Should ELF Take Off?

Recently a piece on English as a lingua franca was posted up at the Researchbites blog ( ELF is generally concerned with exploring the idea that most English users are from outer or expanding circle contexts and, since natives are now in the minority, if it is worth perpetuating the native speaker curricula that have spread across the globe.

This position is nothing new, having been previously espoused by Jenkins (2000) and her cohort of followers (see here for an example). What Schmidt asks, at RB, however, is how the native speaker can effectively learn ELF.

It’s certainly interesting enough, though I worry there’s a bifurcation between native speakerism and ELF being beaten around this whole issue. There is also the matter of whether “native speakers are in the minority” is a legitimate premise in every context? How about, for example, within inner circle contexts? It’s not obvious that the majority of learners in outer and expanding circles have no intention of communicating with Brits/US citizens/Aussies/etc, and if the concern is that ELF does not prepare inner circle or foreign users to communicate together, is the answer really so simple as to simply ditch native speakerism?

The short reply is that native users should learn ELF, but how pragmatic, how feasible is this? Can we really expect inner circle governments to overhaul curricula such that ELF becomes a core part of education systems? The fact is, there is no cogent argument in favour of ELF replacing native English in an international context, whether or not we consider inner circles of English (and yes, you could contend that Kachru’s 1997 notion of inner, outer and expanding circles is risibly outdated and needlessly posits an erroneous concept of segregated contexts of English user, in which case replace ‘inner circle’ with ‘set of countries where English is the 1st language’).

The claim “I’m English, why should I change my ways to accommodate people wanting to use my language”, as selfish and anglocentric as it may appear, is no less valid than “Most of us don’t use English the same way as you. You should adapt to suit our needs,” because issues of linguistic or cultural correctness, interpretability or appropriacy aren’t democratic. Hell, they aren’t even relative (though in fairness, I don’t actually believe cultural relativism has any merit.)

If native users are going to be travelling abroad, they should learn to grade their language, to communicate with people, though many have done so successfully without an ELF core.  If foreign users are going to be travelling an inner circle, they should be prepared to communicate with people who aren’t familiar with ELF, or EIL, or any other sort of World English than their own. This, again, doesn’t need an ELF core to be forced onto people (even if a few thousand or so EFL or ESOL learners have reportedly expressed a preference for ELF over native Englishes).

A lot of what is discussed by ELFophiles boils down to common sense: foreigners don’t speak the same as you, accommodate their linguistic limitations and communicative needs. This doesn’t require an overhaul of EFL, ESOL, or EAL, as Jenkins et al would have us believe. In any case, I can’t see this effective dumbing down of the English language (as many would, and do, see it) taking off amongst native speakers any time soon.

Hume argued that an ‘is’ cannot be derived from an ‘ought’, and here he might posit that the existence of interlanguages, of a mass of people using English as a lingua franca, of foreign people struggling to understand the native user, does not lead neatly to the position that ELF ought to be forced on people, that native users ought to adapt their ways to suit the global population of English users, that EFL, ESOL and EAL ought to turn the interlanguage that naturally develops in foreign users into the model for all users to aim for.


One thought on “Should ELF Take Off?

  1. Hi! Thanks for reading my summary and writing your own thoughtful post about it.

    I just wanted to clarify that the article I was summarizing was not looking at “how the native speaker can effectively learn ELF”. The article I summarized was looking at hindrances to communication between native and non-native speakers. ELF was mentioned not as a solution, but as a way to understand pragmatic aspects of international communication, such as repair.

    As for your final paragraph, I agree with what you say; however, I don’t think the article I was summarizing was pushing for such changes, nor are most people who study ELF trying to “teach it”. As I see it, ELF is not a variety of English but a description of what happens during international communication – I can’t fathom how that can be taught. However, what was suggested was exposure and tolerance for university students because, in that context, the interaction between domestic and foreign students is becoming more common and therefore domestic students need strategies to help facilitate both linguistic and cultural understanding as much as the foreign students do. I think I argued this more coherently here:

    Liked by 1 person

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