Category Archives: Seminar report

“I cannot avoid mixing an asiatic tincture”: a historical perspective on ESL

The life of Joseph Emin (1726-1809) gave us a historical perspective on learning and using English in the 18th century.Source: Emin 1792[1918]: 129.

The life of Joseph Emin (1726-1809) gave us a historical perspective on learning and using English in the 18th century.
Source: Emin 1792[1918]: 129.

A busy month for ELFA seminars came to a close Oct. 31 with a visit from Anni Sairio from the VARIENG (Variation, Contacts & Change in English) research unit here in University of Helsinki. As a historical sociolinguist, she’s investigating the experiences of English as a second language (ESL) learners and users in earlier centuries. In a similar vein, English as a lingua franca (ELF) research investigates second- and foreign-language users in contemporary settings. Our parallel research interests made it an insightful look into language learning and global English in the 1700s.

Anni’s latest project-in-progress is the Corpus of Historical English as a Second Language (CHESL). Now in the planning stages, it will provide a welcome perspective on the historical roots of ESL, linking today’s diverse Englishes with a time when English was one of several global lingua francas. To give a sense of the type of data she’s working with, Anni presented a case study of Joseph Emin, an 18th century multilingual. An Armenian born in Persia, Emin moved to Calcutta in his youth, where he learned English with determined enthusiasm.

Nothing drives learning like learner motivation, and Emin was driven to learn English and acquire the English cultural knowledge that was famed in its day – how to efficiently kill people. He was determined to liberate Armenia from Persia and the Ottoman Empire, and he knew it would require military training and discipline. He couldn’t let his father know that he intended to travel to England, and Emin’s autobiography describes how he concealed his enthusiasm for studying English from his father. Keep reading…


Spotlight on BELF: English as a Business Lingua Franca

The Helsinki School of Economics became part of Aalto University in 2010. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen are part of the Department of Communication in Aalto's School of Business.

The Helsinki School of Economics became part of Aalto University in 2010. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen are part of the Department of Communication in Aalto’s School of Business.

The fall season of ELF seminars held by Anna Mauranen got started last Thursday with a visit from two of the trailblazers in the research of BELF – English as a business lingua franca. Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen of the Aalto University School of Business introduced their approach to BELF in a 2005 paper on two mergers between large Finnish and Swedish companies, where English was adopted as the internal lingua franca. Since then they’ve continued developing BELF research, and this summer they reported on their latest work at the Changing English conference in Helsinki and the ELF6 conference in Rome.

Anne and Leena were the guest speakers at Thursday’s seminar, and they gave a wide-ranging overview of their work up to the present. It was interesting to get this “diachronic” view of their research and to hear how their perspectives on BELF have developed over the years. But even more broadly, it was a good reminder of how the field of ELF research is as new as the globalising trends that have developed around it. Anne and Leena told of their early careers as business communication instructors in the late 1980s, when the focus was on where to place the prescribed elements of a business letter. Today, “business English” means something altogether different, with global implications.

Global Communicative Competence: more than the message

One of the areas investigated by Kankaanranta and Louhiala-Salminen in connection with BELF is Global Communicative Competence (GCC). Their earlier research has used survey and interview data to develop a profile of success factors in BELF communication. We had interesting discussion around these findings, which suggest that “getting the facts/content right” is the most important factor, followed by “getting the politeness right” and “getting the structure/text right”. This interplay between giving the facts and building rapport came out in a quote from one of the Finnish informants: “First you say something nice, then you give the facts, and then you close by saying something nice again”. Keep reading…

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.

Keep reading…

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?

Keep reading…

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…

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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