by Kaisa Pietikäinen
For an inexperienced conference-goer such as myself, the prospect of giving two separate presentations under the watchful (and no doubt evaluative) eye of several distinguished ELF veterans made my stomach turn. In spite of my anxiety, I packed my most formal business jacket and flew to Athens for the 7th International Conference of English as a Lingua Franca, better known as ELF7, hosted by DEREE, The American College of Greece, during 4–6 September.
By the end of the first fully-packed ELF day, my anxiety had levelled, and I was able to present my first talk rather successfully, or at least the small, heat-exhausted audience seemed quite interested in the topic: misunderstandings in private conversations among ELF couples, and how miscommunication was skilfully pre-empted by using various comprehension-enhancing tactics. I will post about this study later in more detail.
But, the real reason why I wasn’t so nervous anymore was perhaps not so flattering. During the first day, I was surprised that so many presenters actually didn’t seem to know much of ELF. Often there was no distinction made between ELF (English as a lingua franca) and EFL (English as a foreign language), and every time a presenter began his/her 20-minute presentation with a 10-minute intro on what ELF is, I thought: “Oh, here we go again!”
First day: student questionnaires
Although I obviously didn’t get to see all the presentations I wanted – at times there were as many as seven parallel sessions, and unfortunately many of the ones that sounded interesting coincided – I also noticed the copy-paste problem Ray took up in his posting on ELF6. But, here the duplication disease infected entire studies, not just data. The trendiest theme in the conference seemed to be students’ attitudes towards ELF. These studies were identical to many already conducted here, there and everywhere, but when this was pointed out to the presenters, the common response was: “Yes, but it hasn’t been studied in my country!”
Shouldn’t we as researchers focus on themes that provide new knowledge? Are universities restricting creativity in research because of tight budgets, or what is the reason behind these studies that lack imagination? It’s not like we don’t have enough interesting data potential around us!
I understand that the conference theme stressed pedagogical and interdisciplinary perspectives, and that students are usually the main “data providers” in a university/school setting. But students’ attitudes – correct me if I’m wrong – often reflect those of their teachers. As it seems not many teachers are very well-informed on ELF matters, asking students how they view ELF is rather like asking a bunch of Southern Europeans how they feel about the Sami rights!
It would be much more interesting to see what English teachers know about ELF, and how this knowledge (or lack thereof) is manifested in their teaching. As an example, do listening comprehensions represent real intercultural communication situations, those that the students are likely to find themselves in? Or do they replicate only the “target” native varieties? And what is considered communicative competence?
Second day meets expectations
On a similar note, the second day was kicked off with an interesting plenary talk from Elana Shohamy, who presented an invigorating critique of current language-testing and the one-eyed, native-speaker-centered view the Common European Framework of Reference represents. She criticised testing companies for penalising test-takers for e.g. using code-switching, non-native accents, L1-influenced lexicon and lack of specific cultural knowledge, even though we now know that some of these practices actually enhance understanding, and that ELF speakers are able to negotiate meaning in the situation. Although Prof. Shohamy didn’t reveal any direct answers to how exactly TOEFL, IELTS and the like should change their testing procedures, there is no doubt a market gap for ELF-informed language testing out there. (NB, business sharks!)
After the plenary, Alessia Cogo hosted a discussion on how the ELF Research Network forum could be used in the future. Plenty of suggestions were thrown in the air from sharing ELF study materials to evaluating ELF-related papers. Alessia and Marie-Luise Pitzl are now working on developing these ideas further, so check back soon to see what’s going on in the network.
In terms of presentation topics, the second day proved to be quite interesting. Multimodal strategies (Yumi Matsumoto), code-mixing in forum postings (Thomas Christiansen), disambiguating meaning (Jagdish Kaur), and ELF and anthropology (Paola Giorgis) were some of the themes addressed. However, after an extremely intense ELF day, I was very happy to skip the conference dinner and retreat to my hotel.
Final day: highlights and farewells
On the third day I was convinced I would be fine in a summer dress, as the first two days had been so warm I had willingly left my jacket at the hotel. But Athens had a surprise in store for us: by lunch break we heard some rumbling, and suddenly it looked as if lights were turned out, and heavy rain fell from the darkened sky. The beautiful university courtyard where coffee was usually served during breaks turned into a flooding lake. “Poor those who have booked a sightseeing tour for today!” I thought.
The last day featured the rest of the presentations of our Helsinki ELF team: Anna Mauranen talked about managing academic debate in ELF, as well as ELF and translation as contact languages. New PhD Svetlana Vetchinnikova spoke of approximation, re-metaphorisation and idiomatising in ELF phraseology, and Netta Hirvensalo of the effects of top-down language regulation. I had to skip the two last mentioned, though, because I was participating in the doctoral workshop.
The workshop proved to be one of the highlights of the conference for myself (in addition to the awesome catering). We were five PhD students and one MA student. I thought we were to present our projects to each other rather generally, discuss our inspiration as well as the obstacles we’ve faced, and get feedback from the workshop convenors, Henry Widdowson and Barbara Seidlhofer.
The auditorium reserved for such an event was awfully large; over 100 seats. But as I was preparing to be the first to give my talk, the room began to fill up. It was an amazing experience to see so many interested faces listening to my talk titled ELF in the private sphere: ELF as the ‘couple tongue’ in intercultural relationships, and to see some of the listeners smiling and nodding in unison. For any young researcher, these kinds of experiences are invaluable, and I would encourage all students to grasp such opportunities with courage!
If I was a bit let down in the beginning of the conference, my fellow young researchers showed that we can expect a lot from the future of ELF. These young minds were sharp, their research projects interesting, and I’m happy to say we’ve kept in touch afterwards. If anything, these kinds of conferences are excellent for networking, as well as for generating new ideas for research. The interesting discussions I had with fellow researchers during breaks have already shown me some of the aspects that I didn’t realise from my own research before, as well as given me enough new topics to study for a lifetime, if I so wish.
Thank you Athens, I won’t forget you!
Presentations by ELFA project members
Kaisa Pietikäinen – Avoiding and overcoming misunderstandings in private ELF conversations. Paper presented at ELF7, 4 Sept 2014.
Anna Mauranen & Jennifer Jenkins, convenors – ELF in Higher Education workshop
- Anna Mauranen – How do we manage academic debate in ELF? The case of the viva. Workshop presentation at ELF7, 6 Sept 2014.
- Netta Hirvensalo – The effect of top-down regulation on language practices at a Finnish university. Workshop presentation at ELF7, 6 Sept 2014.
Kaisa Pietikäinen – ELF in the private sphere: ELF as the ‘couple tongue’ in intercultural relationships. Doctoral workshop presentation at ELF7, 6 Sept 2014.
Svetlana Vetchinnikova – Approximation, re-metaphorisation and idiomatising in ELF phraseological patterning: Looking for the point of contact. Paper presented at ELF7, 6 Sept 2014.
Anna Mauranen & Michaela Albl-Mikasa, convenors – Interpreting, Translation and English as a Lingua Franca (ITELF) colloquium
- Anna Mauranen – ELF and translation as contact languages. Colloquium paper presented at ELF7, 6 Sept 2014.