Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Future Perfect or Perfect Future? English as a Lingua Franca

In an earlier article, "How Now, Brown Cow?," I suggested that the selection of a "standard" English for teaching purposes — in particular for pronunciation — was a bit arbitrary and that the "standards" selected frequently failed to be representative of the way that most native speakers actually speak English. I opined that it seemed somewhat disingenuous to expect learners of the language to struggle with mastering phonemes that many native speakers didn't bother with much themselves.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. In that earlier article I was only concerned about the relationship between learners of English and native speakers of English, and this was a tacit reference to the traditional division of English Language Teaching (ELT) into English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and English as a Second Language (ESL, or ESOL — English for Speakers of other Languages — as it is often referred to now). These two principal methods of language teaching and learning have dominated the scene since the 19th century and each have their own parameters and peculiarities derived from well established paradigms.

EFL mainly exists in countries where the dominant language is not English, and is frequently taken advantage of by those who see English as a passport to success in study or business. ESL mainly exists in countries where the dominant language is English and is aimed predominantly at immigrants needing to acquire language skills for work and day to day survival. Both forms have traditionally assumed interaction with native speakers as one of the primary functions of the language and thus both have looked for standards based on native speaker English as the models, and both forms have also recognized the importance of placing the language being learned within the mother culture from whence it derived. All well and good, and this has served many people well for around two centuries.

It is estimated that something approaching 30% of the world's population now speak English to a larger or lesser extent — one estimate puts the number at 1.8 billion. However, only about 5.5% of the world's population are actually native speakers of English, and with the rise of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as emerging powerhouses for global business, it should be fairly obvious that it is becoming far more common for EFL learners to be interacting with other non-native speakers of English than with native speakers. This has given rise to a new phenomenon and third acronym — ELF — referring to English as a Lingua Franca.

ESL works in an environment that is surrounded by, and thus closely controlled by native speakers of English, and EFL has traditionally modeled itself on one or other form of "standard" English (and, as a result, has usually favored native speakers as teachers, where possible). ELF, on the other hand, operates in a world that neither needs nor bothers much with native speakers of English. The concept of a "standard" form of English becomes blurred and does not necessarily look on American or British or any other version on which to model itself.

In my previous article I concentrated mainly on the contradictions of focusing on "standard" English pronunciation, given the enormous variety of regional and national accents to choose from, and how the effort students might put into perfecting their vowels or diphthongs might not be worth the trouble when they eventually interact with most native speakers. I was looking at the relationship between what was taught as standard English in EFL, and what the standards of English spoken by native speakers were. When we come to ELF, English as a Lingua Franca, then we are into a different area for it is not only pronunciation that is challenged (for example, why would you struggle with interdental fricative th sounds when nobody else uses them?) but also those other horribly tricky areas of English, like phrasal verbs.

If your main purpose for using English is to communicate with other non-native speakers of English then many of the culturally resonant features of the language will become redundant. We could argue that, as a result, ELF is likely to be a less rich form of language. It will certainly strip away all the cultural baggage that native speakers drag around, including many idioms and expressions and thus be a simpler, and less literary language.

What will be excluded from the use are the current norms of "standard" English, and this could also mean exclusion of native speakers from the teaching/learning process. Indeed, some have argued that native speakers of English will need to learn this new international English because if they default to their own idiosyncratic use then they might not be understood. What is certain is that the cultural underpinning of teaching English to countries where English is spoken as the first language will become obsolete.

You only need to look at any current course book for learners to to realize what a big step that would be, given how how culturally laden with Western values and concepts the books are. Only the most common phrasal verbs, prepositional verb constructs, idioms and expressions would be retained, and, no doubt, the use of some tenses, especially perfect tenses, would become simplified. It would probably also mean a weakening of the political influence of English as a world language.

Like all languages it would start to develop its own momentum, references and (international) cultural markers, and it would do this without so much as a nod in the direction of those native speakers immersed in their own language developments, which would flourish in parallel. In time, perhaps, the natives of North America and the British Isles, amongst others, might be viewed as using a quaint, old-fashioned form of the language which is almost indecipherable to those who are fluent in the new international English.

Who knows?  But it does seem worth while, before all that happens, to consider if it is worth going to all that trouble to teach the future perfect, decipher complex consonant clusters, and memorize phrasal verbs, when the likelihood is that none of this will be needed in English-language interactions with other non-native speakers. It's just a thought.

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.