Category Archives: ELF in the news

Let’s be cool about English


With English serving as a global lingua franca, it’s easy to see the ill fit when a minority of English speakers (those who speak it by accident of birth) exercise disproportionate control over what should be regarded as acceptable English. In scientific publishing, for example, authors using English as a lingua franca (ELF) encounter linguistic gatekeepers who not infrequently insist on “native-like” English as a criteria for publishing. Yet, attitudes are changing just as quickly as anything else in our single-click world. Even native speakers of English can see that we need to be cool about English.

In an article this month in Slate, Boer Deng, herself a second-language user of English, has an interesting take on English as the scientific lingua franca. She argues that the English supremacy in academia is linked to American spending on and production of PhDs, which has exploded since the 1960s. She further points out the added challenges of representing one’s self as a professional without the advantage of using your first language. As a result, native speakers of English should show more understanding and consideration toward their peers – in short, we need to be cool.

But how to implement this linguistic coolness institutionally? Deng cites the example of an American journal, Molecular Biology of the Cell, which published an editorial in 2012 (read it here) that calls for flexibility by reviewers when evaluating scientific texts by authors using English as a second or foreign language. And what do they say that it takes to be cool in today’s scientific world? Keep reading…

The decline of the monolingual English native speaker

Click the image to jump to "The English empire" from the Schumpeter blog on the Economist website.

Click the image to jump to “The English empire” from the Schumpeter blog on the Economist website.

I like to watch for articles and commentary on the role of English in the world today. Linguists live in a world of their own, and it’s nice to see what the broader world has to say about my research subject. From time to time, an online news source publishes something on English as a lingua franca (ELF), and especially its spread in international business. Usually the stories themselves are fairly dull, but the public forum for comment and discussion can be an informal barometer for language attitudes and ideologies surrounding English.

Last week’s column in the Economist (Schumpeter, 15.2) was no exception. Entitled “The English empire”, the article reads like an advertisement for global English. A long list of multinational companies are listed where English has been adopted as an official language and serves as a lingua franca between non-native speakers and users of English. This spread of English as a business lingua franca (BELF) is hardly news, but the column helpfully gives a list of quotes from various experts who think this is a good and natural development. Then, three obligatory components that must be included in articles like this:

  1. taking a shot at the EU translation regime – “a babbling army of translators costing $1.5 billion a year”
  2. a gratuitous reference to colonialism – “English is the language on which the sun never sets”
  3. a token finger-wag toward monolingual English native speakers – “Too many of them [English native speakers] risk mistaking their fluency in meetings for actual accomplishments”

As with an article from the Guardian that I earlier discussed on this blog, the interesting part comes in the reader discussions which follow. Sure, there’s the expected snobbery of language purists toward non-native English speakers1 (and toward American English, of course), along with suitably indignant replies. But in the midst of this and other folk linguistic speculations on the suitability of Mandarin Chinese to be a global lingua franca, an interesting theme emerges – the decline of the monolingual English native speaker. Keep reading…

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.

Keep reading…

“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.

Keep reading…

BELFA is born in Aalto University

Aalto_logoThis new blog has happily coincided with a series of ELF-related stories in the news. Yesterday YLE (the Finnish national public broadcaster) reported that Aalto University wants to offer all MA-level tuition in their business school in English, as early as this fall. Aalto University is something of a “super-school” created in 2010 by the merger of Helsinki’s universities of economics, technology, and art & design. It is also the teaching home of two of our ELFA project members.

This is a major development in the internationalisation of Finnish higher education. The English-language version of the story reports it fairly straight with the title “Aalto University goes for English-only business programmes”, but the Finnish-language version of the story is entitled “Kauppakorkeakoulu hylkäsi suomen – maisteriopinnot vain englanniksi” (Business school abandoned Finnish – MA studies only in English, my translation) and opens with the following line:

“Aalto-yliopiston kansainvälistyminen on saavuttamassa hämmästyttävät mittasuhteet.”
(Aalto University’s internationalisation is reaching astonishing proportions, my translation)

Keep reading…

The Guardian: chat on English in higher education


What better way to start an ELF blog than with ELF in the news – our very own Anna Mauranen was a guest for today’s live chat on English in higher education, hosted by The Guardian. The two-hour chat, entitled “Is English still the dominant language of higher education?“, was sponsored by TOEFL, who is understandably concerned with the question of dominance. The six panel participants reflected the Anglo-American orientation generally, with Anna being the only expert from outside the US/UK.

In terms of “camps”, there were two British Council administrators, and opposing voices from Theresa Lillis and Mary Jane Curry, who are critics of the disadvantages faced by academics outside the US and UK. Ben Wildavsky, an American scholar from the prominent Brookings Institute think-tank, presented another US viewpoint. Anna was thus the only voice from outside these “Inner Circle” settings.

Keep reading…