Category Archives: English native speakers & ELF

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…

Whose English? A window into written academic ELF

A February sunset in Helsinki.© Nina Valtavirta

A February sunset in Helsinki.
© Nina Valtavirta

Though it’s easy to see that English has become the lingua franca of academia, it’s not always clear how widespread it is within a specific institution. Moreover, it’s not always clear whose English we’re talking about – while English is increasingly used as a lingua franca (ELF) between non-native English speakers and authors, English as a native language (ENL) is still in the mix. In an internationally oriented university such as here in Helsinki, how much of a presence does English have? And are we talking about ENL – native-speaker varieties such as in the US/UK – or English as a lingua franca (ELF)?

Any number of approaches could be put to this question, but our recent work on the WrELFA corpus of written academic ELF offers an intriguing look into language use within the University of Helsinki. We just finished compiling a subcorpus of preliminary examiners’ statements – the written evaluations by senior academics of newly submitted PhD theses. In Finland, PhD candidates must first submit their theses to obtain permission for a public defence. Typically two examiners evaluate the work and either grant or deny the permission to defend it.

These examiners’ statements are intriguing data for two reasons. First, they comprise a high-stakes academic genre that is part of the public examination as well as a demonstration of the author’s expertise. Second, they offer a unique source of written academic ELF. The examiners are often non-native English users who are writing statements to be read by Finnish students and faculty members. There are not native English gatekeepers in the writing process – as there are, for instance, in academic publishing – but ENL authors are also active in submitting evaluations. In short, it’s an unregulated window into linguistic practices within and across academic fields and faculties. Keep reading…

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

Enjoy it while it lasts, folks. Fall is just around the corner...© Nina Valtavirta

Enjoy it while it lasts, folks. Fall is just around the corner…
© Nina Valtavirta

When I introduced the PhD thesis of ELFA project member Niina Hynninen (read the intro here), I outlined some considerations for studying language regulation when English is spoken as a lingua franca (ELF). The norms of acceptable English in ELF settings are not self-evident – certainly the norms of “correctness” in relation to native-speaker standards are present, but the range of acceptability might be broader that this. The answer must be found in ELF interaction itself. What do ELF speakers actually do in their real-time negotiation of “living norms”?

In the introductory post, I reviewed Niina’s interactive ELF data drawn from academic study events and the range of interactive features she examined as expressions of language regulation. In this post, I go deeper into her data and findings on four areas of language regulation. First, what kind of overt comments do ELF users make on the quality of their/others’ English? Second, what kind of explicit corrections are made in their talk? Then I move on to more subtle forms of language regulation: instances where reformulations are embedded in a second speaker’s utterance (“embedded repairs”) and reformulations involving third-party intervention (“mediation”).

Commenting on English

In the 20 hours of interactive data that Niina analysed, it was rare to find comments on another speaker’s English. It was typically students who commented on their own language. Most of this commentary was found in the student group work events as expressions of insecurity: “I’m not that good in English“, “I don’t know if the word is correct in English“, “my English is not very good I know“. Despite this uncertainty, Niina found that these comments on language quality were not accompanied by signs of communication trouble or misunderstanding. Instead, they seemed to serve as disclaimers although there were no signals of unacceptability from other participants. Keep reading…

Can English native speakers adapt to a lingua franca world?

If English native speakers don't learn to adapt to a world of lingua franca interaction, we might find ourselves wishing we had.

If English native speakers don’t learn to adapt to a world of lingua franca interaction, we might find ourselves wishing we had.

Academia is a world of its own. Linguistic controversies are fought among scholars with little interest from the outside world. There was outrage in response to early propositions that English used as a lingua franca (ELF) should be studied as a legitimate form of English in its own right, and not as perpetually deficient “learner language”. Yet, the ELF world outside kept communicating, and 15-or-so years since the pioneers of ELF research fought their early battles, academics are gradually recognising the uncontroversial and obvious linguistic reality around them.

While academia moves at the speed of, well, academia, I’ve always had more hope for business. English as a lingua franca of business (BELF) is nothing new, and as with academic ELF, there are English native speakers in the mix. How do they adjust to their ELF surroundings? People in business are motivated by money, which motivates efficiency, which motivates doing things right the first time. The same goes for communication. If there was ever a domain in which efficient communication should be a priority, it would be business. Forget about language ideologies of ownership and “purity”. Profit is the ideology of business.

It makes me happy to find people outside academia who “get” ELF. You don’t have to be a linguist to understand the need for English native speakers to adjust to a lingua franca world. So I’ve enjoyed following the Global English for Business Blog by fellow ex-Californian Matt Halsdorff, a business English trainer based in Germany. His blog isn’t devoted to his non-native English-speaking clients, however. Matt blogs on the ways that English native speakers can successfully adjust their English skills to an ELF world of international business.

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…