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‘Where Next for English as a Lingua Franca?’

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By Jacqueline Grima

In the modern world of global economics, business and education, the predominant language of communication is English. Its position as the world’s most widely-used Lingua Franca – a language that enables communication between people who do not share a mother tongue – awards English such status that there are often calls for it to be renamed ‘World English’ or ‘Global English’.  Indeed, in the latter part of the 20th century, when the term ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, or ELF, first emerged in the linguistic field, the language’s use as a global means of communication was highly celebrated, with Jennifer Jenkins, of Southampton University, and Barbara Seidlhofer, of the University of Vienna, alone publishing numerous articles on the subject.

At Manchester Metropolitan University this week, Dr Alan Firth, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Newcastle University, discussed English’s role as a Lingua Franca as part of the ‘Humanities in Public’ Festival’s ‘Multi-Lingual Life’ strand.  First, Dr Firth talked about the origins and development of ELF. He discussed Braj Kachru’s ‘Circles of English’ theory which sees native speakers of English, such as residents of the UK, the United States and Australia, as being in the Inner Circle, countries such as India and Pakistan, where English is spoken as a second language as being in the Outer Circle and countries where English is learned as a foreign language, such as China and Japan, as being in the Expanding Circle.

Firth’s own studies in the 1990s on the interactive behaviours of learners of English and his subsequent dissatisfaction with the term ‘non-native speaker’ when referring to Second Language Acquisition, or SLA, led to his own interest in (indeed his own coining of the term ‘English as a Lingau Franca’) the field of ELF.  As he stated,

“The term ‘non-native speaker’ is built on a set of assumptions that are rather chauvinistic…that associate non-nativeness with something lacking.”

He went on to say that referring to a Second Language learner as non-native and consistently comparing his or her use of language to that of a native speaker ‘is not a reflection of the post-modern, globalised reality.’  Hence, Firth began to refer to interactions between non-native speakers of English as ‘Lingua Franca interactions’ and it was when he published a paper on the subject with Johannes Wagner in 1997 that the fervour that surrounded the study of ELF over the following years began to emerge.  From then on, studies of English’s role as a Lingua Franca began to move away from consistently using the native English speaker as a model. Jennifer Jenkins suggested that learners should simply be taught a ‘core’ version of the language, minus its many idioms and pronunciation discrepancies, suggesting, for example, that the lack of a third-person ‘s’ in some forms of the language, such as in ‘He like’ instead of ‘He likes’, not be frowned upon.  These theories, however, appear to have led to concerns regarding the teaching of English. Firth went on to say that, with the study of ELF seeming to have reached a crossroads, ‘Fresh impetus is needed to take it on to the next stage of its development.’

The panel discussion that followed Firth’s talk included MMU’s Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, Dr Huw Bell and Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, Dr Andy Harris. Dr Bell disagreed with the idea that English Language learning needs to move away from using the native speaker as a role model.  Referring to Thomas M. Paikeday’s work ‘The Native Speaker is Dead!’, Dr Bell said, ‘The native speaker is alive and well and has a special insight into the language. It is natural for a language learner to use native speakers of a language as a role model because we all want to sound like a native speaker.’

Asked what he thought the future is for English as a Lingua Franca, Dr Firth confessed he was uncertain. He suggested that perhaps a compromise could be reached in which native speakers of a language could simply be used as a reference point. ‘By claiming that the native speaker is irrelevant, Jenkins and Seidlhofer have perhaps overreached.’  Referring to new studies of ELF, he said, ‘The field is splintering. Splinters then form groups that become paradigms … Perhaps, then, a poststructuralist ELF will eventually emerge.’

The ‘Future Histories’ strand of the ‘Humanities in Public’ festival begins on Monday 27th April at 5.30pm with a talk entitled ‘The History of People’s History’.

Jacqueline Grima is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing whilst trying to find a publisher for her novel ‘Coming Second’ which was shortlisted for the 2014 Luke Bitmead Bursary.  You can find her blog here or can follow her on Twitter @Grimajgrima

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