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Reflecting on english as a lingua franca: possible implications for language teaching and learning in russia

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Elena I. Grushko, senior instructor

Karina S. Petrosyan, senior instructor

Southern Federal University, Russia
TESOL Quarterly and some other applied linguistics journals have recently published a number of articles whose authors consider the teaching and learning of English in relation to the realities of the language’s current spread and use. Such considerations have brought to the fore a number of interesting and at the same time quite controversial issues concerning the varieties of English taught and learned world-wide. These controversial issues are due to present day sociopolitical and geopolitical changes related to new forms of globalization. Such postmodern globalization has several distinctive features: [1]

  • The economic and production relationships between communities involve multinational participation at diverse levels.

  • National boundaries have become porous as people, goods, and ideas flow easily across them.

  • Space and time have become compressed, enabling us to shuttle rapidly between communities and communicative contexts, in both virtual and physical space.

  • Languages, communities, and cultures have become hybrid, shaped by the fluidity of social and economic relationships.

These sociopolitical and geopolitical changes have created a radical shift in worldwide attitudes toward English and reconfigured the relationship between English varieties and speech communities. English has become a contact language for intra- and international relationships. As a contact language English has been defined by a number of second language acquisition researchers as ELF – English as a lingua franca. Let’s have a closer look at this term.

According to Jennifer Jenkins, ELF refers to English when it is used as a contact language across linguacultures whose members are in the main so-called non-native speakers. [6]

In fact, some of the language teaching professionals are more familiar with the term English as an international language (EIL). Both ELF and EIL are currently in use and can be used interchangeably. However, many researchers prefer to use the term English as a lingua franca because the word ‘international’ can be misleading. Actually, international English is quite often used to refer to the use of English as a means of international communication across national and linguistic boundaries while “EFL interactions are defined as interactions between members of two or more different linguacultures in English, for none of whom English is the mother tongue.” [3]

In the context of the above described developments, let’s look at what English we teach in Russia. It is generally accepted, that in Russia learners study English as a foreign language. In other words, English is learned as a foreign language for use in communication with native speakers. Therefore teaching EFL has always implied a so-called learners’ achievement of the assumed target, that is, native-like English as the only desirable endpoint of English language acquisition process. But we must admit that quite often such a target is very unlikely to achieve in most English teaching and learning classroom contexts due to various reasons: gap between target language and current learner proficiency, the length and intensity of the course, learners’ motivation and needs, teachers’ professionalism and some others.

Hence the question arises whether this ideal target is possible at all and if it is worth putting so much effort into trying to achieve it. Presumably, there is no ultimate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this question. What is likely to be a desirable and achievable target (native-like English) in English language teacher training would not necessarily cater for various other learners’ needs. To the majority of learners efficient communicative skills are far more relevant than the acquisition of native-like competence.

Besides, those who use English primarily as a lingua franca (ELF) are thought to constitute the world’s largest group of English speakers and vastly outnumber those of English as a native language (ENL) and even those of English as a second (immigrant) language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL). Since roughly only one out of every four users of English in the world is a native speaker of the language [2], most ELF interactions take place among ‘non-native’ speakers of English. Although this does not preclude the participation of English native speakers in ELF interaction, what is distinctive about ELF is that, in most cases, it is “a contact language” between persons who share neither a common native tongue nor a common (national) culture, and for whom English is the chosen foreign language of communication. [4]

Moreover, it is believed that there is considerable overlap between ELF users and EFL learners, partly because many of those who start out thinking they are learning English as a foreign language end up using it as a lingua franca. So English’s greatest use is as a contact language.

To respond to the changing needs and conditions a number of studies into ELF in different regions and in relation to different linguistic levels have been carried out by such researchers as Jenkins, Seidlhofer, House and others. ELF scholars do not believe that any monolithic variety of English does or ever will exist. “Rather, they believe that anyone participating in international communication needs to be familiar with, and have in their linguistic repertoire for use, as and when appropriate, certain forms (phonological, lexico-grammatical, etc.) that are widely used and widely intelligible across groups of English speakers from different first language backgrounds.” [6] That is why, ELF researchers seek to identify frequently and systematically used forms that differ from native speakers’ forms without causing communication problems. For example, Seidlhofer points out that: “In particular, typical "errors" that most English teachers would consider in urgent need of correction and remediation, and that consequently often get allotted a great deal of time and effort in English lessons, appear to be generally unproblematic and no obstacle to communicative success.” [7]

The following are some of the potential salient features of ELF lexicogrammar that Seidlhofer has identified [8]:

  • non-use of the third person present tense—s ("She look very sad")

  • interchangeable use of the relative pronouns who and which ("a book who," "a person which")

  • omission of the definite and indefinite articles where they are obligatory in native speaker English and insertion where they do not occur in native speaker English

  • use of an all-purpose question tag such as isn't it? or no? instead of shouldn't they? ("They should arrive soon, isn't it?")

  • increasing of redundancy by adding prepositions ("We have to study about . . ." and "can we discuss about . . . ?"), or by increasing explicitness ("black colour" vs. "black" and "How long time?" vs, "How long?")

  • heavy reliance on certain verbs of high semantic generality, such as do, have, make, put, take

  • pluralisation of nouns which are considered uncountable in native speaker English ("informations," "staffs," "advices")

  • use of that-clauses instead of infinitive constructions ("I want that we discuss about my dissertation")

On the other hand, one of the main causes of communication breakdown that Seidlhofer's research has identified is unilateral idiomaticity. This occurs when one speaker uses a native speaker idiomatic expression such as an idiom, phrasal verb, or metaphor that the interlocutor does not know.

Another scholar Jennifer Jenkins, who has been researching English as a lingua franca for more than 15 years, has developed the following implications for pronunciation teaching [5]:

  • mutual intelligibility among non-native speakers( NNSs) as the guiding principle

  • empirical evidence from NNS-NNS communication rather than from NS-NS communication and NS intuition

  • greater consideration to teachability

  • need for acceptance of emerging international features and NNS innovations

She also highlights the core features for ELF (English as a lingua franca) pronunciation teaching such as:

  • All the consonants are important except for 'th' sounds as in 'thin' and 'this'

  • Consonant clusters are important at the beginning and in the middle of words. For example, the cluster in the word 'string' cannot be simplified to 'sting' or 'tring’ and remain intelligible.

  • The contrast between long and short vowels is important. For example, the difference between the vowel sounds in 'sit' and seat'

  • Nuclear (or tonic) stress is also essential. This is the stress on the most important word (or syllable) in a group of words. For example, there is a difference in meaning between 'My son uses a computer' which is a neutral statement of fact and 'My SON uses a computer', where there is an added meaning (such as that another person known to the speaker and listener does not use a computer).

On the other hand, many other items which are regularly taught on English pronunciation courses appear not to be essential for intelligibility in ELF interactions. These are:

  • The 'th' sounds (see above)

  • Vowel quality, that is, the difference between vowel sounds where length is not involved, e.g. a German speaker may pronounce the 'e' in the word 'chess' more like an 'a' as in the word 'cat'.

  • Weak forms such as the words 'to', 'of and 'from' whose vowels are often pronounced as schwa instead of with their full quality.

  • Other features of connected speech such as assimilation (where the final sound of a word alters to make it more like the first sound of the next word, so that, e.g. 'red paint' becomes 'reb paint'

  • Word stress

  • Pitch movement

  • Stress timing

To sum up, students should be given choice. That is, when students are learning English so that they can use it in international contexts with other non-native speakers from different first languages, they should be given the choice of acquiring a pronunciation that is more relevant to ELF intelligibility than traditional pronunciation syllabuses offer. Up to now, the goal of pronunciation teaching has been to enable students to acquire an accent that is as close as possible to that of a native speaker. But for ELF communication, this is not the most intelligible accent and some of the non-core items may even make them less intelligible to another non-native speaker. The non-core items are not only unimportant for intelligibility but also socially more appropriate. After all, native speakers have different accents depending on the region where they were born and live. So why non-native speakers of an international language should not be encouraged to do the same? Finally, students should be given plenty of exposure in their pronunciation classrooms to other non-native accents of English so that they can understand them easily even if a speaker has not yet managed to acquire the core features. For ELF, this is much more important than having classroom exposure to native speaker accents.

Although, the proposals made by Seidlhofer and Jenkins for a Lingua Franca Core seem to challenge commonly held notions about standardized English ideology and nativespeakerness and might cause some kind of intellectual and professional conflict, our experience in English language teaching to Science students makes us recognize these ideas as true and right. Now it seems to be obvious that “better understanding of the nature of ELF is a prerequisite for taking informed decisions, especially in language policy and language teaching” [7] . From the ELF perspective, it is important to distinguish features of English crucial for international intelligibility from the (“non-native”) features that tend not to cause misunderstandings. In terms of lingua franca settings, striving for mastery of fine nuances of native speaker language use can be communicatively redundant or even counter-productive and sometimes not teachable in advance but only learnable by subsequent experience of the language. Therefore, taking these into account can free up valuable teaching time for more general language awareness and communication strategies to cater for those learners who intend to use English mainly in international settings.


  1. Canagarajah, S. TESOL at forty: What are the issues? TESOL Quarterly, Volume 40, Number 1, March 2006.

  2. Crystal, D. 2003. English as a Global Language (Second edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  3. House, J. 1999. Misunderstanding in intercultural communication: Interactions in English as a lingua franca and the myth of mutual intelligibility. In c. Gnutzmann (Ed.), Teaching and learning English as a global language. Germany: Stauffenburg.

  4. Firth, A. 1996. The discursive accomplishment of normality. On “lingua franca” English and conversation analysis. Journal of Pragmatics 26.

  5. Jenkins, J. 2000. The phonology of English as an international language. New models, new goals. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

  6. Jenkins, J. 2006 Current Perspectives on Teaching World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca. TESOL Quarterly, Volume 40, Number 1, March 2006.

  7. McKay, S. 2002. Teaching English as an international language. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

  8. Seidlhofer, B. 2004. Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics.

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