Category Archives: Research blogging

Interaction and lecturing in ELF: a final look

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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.

Keep reading…

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What’s so funny? More laughter in academic talk

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

Even real scientists like to laugh.
Photo by Ruth Orkin
Source: artnet.tumblr.com

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.

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

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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.

Keep reading…

Good ELF in English-medium instruction

Note: this is the first in a series of posts reviewing the doctoral dissertation of Jaana Suviniitty, Lectures in English as a Lingua Franca: Interactional Features.

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The early posts of this blog have been dealing with the internationalisation of higher education in Finland, especially with current events in Aalto University. But Aalto’s Business School isn’t the first to switch to English-medium instruction (EMI), and ELFA project member Jaana Suviniitty has been deeply involved with the move to EMI in another division of Aalto – the Dept. of Forest Products Technology in the School of Chemical Technology. She recently defended her PhD, which is based on her work in language support in the early days of an MA program’s transition to English-only instruction.

In addition to providing support to department personnel, Jaana was tasked with evaluating lecturers’ English. To this end, she video recorded 21 lectures by different teachers, of which all but one were native speakers of Finnish. Since English as lingua franca (ELF) interaction necessarily involves speakers who don’t share a first language, only those lectures were included in which at least one audience member was not also a native speaker of Finnish. In addition to Finnish speakers, the students came from diverse first-language backgrounds: Swedish, Hindi, Spanish, Bengali, English, Japanese, Norwegian, Czech, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Estonian, German, Chinese, Hungarian, Thai and Lithuanian – typical ELF.

Keep reading…

Blogging about blogging about blogging

One of the base assumptions of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) research is that the English spoken between non-native speakers should be studied and understood in its own right. Lately, interest has also grown in written ELF, when English is the lingua franca of written interaction. To complement the spoken academic ELF in the ELFA corpus, we’ve started work on a new database of written academic ELF – the WrELFA corpus.

There are four main criteria we look for in a written academic ELF text:

  1. it is an instance of second-language use (SLU), not taken from a language learning environment
  2. it is authentic and naturally occurring, not elicited for research purposes
  3. it is ‘high stakes’ in the sense of its academic importance
  4. it has been written without native-English intervention

These four points are a good description of the academic research blog. Graduate students and experienced professors alike represent their research online. Unlike in the US/UK-dominated world of peer-reviewed journals, research bloggers can represent themselves in their professional lingua franca directly to the public and their peers, without linguistic barriers set up by outsiders.

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Getting serious about laughter in academic talk

Academic discourse is serious business. Lectures are delivered, conference presentations are discussed, great thoughts hang in the air like disembodied spirits. It’s not the kind of environment you’d expect to find a lot of laughter and joking. And yet, we academics can’t seem to stop laughing.

The frozen Baltic

The Baltic Sea is still frozen in February. We’re anxiously awaiting the sun.
© Nina Valtavirta

The ELFA project had our February meeting on Thu., 21.2, and MA student Jani Ahtiainen gave a talk on laughter in spoken academic discourse. He’s doing his master’s research on terms of address in the ELFA corpus, an area often connected to culture-specific norms and expectations. Likewise, the occurrence of humor and laughter might be influenced by culture as well.

Jani based his discussion on a 2006 article by David Lee that looked at occurrences of laughter in MICASE (Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English). The idea behind the article is that foreign students must struggle with the profound subtlety of American humor, so we should study laughter in MICASE to help these hapless foreigners cope. These are quite different research motivations than we have in the ELF field, but the question of laughter in academic ELF is still relevant.

Keep reading…

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