The ELF in the room


What’s wrong with this sentence?


That man, which is researcher called Peter, find an information and use it to discuss about interesting topics, isn’t it?


Absolutely nothing if you’re a hard-core advocate of ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). Why? Because this is how ELF works. The most important thing, by far, is communicative competence. And mistakes aren’t mistakes; they’re aspects of an emergent, dynamic set of linguistic resources. In other words, if you can convey your message, it doesn’t matter if you say “find an information” or if the only question tag you use is “isn’t it”.


The main idea behind English as a Lingua Franca is that English is spoken around the world by non-native speakers in order to communicate with one another. ESL speakers now outnumber native speakers, and consequently, native speakers no longer “own” the language. It is everyone’s, and people can do with it what they choose, as long as other people can understand them.


For ELF advocates, the types of English being spoken in different countries – Chinglish, Spanglish, Turklish – are seen as ‘different’ not ‘deficient’. Non-standard uses of the language, which used to be regarded as mistakes, are seen as emerging or potential features of ELF.



Here are some of the most common linguistic features of ELF:

*the third person s is omitted;

*uncountable words (information, advice, luggage) become countable;

*which and who are interchangeable;

*prepositions might be added or subtracted (“listen music”, “let’s study about fish”);

*isn’t it becomes a handy catch-all question tag;

*articles may be omitted if their omission doesn’t cause confusion.

This list comes to us through the findings of VOICE (the Vienna Oxford International Corpus of English). VOICE involved recording thousands of hours of non-native speaker interactions in English and sorting through the data. (See a description here.) By doing this, researchers were able to find out how non-native speakers really use the language. This in turn allows them to guess which non-standard features – features not found in grammar books – may become standard in future.



With the rise of ELF, the influential TESOL organization asserted in a 2008 paper that one monolithic model of English is no longer tenable for teaching the language. This begs the question: what is the place of native speaker models of language use?


Your answer largely determines whether you are an ELF or an ELF-sceptic.


Dr.s Barbara Seidlhofer and Jennifer Jenkins state that: “[D]escriptions of spoken English offered to [European learners] should not be grounded in British or American uses of English but in ELFE [English as a Lingua Franca in Europe] or other non-native contexts (depending on where the particular learners intend to use their English in future)”.


This is problematic. As far as I’m aware, there are no ELFE teaching materials or even consensus about exactly what ELFE is. What are its rules? Who decides? Does it mean that native speakers cannot teach in Europe because they don’t speak ELFE? What happens to assessment? Are students downgraded if they adhere to native speaker norms instead of ELFE?


As for students learning a type of English “depending on where the particular learners intend to use their English in future”, you may as well consult a crystal ball. If you’re a 13-year-old Spaniard enrolled in an English class, how on earth can you know how and with whom you’ll use the language?



On the other side of the fence, peering with scepticism at the ELFs next door, writer/researchers such as Péter Medgyes and Luke Prodromou argue that the problem with ELF is that it can’t and shouldn’t be taught. It’s emergent. Would anyone seriously consider teaching the third person with no s on the end of the verb just because many non-native speakers omit it?


In any case, what type of English would we want to teach throughout our careers? Which type could provide an adequate model? Jamaican creole? Not if you judge by the road signs in Jamaica: NO TON RAIT (Don’t turn right.); NO PAAK BITWIIN DEM SAIN YA (Don’t park between those signs): NO ENTA.


How about Spanglish? You could go parquear the car, buy el ticket, and then walk to the marqueta to hacer the shopping.


Maybe Chinglish? Its public signs are famously amusing. They’re all over the internet (see here). In one bootleg version of Star Wars, the Chinese subtitle of Darth Vader’s scream “Noooooo!” reads “Do not want!” Sure, it communicates the message, but even the biggest devotees to ELF might question this.



To teach language, you need some kind of model, not muddle. While native-speaker-like facility with the language may be out of reach for most learners, at least there are standard rules to adhere to.


Besides learning the language, maybe students need an awareness of commonly used non-standard forms. But I’m not sure the ELT industry is ready for this. While working on an early draft of an Advanced textbook, I suggested including a note saying that native speakers commonly get the Third Conditional wrong. In other words, they don’t know the rules either. My editor said she thought the note was “unhelpful”. It was cut from the manuscript.



2 Comments on “The ELF in the room”

  1. Ben says:

    Is ELF at all specific to certain L1 idiosyncrasies? e.g. Chinese ELF could be different from Spanish ELF? If so, that would be highly problematic because the point of learning English is to share in an international language that you can use with anybody you might come across.

    • JJ Wilson says:

      By definition, ELF is a common way of communicating for people from all over the globe. But Chinese English (Chinglish) is very different from Spanish English (Spanglish) and so on. Each country’s version of English is heavily dependent on the L1, so there are major differences.

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