What do we mean by “I mean”?

Click image to jump to Fernández-Polo, F. J. (2014) The role of I mean in conference presentations by ELF speakers. English for Specific Purposes 34, 58-67. (behind paywall)

Click image to jump to Fernández-Polo, F. J. (2014) The role of I mean in conference presentations by ELF speakers. English for Specific Purposes 34, 58-67. (behind paywall)

When analysing spoken English, it doesn’t take long to encounter discourse markers, the single words or phrases that speakers commonly use to mark their stance or organise their message. Common discourse markers include well, now, you know and i mean. In the April 2014 issue of English for Specific Purposes, Francisco Javier Fernández-Polo examines the discourse marker i mean in conference presentations included in the ELFA corpus. This subcorpus includes 34 conference presentations in English by speakers of 21 different first languages. Recorded at universities in Finland, the data consist of naturally occurring English used as a lingua franca (ELF) in academic settings.

Fernández-Polo’s study is qualitative, involving a close analysis of a small number of cases toward determining the functions of i mean in context. There are only 56 occurrences of i mean in this conference presentation subcorpus (94,314 words1), and Fernández-Polo takes 48 of them into his analysis. He classifies these into four different categories – correcting mistakes and dysfluencies; enhancing clarity and explicitness; organising text; and marking certainty and salience (see Table 1 below). Examples of each are discussed in turn.

A striking finding from the paper concerns the wide inter-speaker variation in the use of i mean. Fewer than half of the 34 presenters use i mean at least once, with a single speaker producing 20% of the occurrences, and five speakers contributing two thirds of all hits. To see if a different distribution might be found in similar English as a native language (ENL) data, Fernández-Polo consulted the monologic lectures in the American MICASE corpus. He found that i mean occurs in the MICASE lectures with the same standardised frequency (5 per 10,000 words) and with similar inter-speaker variation – one speaker in MICASE produced 27% of occurrences, with 14 speakers producing 60% of hits. It thus appears that the choice of discourse markers varies a lot based on a speaker’s preference or habit. Keep reading…


Why mixing languages isn’t so bad after all

Kaisa Pietikäinen is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, where she carries out research in the field of English as a lingua franca (ELF)

Kaisa Pietikäinen is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, where she carries out research in the field of English as a lingua franca (ELF)

by Kaisa Pietikäinen

You know those moments when you’re speaking English (as a lingua franca, or ELF), and all of a sudden your mind goes blank? You know the word you’re looking for, but you just can’t get it into your head. You might remember it in another language, but your brain just isn’t connecting to the English equivalent. Fear not – it’s more common than you think. And if your interlocutor isn’t a complete monolingual, you can try code-switching into a different language to resolve the situation.

I’ve been studying code-switching among ELF couples – couples who come from different cultures and language backgrounds, who have found each other and established a relationship despite the fact that neither partner uses his or her first language as the language of the relationship. (Actually, this might even make their relationship more equal.) These couples are very interesting as subjects of ELF research because they are much more established in their use of ELF than the traditional subjects in ELF studies – students, academics, and business people. ELF couples also make great subjects for the study of long term ELF: They use ELF every day with the same person, year after year. They open us a view to the future of ELF, on what established ELF could be like. Also, their use of ELF can give us important insight into what strategies work in the long run – and seems like code-switching is one of them!

In fact, code-switching is a very flexible device. In an earlier study (Pietikäinen 2012, available here), I discovered it can be used not only for covering for linguistic gaps, but also for

  • demonstrating use of a language
  • replacing nontranslatables, terms that do not quite catch their original meaning in English
  • specifying addressees by switching into another language, and
  • message emphasis.

In addition, sometimes code-switching seemed to emerge completely automatically, without any preparing cues or flagging, and interestingly, these instances of automatic code-switching seemed to pass without specific attention from either partner, which would suggest that code-switching is considered pretty normal an activity among ELF couples. 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…

ELFA project 2013: the year in review

The public defense of Diane Pilkinton-Pihko, Dec. 13, 2013. From left to right: Prof. Sauli Takala, opponent; Prof. Anna Mauranen, kustos; and Diane Pilkinton-Pihko.© Diane Pilkinton-Pihko

The public defense of Diane Pilkinton-Pihko, Dec. 13, 2013. From left to right: Prof. Sauli Takala, opponent; Prof. Anna Mauranen, kustos; and Diane Pilkinton-Pihko.
© Diane Pilkinton-Pihko

I started hanging around Prof. Anna Mauranen’s ELFA project in 2008, the year in which the ELFA corpus was completed and the first international ELF conference was held at the University of Helsinki. Since then, momentum in the project has only grown, and 2013 has been a turning point for project members individually and collectively. From the public release of the ELFA corpus to successfully defended PhDs to new funding and new corpus compilation, the ELFA project is stronger than ever.

ELFA doctors: the first generation

After Jaana Suviniitty became the first project member to defend her thesis in late 2012 (read the research blog on her thesis), three more first-generation ELFA doctorates were awarded in 2013. Two of the ELFA corpus compilers – Niina Hynninen and Elina Ranta – defended their theses, along with the just-defended thesis of Diane Pilkinton-Pihko. Niina’s thesis, Language Regulation in English as a Lingua Franca: Exploring language-regulatory practices in academic spoken discourse, has been discussed in depth on this blog. Elina’s and Diane’s work are fresh off the presses.

In Universals in a Universal Language? Exploring Verb-Syntactic Features in English as a Lingua Franca, Elina Ranta has produced the first PhD based on ELFA corpus data. It is freely available online, and I will be blogging on it here in coming months. Diane Pilkinton-Pihko just defended her thesis, English-medium instruction: Seeking assessment criteria for spoken professional English, earlier this month. Also available online, it draws on her work in the Aalto University Language Centre here in Helsinki. Keep reading…

On the other side: variations in organising chunks in ELF

Variations in organising chunks aren't that common, but they do tend to stand out.Source: Livio Bourbon via The Telegraph

Variations in organising chunks aren’t that common, but they do tend to stand out.
Source: Livio Bourbon via The Telegraph

When working with ELF data – English used as a lingua franca between second/foreign-language speakers – one of the things that stands out are slight variations in conventional chunks of language. A formulaic chunk like as a matter of fact might be realised as as the matter of fact, or you could hear now that you mention it spoken as now that you say it. There’s no sense in calling them errors, since the variants won’t cause miscommunication, they resemble their conventional counterparts in both function and form, and the less-preferred variant is likely found elsewhere. It’s just not the English native-speaker preference.

These variations are interesting linguistically and they tend to stand out impressionistically for researchers, but I’ve wondered how often these variations actually occur in ELF – both in frequency and also in their distribution relative to conventional forms. It’s not an easy question to answer. Many of these formulaic chunks of language occur infrequently, so finding a couple variants doesn’t really tell you much. The example above of now that you say it occurs twice in the million-word ELFA corpus, with just one instance of the conventional form. Alternatively, as the matter of fact is found in ELFA 21 times compared to just eight occurrences of the expected chunk, but only two speakers account for those 21 instances.

We can see from these examples that a formulaic chunk that rarely shows up won’t reveal much about how often variation occurs among ELF users, across speech events, in different times and places. To find out more, I wanted to start with the highest frequency chunks I could find. These are described by Linear Unit Grammar as organising chunks, the recurring and relatively fixed chunks we use to structure our speech and writing, like on the other hand. Using the corpus freeware AntConc, I looked at the most frequent 3-, 4- and 5-word clusters (aka n-grams) in the ELFA corpus of spoken academic ELF. Keep reading…

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“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…

Who’s in charge of English? Uses and descriptions of ELF

The late October view up Unioninkatu toward the Helsinki Cathedral

The late October view up Unioninkatu toward the Helsinki Cathedral

One of the recent topics here has been language regulation – what are the norms of English when it’s used as a lingua franca (ELF), when most of the parties in interaction aren’t native speakers of English? The only way to find out is to investigate the practices of ELF users in naturally occurring interaction, and also to inquire into their beliefs and expectations of what is good or acceptable English. Niina Hynninen researched these questions in her 2013 PhD thesis on language regulation in academic ELF, and this is the final post of a three-part review of her work.

I first outlined her data and methodology, which draws both interactive and interview data from the same participants in three university “study events”. These events – a lecture course and two groups of students doing out-of-class projects – were held over several weeks. Thus, interactive data was recorded from the same groups over multiple meetings, with interviews held with the same participants at the end of these periods. In the last post I discussed some of Niina’s findings about language regulation in the groups’ spoken interaction. Today I consider the interview data and how the ELF users’ beliefs about English connect to how they actually use ELF.

Student interviews: interpretations & expectations of ELF

In the analysis of her interviews with 13 students from the study events, Niina discusses three broad interpretive repertoires emerging from the interview data. They involve the students’ descriptions of their own and others’ use of ELF and how English ought to be used. These three interpretive repertoires are described as follows:

  • clarity & simplification – recurring themes across student interviews involved descriptions of “clear”, “simple” or “simplified” English. This came out in descriptions of “clear sentences” or avoiding “long sentences”, as well as adapting one’s speech for another speaker’s perceived proficiency. The two native speakers of English interviewed from the study events were also aware of these adaptive strategies and reported their own efforts to simplify and clarify their speech. 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…

WrELFA corpus progress report: 500k words

This little fellow wants Dionysus' grapes. From the Capitoline Museums in Rome.© Nina Valtavirta

This little fellow wants Dionysus’ grapes. From the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
© Nina Valtavirta

There’s growing interest in English as a lingua franca (ELF) research on description of written ELF. Up to now, ELF data has almost exclusively been drawn from spoken interaction, which is where a lingua franca gets used in the first place. But the use of English as a second/foreign language extends into the written mode as well, and this may also be directed to an international audience. In globalised networks such as academia, examples of English used as a written lingua franca aren’t hard to find. Like other high-stakes domains of ELF, an academic career involves producing English texts that are used to evaluate the author’s professional competence.

Alongside the growth in ELF research has been growing awareness of a power imbalance in academic publishing – journals concentrated in the US & UK typically place a perfect imitation of “native-like” English as a basic criteria for being published. This goes beyond just “correct grammar” and extends into idiomatic usage, phraseological choices, and rhetorical style. So while there’s no dispute that non-native users of English as a lingua franca far outnumber the native English speakers of the world, academic journals tip the balance of power in favor of English native speakers. In short, “good English” is equated with “native-like English”.

This is a question of interest to descriptive ELF research. How does “good English” written by educated professionals who speak a first language other than English differ from the mythologised “native-like English”? This question and the issues surrounding it are persuasively developed by David Owen (2011) in an article on academic publishing and language revision. In his work doing language revision in a Spanish university, he observes that papers rejected on linguistic grounds are often “formally impeccable”, and he presents a series of extracts to illustrate this “correct” vs. “native-like” distinction. In the end, he calls for descriptive ELF research that could clarify this timely question. What does good written ELF look like?

WrELFA: a corpus of written ELF in academia

Late in the same year as Owen’s article was published, Anna Mauranen tasked me with starting compilation of the Corpus of Written English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings (WrELFA corpus), which she had been talking about for some time. The million-word ELFA corpus of spoken academic ELF interaction was completed in 2008, and a written companion was a natural development. I’ve been working on this project ever since, and with help from research assistant Jani Ahtiainen, this summer we reached 500,000 words of processed WrELFA text. At this halfway mark to our million-word goal, I thought I’d give an update on our progress. Keep reading…