Author Archives: Ray Carey

ELF couples: cross-cultural love relationships

Spring has finally arrived in Finland, and all of nature rejoices.© Nina Valtavirta

Spring has finally arrived in Finland,
and all of nature rejoices.
© Nina Valtavirta

When thinking of the common settings in which English is used as a lingua franca (ELF), you probably think of the Big Three – academia, business, and international organisations/diplomacy. It’s easy to forget that English is also a lingua franca of love, a common language of relationships in which neither partner shares a first language, and neither are native speakers of English. Looking over the body of research on ELF, it’s clear that the use of ELF in intimate relationships is largely unexplored territory.

Though the ELFA project is focused on ELF in academia, we’re fortunate to welcome Kaisa Pietikäinen, a new PhD student investigating this widespread phenomenon of ELF couples. She presented her PhD research plan at the last ELFA seminar of the academic term, which was held on May 6. Her ongoing data collection opens a window into the personal lives of eight ELF couples who are recording their use of ELF in everyday, informal settings such as at the dinner table or in the car. With this data, Kaisa will explore how ELF couples achieve successful communication, and how their communication tactics might differ from other ELF contexts.

Kaisa has already broken new ground with her MA thesis on ELF couples’ use of code-switching in interview data. Her thesis was completed at Newcastle University under the direction of Peter Sercombe and Alan Firth, who introduced her to the study of ELF and Conversation Analysis (CA), which will be her main methodology for the doctoral research. Unlike this earlier study, which drew its data from Kaisa’s interviews with six ELF couples, her PhD research will broaden this analysis to naturally occurring ELF interaction recorded by the couples themselves.

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Fluent chunks 2: How to label your chunks

Photo by Alan Chia via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Alan Chia via Wikimedia Commons

Most people recognise that we don’t speak in “sentences”. Still, speech is analysed and described using the concepts of sentence grammars, even when these writing-based systems must be bent and stretched, or vice versa – isn’t it cheating to “clean up” naturally occurring speech so it fits into a sentence grammar?

In a previous post I introduced Linear Unit Grammar, or LUG, a chunk-based approach to analysing spoken and written text. In that post I introduced the linear, word-by-word process of chunking up a string of transcribed speech by placing intuitively directed chunk boundaries. The discussion focused on this short extract from an academic conference in the ELFA corpus. When asked about her experience with students in Brazil, the speaker responded:

er i c- i i so i i went to portugal er i live in portugal er for 13 years so i er my experience with brazilian students is is a long way @@ okay a long time ago (note: @@ = laughter and er is like uh in the US style)

How do you divide this into a well-formed constituency tree? The short answer is you don’t, and neither do speakers in actual interaction. LUG analysis attempts to mirror the real-time, linear processing of language as multi-word chunks, regardless of “grammaticality”. Keep reading…

Creativity and color in academic ELF

If you believe the myth that ELF is "colorless" English, then Spock from Star Trek should be the prototypical ELF user.Screenshot borrowed from Wikipedia

If you believe the myth that ELF is “colorless” English, then Spock from Star Trek should be the prototypical ELF user.
Screenshot borrowed from Wikipedia

I was recently addressing some common folk linguistic myths about English, especially the English used as a lingua franca (ELF) between its non-native speakers. One of these myths concerns “color”, or more often than not, “colour”, since it seems the British “owners” of English are the ones most preoccupied with this trait. More specifically, you hear the charge of “colourless” English directed toward ELF speakers. You might come to think there was an expressionless room of Vulcans exchanging robotic strings of linguistic data. You can’t be human in a foreign language, can you?

Believe it or not, ELF users somehow manage to be fully human in English, even in academic settings. I’ve already blogged about the distribution of laughter in the ELFA corpus of spoken academic ELF, and there doesn’t seem to be a big difference in the frequency of laughter in equivalent native-speaker data (MICASE corpus) or between the ELF speakers from different first-language backgrounds. So you’ve got to conclude that there must be some “colour” in there somewhere.

Valeria Franceschi of the University of Verona was a visiting PhD student in Helsinki last year, and she investigated these questions in our academic ELF data. Her findings were just published in the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, and they confirm what has already been known for some time in ELF research – when the sneering critics of “colourless” English are out of the room, ELF speakers don’t hesitate to use idiomatic and metaphoric language, borrow images from their own linguacultures, and create new metaphors on-line (see esp. the work of Marie-Luise Pitzl on metaphoric language in ELF).

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ELF in policy and practice: planning a study on language planning

The meltdown is nearly complete. Almost all the snow and ice are gone, and we again celebrate the pleasures of sidewalks and dirt.© Nina Valtavirta

The meltdown is nearly complete. Almost all the snow and ice are gone, and we again celebrate the pleasures of sidewalks and dirt.
© Nina Valtavirta

The April seminar of the ELFA project was held on 18.4, with Netta Hirvensalo speaking on her research plan for a PhD study on language policies and their impact in Finnish academia. In the following post, Netta reviews her seminar presentation.

by Netta Hirvensalo

In March, I shared my thoughts on the language strategy seminar organised here at the University of Helsinki. Interesting as it was in itself, reporting on the seminar also offered a perfect way for me to put forth some of my ideas about possible research interests and, ultimately, to pave the way for my own research plans. Having been involved in the ELFA group for the better part of two years now, continuing on from an MA thesis to a full-on PhD project seems rather natural. And with a topic as current and as fascinating (no arguments!) as the one I have landed on, how could I not?

Niina Hynninen recently defended her dissertation on language regulation in ELF with a bottom-up perspective on the matter; that is, how speakers themselves regulate the language in use. What I plan to do is to instead look at the top-down regulation at work in Finnish universities: how language policies are made, what they hope to achieve and, most importantly, how they translate into real-life use of English as an academic lingua franca. This last point is crucial, since I hope that through this study I will manage to create what I also called for in my earlier post: genuine communication between those who do the planning and those with first-hand experience on how these policies actually work.

In order to get there, I will approach the issue of ELF in Finnish university language policies by taking into account all the major parties involved in and affected by the phenomenon: university administration – used here as an umbrella term for those who are responsible for policy planning and execution – as well as students and teaching and research staff. The aim is to begin from the planning, to establish how English-medium instruction and the use of English as an academic lingua franca in general is viewed by different Finnish universities. That is, how language policy makers evaluate the significance of English as an academic language in different aspects of university life. And what I am particularly keen to shed light on, especially when linking this to the other groups involved in the study: who are the policies and, subsequently, internationalisation and English-medium instruction aimed for?

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English in the EU: folk linguists have their say


The Guardian has published a short piece that speculates on whether English should be adopted as the official language of the EU. The article doesn’t specify whose English this should be, but the author is aware that things have slipped out of native-speakers’ hands: “Eurospeak may not sound pretty to native English ears, but it may just be a lingua franca forming in front of our eyes”.

Straight to the point – I don’t think English should be the official language of the EU. I’m a citizen of one of the small EU countries whose main language (Finnish) is spoken by just over five million people. I don’t believe they’d agree to an English-only policy, and neither would I. The policy of multilingualism is an affirmation of the linguistic and national equality of all EU members, and without that I don’t think the EU makes sense. The article points out that the EU translation regime costs 300 million euros a year, but this is hardly a treasure in our modern era of mega-billion euro/dollar/Monopoly-money bailouts.

But that’s not why the article is interesting. The real action is found in the comment section, which has over 500 comments at the time of writing. I’m always curious to see what “ordinary people” think about these issues, and especially what British English speakers think about English in the rest of Europe. The comments include a contingent of English teachers and translators who don’t qualify as “ordinary people”, but there’s an interesting mix of native and non-native English speakers weighing in. Opinions overall are quite mixed, but I’ve selected a few comments I’d like to discuss that I think are worthy of mention.

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Interaction and lecturing in ELF: a final look


We’re coming to the end of this multi-post overview of Jaana Suviniity’s PhD thesis on the role of interactive features in lectures delivered in English as a lingua franca (ELF) – when English is not a first language for the speaker or listeners. When students rated these lectures on a scale of “challenging” to “accessible”, it became apparent that a major difference between the more or less accessible lectures was the quantity of interactive features. After giving a general overview of her data and findings, I reviewed Jaana’s findings on control acts in ELF lectures. Now I’ll take the two other interactive features she examined – questions and repetitions.

“So what does it mean now?”

The abundance of questions posed by teachers in the more accessible lectures was what first motivated Jaana to investigate interactive features. The overall figures for the six lectures she sampled helped to clarify her first impressions – in total she found the teachers asked 59 questions in the challenging lectures, while the accessible lecturers asked 179. But what kind of questions are they? Jaana started with a broad division between audience-oriented and content-oriented questions.

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“Real English” under threat!

Michael Edwards has become the first Brit pure enough to protect the purity of French.

Michael Edwards has become the first Brit pure enough to protect the purity of French.

As a researcher of English as a lingua franca (ELF) and sensible human being, I take offense at linguistic intolerance directed toward second-language users of English. It wasn’t until I moved to Finland that I became aware of the dismissive scorn some English native speakers feel toward the “Bad English” of the lingua franca variety. In particular, I hadn’t before encountered the special kind of prescriptivism emanating from Britain, with its unique claim to being the “owner” and preserver of English.

Linguistic intolerance and ELF were in the news last week in an article by Associated Press reporter Elaine Ganley, entitled “New guardian of French tongue is (gasp!) British“. The story tells about Michael Edwards, a literary scholar who has been elected to become the first British member of the “immortals” of the Academie Francaise, a revered institution dedicated to preserving the purity of French. Most of the article focuses on French, which is described as being under threat from English, but Edwards has some pointed views about English as well, saved for the last few lines of the story:

Then he let go with one more, perhaps truly renegade, thought: “The language really under threat is English.”

Today, he explained, two non-native English speakers will often communicate in a mangled, hybrid English.

“The language chatted around the world is poor English,” Edwards said.

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What’s so funny? More laughter in academic talk

Even real scientists like to laugh.Photo by Ruth OrkinSource:

Even real scientists like to laugh.
Photo by Ruth Orkin

Is it possible to fully experience humor when using a foreign language? This varies from person to person (you probably know someone with no sense of humor in any language), and maybe also from culture to culture. There’s a lot of culture-specific humor, so that even native speakers of the same language from different cultural backgrounds (e.g. Brits and Americans) are susceptible to misunderstandings when a joke is missed or a metaphor lacks a cultural reference.

Much intercultural research, even on academic talk, takes this monolithic approach – Culture A does it this way, Culture B does that that way, when Culture A goes to Culture B to study, there’s going to be problems. But lingua franca interaction adds additional variables, especially when English is spoken by second-language users outside of an English-speaking country. What then?

In an earlier post I presented some data from the Corpus of English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings (ELFA corpus), which I compared to similar spoken data from the U.S. When looking at the broad, corpus-wide frequency of laughter in the two corpora, there was no striking difference between the native and non-native speaker data. A laugh occurs 2-3 times per 1,000 words in each corpus, and laughter is concentrated in similarly interactive events like seminar discussions. Keep reading…

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Fluent chunks: an intro to Linear Unit Grammar

The spring equinox has arrived, the sun is shining, and the place is still frozen solid.© Nina Valtavirta

The spring equinox has passed, the sun is shining, and the place is still frozen solid.
© Nina Valtavirta

The question of how to evaluate English proficiency in lingua franca settings such as English-medium university programs has interested me for a while. One of the criticisms heard against ELF research is that it promotes an “anything goes” attitude toward English. But clearly anything does not go – at least not in high-stakes, professional contexts like academia. Yet, it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to bring in the British Council to evaluate the non-British English used by non-British instructors to teach non-British students outside Britain. The need for contextually appropriate teaching and testing is one of the main motivations for ELF research.

It was my turn to talk at the ELF seminar this month, which was held on 14.3. I introduced my PhD project, which officially started this January and unofficially began over a year ago. I’m researching fluency in spoken academic ELF, but with a data-driven approach; instead of evaluating ELF users by an idealised “native-speaker model”, I’m starting by describing the features of fluency and dysfluency in a corpus of naturally occurring academic ELF. These texts are transcriptions of university level talk from pedagogical settings (lectures, seminar discussions from various fields) and professional events (conference presentations and discussions).

The idea is to first describe what is ordinary ELF in academic settings – what are the recurring patterns and routines of fluent interaction, and what are the (dys)fluency features which differentiate individual ELF users? This is the big question, but the even bigger problem is how to systematically identify and describe these patterns.

Keep reading…

Let’s draw some wood cells: control acts & accessible lectures in ELF


When I introduced the PhD research of the newly-minted Dr. Jaana Suviniitty, I concluded with her main finding – when lectures in English as a lingua franca (ELF) were rated by students as “accessible” or “challenging”, the major difference between the lectures was the presence of interactional features. The accessible lectures which students found more intelligible showed a markedly higher number of interactional features such as questions, repetitions, and control acts. The more challenging, less understandable lectures seemed lack these features.

In this next installment, I review her findings on control acts, one of the most frequently occurring interactive features which differentiated the accessible and challenging lectures. Control acts can be simply defined as statements intended to get someone else to do something. They don’t require a verbal response, but some sort of action, even an internal, mental action such as thinking or remembering. When comparing three accessible and three challenging lectures, Jaana found twice the number of control acts in the accessible lectures (73 vs. 34). In the outlier case of the most challenging lecture, only two control acts were found.

I’ll be focusing on the three most frequent control acts in Jaana’s data – directives, inclusive control acts, and advice.

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