectations of what is good or acceptable English. Niina Hynninen researched these questions in her 2013 PhD thesis on language regulation in academic ELF, and this is the final post of a three-part review of her work.

I first outlined her data and methodology, which draws both interactive and interview data from the same participants in three university “study events”. These events – a lecture course and two groups of students doing out-of-class projects – were held over several weeks. Thus, interactive data was recorded from the same groups over multiple meetings, with interviews held with the same participants at the end of these periods. In the last post I discussed some of Niina’s findings about language regulation in the groups’ spoken interaction. Today I consider the interview data and how the ELF users’ beliefs about English connect to how they actually use ELF.

Student interviews: interpretations & expectations of ELF

In the analysis of her interviews with 13 students from the study events, Niina discusses three broad interpretive repertoires emerging from the interview data. They involve the students’ descriptions of their own and others’ use of ELF and how English ought to be used. These three interpretive repertoires are described as follows:

  • clarity & simplification – recurring themes across student interviews involved descriptions of “clear”, “simple” or “simplified” English. This came out in descriptions of “clear sentences” or avoiding “long sentences”, as well as adapting one’s speech for another speaker’s perceived proficiency. The two native speakers of English interviewed from the study events were also aware of these adaptive strategies and reported their own efforts to simplify and clarify their speech.
  • correctness of native English – when the non-native ELF users discussed the English they ought to use, English as a native language (ENL) was portrayed as the “real English” and described in terms of correctness. ELF was described as “more or less correct English” with less concern about “grammar mistakes” when working toward mutual understanding. While ENL was portrayed as an ideal, it was also described as more difficult to interact with English native speakers, in part because of the presumed need to focus on “correctness”.
  • the normality of ELF – while ENL might be seen as an ideal, ELF users expressed practical views on their own “modified version” of English. The scope of acceptability in practice is described more broadly than “correctness” alone. At the same time, this is not some linguistic utopia; ELF users expressed insecurities and stress in their use of English, regardless of their depiction of the normality of ELF.

This is a very brief summary of a long and detailed analysis. See Ch. 6 of Hynninen (2013) for many interesting extracts from the interviews with both students and teachers.

Pulling it all together: findings in light of language ideologies

The final part of Niina’s thesis deals with how to relate the study groups’ interactive and interview data. To do this, she brings them together within the framework of two broad language ideologies. The first of these is the ideology of native speaker ownership – who should take the role of language expert and determine the norms that others should follow? Secondly, the ideology of language maintenance concerns the prescriptive approach to regulating language, and when intervention in language should occur.

This post only scratches the surface of the 2013 dissertation of Niina Hynninen. Click on the image for a link to the dissertation's abstract and full text.

This post only scratches the surface of the 2013 dissertation of Niina Hynninen. Click on the image for a link to the dissertation’s abstract and full text.

These macro-level language ideologies are used as a point of reference for comparing the study groups’ language in use with their descriptions of English. As Hynninen (2013: 218) explains it, there would be a danger of using findings from one set of data to explain the other. Instead, she uses the language ideologies as a common reference, avoiding a direct comparison of the interactive and interview data.

Ideology of native speaker ownership
As I discussed in the previous post on the groups’ interactive data, the students seemed to orient toward native speaker ownership, both through their language commentary and through appealing to English native speakers in the groups as language authorities. However, a distinction between novice and expert was also evident, as the teachers and mentors in the data also took on the roles of language experts. This expertise was based on knowledge of the field and scientific conventions, not native speaker status.

Likewise, a mixed orientation to native speaker ownership also came out in the interviews with students. As was discussed above, the repertoires of the clarity and simplicity of ELF alongside that of the correctness of ENL seem to point toward an ideology of native speaker ownership. However, when the repertoire of clarity and simplicity is viewed alongside the normality of ELF – where “grammar mistakes” are seen as less relevant – the norms appear to shift away from native-speaker ideals.

Ideology of language maintenance
Corrections were generally rare in the spoken interaction, and a stronger concern for correcting language was directed toward written text. In the interactive data, native speakers of English did not correct the speech of others, and non-standard forms were generally not addressed at all, suggesting a range of acceptability that is broader than “correctness”. While the student interviews seem to support the language maintenance ideology by equating ENL with correctness, this orientation is only partly supported. As Niina summarises,

What the students reported doing in ELF interaction (for instance, to modify their language and to seek clarity) imply a normative orientation, where the maintenance ideology is pushed aside, and language is regulated according to living norms that do not rely on ENL norms.
(Hynninen 2013: 235)

A multi-faceted picture thus emerges in which beliefs about what English ought to be like can be quite different from how English is described and used in lingua franca interaction. Norms and points of reference can vary, and the living norms of ELF are described in different terms than ENL. As a student from Brazil puts it (“IR” is the interviewer):

i feel | that | because | here | it’s not an english | er | country | <IR> mhm-hm </IR> | everybody speaks a more or less correct english | and | because | everyone understand each other | you don’t pay attention | that | you are sometimes making some mistakes | especially pronunciation | or | <IR> [mhm] </IR> | [or | some] grammar mistakes | but | everyone is understanding you | but | when i had the chance | to talk to somebody | from america | or | from some other english-speaking country | then | i realise | that | i have bad english |

(Hynninen 2013: 174; emphasis in original, chunk boundaries added by me for readability)

Just scratching the surface

This three-part series can only scratch the surface of Niina’s broad findings. As an ethnographically oriented study, the PhD thesis is full of detailed and insightful analyses of extracts from the group interaction and interview data. Follow the link in the reference below to the University of Helsinki’s E-thesis page, where you can download the complete text of the thesis.

See also:

Part 1: Language regulation in academic ELF interaction

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


One thought on “Who’s in charge of English? Uses and descriptions of ELF

  1. […] One of the recent topics here has been language regulation – what are the norms of English when it's used as a lingua franca (ELF), when most of the parties in interaction aren't native speakers of…  […]

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