ELF – and other fairy tales!

As the use of English as a Lingua France – or as an International Language, take your pick – spreads, and as more and more people around the world come to speak at least some degree of English, so the arguments about appropriate norms and models for the classroom – and about the relationship between language and culture – has rages long and hard.

The main thrust of these arguments, as they have been put forward in varying ways by Luke Prodromou, Jennifer Jenkins, Barbara Seidlhofer, Vivian Cook et al is that as more conversations in English are now held between non-native speaker and non-native speaker, the imposition on English language teaching of a tyranny of NATIVE SPEAKER norms, standards and cultural values is no longer appropriate or justifiable. Instead, we all need to be teaching Globish – Global English – or EIL – English as an International Language or even ELF: English as a Lingua Franca.

Now, personally, I stopped believing in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy when I was a kid, and my belief in ELFs is also non-existent. And I suspect I am not the only one, for the bulk of the arguments that have dominated conferences over recent years is founded on a series of myths and misrepresentations of reality, and it is my aim in this post to strip away some of the misconceptions surrounding the subject, explore the damage they can do and suggest some alternative ways of viewing the inexorable spread of English.

The idea that native-speaker English somehow exerts a tyrannical hold has become increasingly popular over recent years – and yet where is this dominance reflected? Are our coursebooks really full of Cockneys saying ‘Cor Blimey Guv’nor’ and Geordies saying ‘Wa-Hey man’?  Now, of course, the majority of actors who record EFL CDs and cassettes for a living are indeed native speakers, and many of the biggest-selling coursebooks are both written and published by native-speakers, but speaking as a native speaker myself, I can honestly say that the vast majority of EFL material is many, many miles away from the English I frequently encounter in exclusively native-speaker-only contexts. I mean, have the people who rant about native-speaker dominance ever actually been in a classroom and taught from the dominant coursebooks? What, for instance, is native-speaker like about this little exchange?

Your surname’s Jones, isn’t it?

> Yes, it is.

And you’re 27, aren’t you?

> Yes, that’s right.

You weren’t at home last night at 8, were you?

> No, I wasn’t. I was at the pub.

But you don’t have any witnesses, do you?

> Yes, I do. My brother was with me.

Your brother wasn’t with you, was he.

> How do you know?

Because he was at the police station. We arrested him last night.

Or this?

It must be very strange to be back home after such a long time.

> Yes, it is. I . . . I mean, it’s lovely to see everybody and I really appreciate my bed.

Let’s have a look at these photos, then.

> Well, they’re all mixed up at the moment. I’ve got to sort them out.

Um, this looks nice. Where is it?

> Where do you think it is?

Ah, well . . . it must be somewhere really hot. It looks like paradise. I suppose it could be Thailand or Bali, or it could even be India.

> No. I’ll give you a clue. It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean.

Hawaii.

> No, I didn’t go to Hawaii.

Oh right. I thought you’d been everywhere. It’s probably Fiji, then.

> That’s right. Oh, it was lovely. This man wanted me to marry his daughter. She was beautiful.

EFL material is littered with similar examples and those of us who have been teaching long enough develop very good radar for sensing the exact points at which normal, native-like conversation ends – and grammar-dominated nonsense takes over. Now, I am NOT saying that EFL materials SHOULD be based completely on native-speaker norms – and that’s a point I will move on clarify in due time – but what I am saying is that the accusations of native-speaker norms dominating ELT are really not borne out by the evidence.

The screeching about the dominance of native-speaker English has had a seriously detrimental effect on the way teachers view their jobs. In his book World Englishes, Andy Kirkpatrick claims that he feels “sorry for poor learners of English who spend hours of classroom time trying to master the RP sounds of /th/ and /th/, as these are difficult sounds to learn if they do not exist in your own language and, it turns out, they are not used in many varieties of English anyway.” My first thought on reading was where on earth are these classes where students spend HOURS trying to learn these things. In most classes I observe, you’re lucky if you see any pronunciation at all being taught, let alone whole hours devoted to minimal pairs! So, again, I feel, the nature of reality is being distorted here to suit a particular kind of argument. My second thought, then, was how easily these kinds of comments can lead to teachers feeling it’s simply not worth the effort. That there’s no point bothering with all manner of aspects of English as students “might not need it anyway, especially in conversations with other non-natives and that, besides, some natives don’t even bother with this stuff at all.” At heart, I fear much of the current debate about ELF has an anti-teaching sub-text close to its core.

Obviously, these are slippery slopes for us to start to go down, but ones I think many teachers find themselves on and I see evidence of it all over the place. At a recent conference I attended in Poland, I heard someone put forward the notion that “in international contexts, the simpler, the better”. It put me in mind of Orwell’s monstrous Doublespeak, the language imposed upon us in some parallel or futuristic totalitarian world where words are to kept to a purely functional minimum and where we end with ‘good’, ‘ungood’, ‘plus good’ and ‘doubleplusgood’. A world few of us really want to inhabit, surely.

This desire to simplify and strip away the language we teach runs deep among the ELFers – and, of course, at lower levels we obviously do need to ensure that things are kept simple for students – and that we don’t end up teaching things with only limited utility when items that are more useful, items with broader surrender value, are available instead. However, it seems to me that one of the most problematic areas for the proponents of ELF or Globish lies in their attitudes towards level – and what should be taught at each level. Jennifer Jenkins writes of an Advanced-level French student who uses the word ‘chill out’ instead of ‘relax’, and she suggests that this is a “native-like” form. She claims that this student may well be rewarded in exams for use of such language, but that in the real world, when he engages in conversation with other non-natives, he’d be at a disadvantage as he would not be accommodating himself to the listener, who might well not understand the expression. Similar arguments have cropped up again and again in recent years. Luke Prodromou has argued that as corpora based on conversations between non-native speakers shows far less use of phrasal verbs and idioms than corpora based on the language of NATIVE speakers, these areas of the language have no real place in ELT materials. Such ideas were echoed by a teacher at a school I did a talk in last year who said “I see in your Advanced-level book, you have some idioms. Well, what happens if my German student learns, say, “I felt like a fish out of water” and uses it with a Greek speaker who doesn’t understand him?”

What happens in the real world is exemplified by a conversation I overheard in Istanbul airport last December. My flight got delayed and I was killing time when a German man approached the counter near where I was sitting and asked the woman on the desk “Excuse me. Is there an ATM machine near here?” The woman looks slightly scared and said “Please?”. The German guy tried again “A cash machine? To get money?”. “Sorry. I no English” came the response. At this point, the German guy took his card out and acted putting it into a cash machine and asked once more “Money?”. At this, the woman replied “Oh! Yes! Yes!! Go there” and waved with her arm.

Now, this conversation was clearly an example of English being used as a Lingua Franca by two non-natives in order to conduct a transactional exchange. What can we conclude from this exchange? Should we deduce that the German guy has somehow learned too much English and is adopting too “native-like” a model of English? This would seem to be the conclusion that many of ELF’s proponents would draw. If we follow the logic of Jennifer Jenkins’ claims, a seething can of worms opens before us. If an ADVANCED student should use ‘relax’ instead of ‘chill out’, are students also wrong to use – and are we as teachers, by extension, wrong to teach – items such as “great”? Surely “very good” will suffice! And what about “boiling”? Why bother when you can just say “very hot”? Let’s forget about “Do you mind if I?” with its strange positive response of “No, not at all” – and let’s just stick to “Is it OK if I . . .?”. Let’s purge the syllabus of “I can’t stand it” and “I love it” and stick to “I don’t like it” and “I really like it”!! Whole areas of the lexicon can go as they are essentially other ways of saying simpler concepts: so it’d be goodbye to ‘SPARE time/key/room’, no more ‘I overslept’, forget ‘sort out’ and why worry about ‘unemployed’ when you can just go for ‘He doesn’t have a job!’.

Obviously, there is an absurd reductionism about such arguments and it leads to a kind of Basic English no-one in their right mind would suggest would be sufficient to allow non-natives to carry out all the many and varied conversations they may wish to have amongst themselves!

I would suggest instead that perhaps we should admire the German man’s ability in this instance to accommodate himself to his listener, to paraphrase his meanings and grade his language down when required to – and I would deduce that perhaps it’s the Turkish woman here who needs to work on her language.

The point here surely is that whether we are native OR non-native speakers, when talking to others, we HAVE TO start from the assumption that they speak English at roughly the same level that we do. To do anything other than this is to patronize the person we are talking to. What would Jenkins and co suggest the German man should do in this conversation? START by just asking “Money?” What would YOU think if he started like this? Presumably you’d assume that HE couldn’t speak English! And how would you THEN feel when you discovered that he could? Talked down to, at the very least!

Starting from the assumption that the people we are talking to speak English at roughly the same level as ourselves doesn’t mean we will necessarily always be understood, but it does suggest that if we find that we AREN’T, we are all capable of grading down. In fact, I would suggest that in general fluent NON-natives are often better at doing this than many NATIVE speakers! In general, the more language we know, the better we are at paraphrasing and stripping our language down.

There is, however, a wider – and more complicated issue that also arises from Jenkins’ comments about ‘chill out’ and that is that the difficulty students face with language – and the degree to which they perceive items as idiomatic or “native-speaker-like” depends to a considerable degree on the learner’s own first language. In French, for example, I am reliably informed that “chill out” is actually used – as a loan word that has become very common. On top of that, “chill out” has also become an international word through music. In other words, the French speaker, far from trying his hardest to be a native speaker, could well have just been using the word which came most naturally to him in the circumstances!

To complicate this matter further, whether we are aware of it or not, students themselves often seek out idioms and colourful expressions in English. All languages contain idioms, expressions and metaphorical or unusual ways of saying things, and learning equivalent ways of saying these things in English is part of what makes language learning fun and interesting. In a recent Pre-Intermediate level class, one student arrived late – and left the door open, letting a draught in. One of my Chinese students became very animated and asked “How to say in English? In Chinese, have expression: How long your tail!” “Oh yes. I know what you mean. We usually say “Were you born in a barn?” I’ll write it up on the board.” “Oh. Very useful.” In this instance, of course, the idioms were quite different from one language to another, but in many, many cases, as with “I felt like a fish out of water”, for instance, you find that the expressions are very similar in Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese, English . . . which is always nice to know.

An additional problem revolves around the fact that students often simply translate directly from their own language and don’t realise that things are not always the same in English – and this occurs even when they are talking to other non-natives. What would the anti-“native-like” teachers do, for instance, when a German student shouts to a Japanese “Huh? Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?”. Even if this sentence is intelligible from context, which wasn’t the case when this happened in one of my Upper-Intermediate classes, there’s then the risk that the other student will think this is the actual ENGLISH expressions and learn this, when they’d be much better off – if you believe that students should be learning things that have maximum utility among fluent users of English, the expression “Do you think I was born yesterday?” or “Do I look like I was born yesterday?”

One ELF argument has been that a student who uses an expression like “Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?” or, say, “He drinks like a horse” is somehow being creative or else expressing their cultural identity and that to correct these utterances is to stifle both identity and the creative impulse. For me, this is to willfully misunderstand what creative means. There is nothing creative about simply translating an idiom word for word from L1 – or to misuse a common idiom such as “eats like a horse”. Creativity surely comes from KNOWING idioms and expressions in the first place and THEN subverting them. Anything else is simply interlanguage!

Note, by the way, that I am NOT saying here that I believe that idioms like “Were you born in a barn?” or “Do you think I was born yesterday?” should necessarily form part of coursebook material or be in the syllabus at these low levels. Simply that there are often times when as teachers we are forced by circumstance to make principled decisions about them in the classroom.

The next issue to address here is the fact that the French student who used “chill out” was an ADVANCED student! One of the major problems that ELF / Globish people face is the whole issue of vocabulary. Who gets to decide that something is “native-like” and who gets to say what is supposedly more “neutral”? If we are teaching ELF, should we just never teach “chill out”? If so, what DO you teach at Advanced level? And how do our students ever get to be like the non-native speakers such as Barbara Seidlhofer who speak incredible English? How do they end up becoming like the any number of businessmen or politicians such as Javier Solano, Ban-Ki Moon or Kofi Annan – or other high-fliers such as Pedro Alonso or Arsene Wenger? As an Italian guy said at a conference I attended recently, “You must remember, International English is what you speak when you are trying to speak something else!”

To move closer to the heart of what models are most appropriate for our students, let’s consider the notion that the majority of conversations our students engage in will be with other non-native speakers. Despite the fact that this may well be true, it certainly doesn’t mean they will NEVER talk to native speakers. Take Spain, for example. Over 1 million Americans and SEVENTEEN million British people visit Spain on holiday every year – and obviously many tens of thousands of Spaniards travel to Britain or the States. Every year, around 100,000 British people leave the UK and join the 1 million-plus Brits already living in Spain, whilst the UK hosts around 100,000 long-term Spanish residents. Now, all of these movements of people are bound to result in people talking to each other! When you start doing the maths, that’s several million conversations a year in which non-native Spaniards will find themselves engaged in all manner of conversation with native-speakers, conversations which will cover all manner of subjects and which are bound to be both transactional AND interactional – and obviously the better the Spaniards English (and, of course, the better the native-speakers ability to grade language down, where necessary), the more smoothly these conversations will go.

Add to this the fact that many, many Spaniards themselves already speak something approaching native-like English – and that they may well often engage in conversation with other non-natives who speak similarly excellent English – something that happens all the time at conferences like this one, for example – and you do really have to start questioning exactly what kind of English ELF fans would like us to teach.

One of the many problems I have with ELF / Globish proponents is that it is never entirely clear whether they are actually arguing for greater tolerance of variation from Native-Speaker norms or some alternative model. My hunch over the last few years has been that it’s the latter. Andy Kirkpatrick, in World Englishes, argues that the variations in Native Speaker English make it invalid as a model and many other writers have suggested that far more attention be paid in classrooms to World Englishes – or Emerging Englishes as they are also often called. However, as I have already suggested, whilst the fact that English is used a global Lingua Franca is beyond doubt, the notion that there might be such a thing as ELF is far more contentious. Any attempt to define ELF as an entity distinct from native-speaker norms is doomed from the outset. If native speakers are no longer to be the model, who is? Kofi Annan? Angela Merkel? You non-native speaker teachers out there? And, if so, then WHICH of you? Or is the Nigerian security guy at my university who almost none of my students ever seem to be able to decipher? Or is it the Somali cab driver I had drive me to the airport last week, who spoke broken pidginised English? Alternatively, as some suggest, should we just be exposing our students to all of the above and more, liberally sprinkling Singaporean English, Malay English, Nigerian English – whatever these labels may mean – and so on into our classroom stews – and leaving our students supposedly free to decide which they wish to copy?

Ivor Timmis, who works at Leeds Met, has carried out some quite extensive research into the attitudes of both non-native students AND teachers around the world. Intriguingly, but perhaps not that surprisingly, he found that the vast majority of both – though especially of STUDENTS – see native-speaker competence as their goal, regardless of their ability – or lack of – to reach such lofty heights and also regardless of whether they envisaged themselves in the future talking to natives OR non-natives. Of course, such research does not go into what we actually mean by NATIVE-SPEAKER English, but there is no doubt that for almost any serious student of any foreign language, the educated native speaker remains both the desired model and also the ultimate goal. Much as well-meaning liberals may pretend that all versions of the language are equal – honestly! – if only we weren’t all so prejudiced – the reality is that that some forms are more equal than others and it is useful for our students to learn the models which most grant them insider-status!

Similar arguments to these have flared around the issue of how best to teach working-class kids in the UK and African-American kids in the US. In the 60s and 70s, there was a well-meaning, but severely misguided, attempt to teach working-class British kids in their own dialects, whilst the Ebonics movement in the US had similar aims for black Americans. This idealistic dream led black activist and politician to claim that there was a conspiracy afoot which was both “foolish and insulting to black students throughout the United States” and that the result was “teaching down to our children”.

My feelings about ELF are very similar. Whilst Jennifer Jenkins may well be correct that certain sounds are not necessary in order to be understood whilst speaking English in an international context, and whilst Barbara Seidlhofer may well also be correct when she notes that communication is not hindered if students drop such “nativised” grammatical annoyances as the 3rd person -s or if they confuse who and which, add redundant prepositions, use definite and indefinite pronouns differently or warp the use of tag questions, we have to ask ourselves is merely “being understood” what students want in the word of globalised English. Last term, for instance, I had an Indian couple in my Proficiency class, Manooj and Praena. They both spoke exceptional English and had been using the language since they were children. They were planning to go back to India after a six-month stay in London. When I asked why they felt it necessary to continue studying a language they already spoke so well, Manooj looked at me like I was crazy and said “I do not want to sound like a curry shop waiter! If I can sound more like you, it will be very good for me and my career back home”.

Obviously, there is a huge difference between haranguing students for making these grammatical and pronunciation mistakes and imposing endless correction on them (which I personally believe happens very infrequently) – and deciding to consciously not teach them. I feel that a lot of the ELF rhetoric has come about simply as a response to bad teaching. If there really are teachers out there who spent hours on /th/ and /th/, then they should stop it! If you do what one of my elderly colleagues used to do with her Elementary students and lecture them for half an hour on the difference between ‘bath’ and ‘bathe’, then don’t! If you spend hours and hours at the same level fretting about whether or not students use the third person -s in all given contexts, then you’re wasting both their time and your own.

Clearly, we only have a limited amount of time to spend in class, and we all do need to make decisions about what we think is useful for our students. As such, it’s seems sensible to ensure that what we teach is language which is as widely used as possible. This means that raw native-speaker data is not actually that useful. Rather, we need to be informed by educated native speaker usage and to make decisions about how best to ‘cook’ it for students’ consumption based on informed intuition. If that means, for example, that we end up teaching I’m meeting a friend tonight instead of I’m meeting up with a friend tonight . . . or I just need to finish some work instead of the more native-speaker-like I just need to finish off some work, then that’s fine by me – especially at Pre-Advanced levels. In the same way, I would personally always opt for teaching a standard range of question tags over the lower-class London standard one-size-fits-all tag of ‘Innit’. And I would tend to prefer “There ARE lots of problems” over the increasingly common “There’s lots of problems”.  There may well be aspects of native-speaker speech you decide not to teach – perhaps because they’re too high level, perhaps because they’re regarded as too lower class, or perhaps because they’re regionalisms. This may be especially true if you’re teaching in a non-English speaking country. Does this mean, however, that such items should be completely removed? Even at Advanced and Proficiency levels? I am not so sure. In the end, of course, I can only decide what goes on in my classrooms and what goes into my coursebooks. It is the educated, often non-native speaker, teachers who then have to make the decisions about what to teach in their own classes. I hope that what I have done today, if nothing else, is to make the choices teaches face just a little bit more principled and informed.

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28 responses

  1. i wonder if you could tell from the comments on your blog whether people commenting learned their english from birth, school, lessons as adults, etc.?

    that is as, you indicate, we don’t really know what is native and non-native if we are only talking about language. however we rarely only talk about language as your indian students show. would they have been happy to have me as their teacher (all other things being equal) i.e. a brown-faced teacher vs you a white-faced teacher?
    the student is “king” but i would certainly would not like to teach such students.

    then there is the issue of people living in a multi-lingual world where for example saying ‘ciao’ is commonly understood by english speakers. elf maybe could be an acknowledgment of a similar kind of phenomenon?

    maybe the example of your german guy adapating his approach is what elf is trying to raise awareness of?

    i think elf could be seen as more of a research paradigm? to find out what kind of things do occur when learners of english interact? this can then inform teachers who can decide to use it or not?

    anyway another provoking post, you certainly can stoke a debate fire!
    cheers
    mura

    1. The question of whether or not one can tell is someone is native or non-native is an interesting one, Mura. I know from experience that I often CAN’T tell, though obviously it depends on people’s level!

      The issue of discrimination towards teachers who don’t look like students expect them to (i,e; white southern middle class native speakers) is a very real one, especially in the UK, and one that needs to be aired.

      I once had a funny situation here at Westminster, where we had a great teacher who was born and bred in Poland teaching – very successfully – for us. One day she phoned in sick and I covered her class. During the class I said “OK. I think Kasia told you last week that . . .” only to be interrupted by students saying “Who?” “Your teacher, Kasia” I replied, before they told me that she’d said her name was Katherine. When I mentioned this to her later, she looked incredibly embarrassed and confessed she’d been worried that if she told the class her real name, they’d look down on her or lose her respect. The fear was especially related to the Polish students in the group! This is probably a whole other post in itself, Mura – the powers and strengths of non-natives over natives, but I hear you loud and clear.

      Anyway, as for the ELF research and what it is they’re trying to achieve, I’m honestly still none the wiser. I suspect as you suggest the main goal is to somehow “find out what kind of things occur when learners of English interact”. My problem with that has always been, as I hope I’ve made clear, WHICH learners interacting where – and what are we as teachers supposed to glean from such interactions.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful response.

  2. Great article, Hugh, and I hope to find time later to make a longer comment on various things in this post. But for the minute I just have time for two things. One, did the German person in your class really say, “Do you have cucumbers on your eyes?” Here in the south-west of Germany, people use the expression “Hast Du Tomaten auf den Augen?”, i.e. they talk about tomatoes, not cucumbers. Just curious. Secondly, as someone whose family come from the north-east of England, to my knowledge, Geordies say, “Haway man”, not “Wa-hey”, which means something entirely different, I believe. I remember my grandma saying to me as a kid something I then understood (we had moved to Nottingham by this point and I was no longer familiar with the north-eastern dialect) as “away Ben”, when, in fact, she was saying “Haway bairn”, meaning “Come on, child”.

    1. Hi Amanda –
      Thanks for taking the time to read the piece and to respond to it.

      The German student actually said – I think – Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?
      She was from Hildesheim, if that’s any use!
      A local equivalent of Do you think I’m stupid? / Do you think I was born yesterday?

      Thanks for the correction on my poor Geordie!
      I stand corrected.

      You live and learn.

      My mum actually lives in the north-east – Durham – but is from Lincolnshire, whilst her partner is from Blackpool. That’s my excuse for my ignorance anyway!

  3. Stephanie Ashford | Reply

    Your story about Kasia/Katherine reminds me of a German friend of mine who faked his identity in order to be allowed to teach in a language school that had a native-speaker-only policy. He called himself Kevin and managed to bamboozle the German DoS into thinking he was a born-and-bred Englishman. However, his native speaker colleagues were not so easily fooled. For one thing, his English was too good to be true. He had worked tirelessly to achieve a cut-glass Laurence Olivier accent, had swallowed the entire OED (unabridged), and could probably teach Raymond Murphy a thing or two about grammar. However, he gave himself away when he blasphemed in American. As you can imagine, “Oh, Jesus Christ, that is when the shit hit the fan!”, sounds very odd in received pronunciation, especially vintage 1950s BBC. His colleagues became even more suspicious when he revealed he didn’t know who Kevin Keegan was. I don’t know whether anyone eventually blew his cover, but I doubt it. The students were learning English, which is what really mattered.

    1. Ah, the Kevin Keegan test . . . and that must be despite his years at Hamburg, where he won European Footballer of the Year! He could’ve just said he wasn’t into football, surely?!

      I’ve met at least four or five non-natives who I honestly couldn’t tell weren’t born and bred in the UK. Indeed, I work with one – a Dutch woman called Margot! Last year at Spain TESOL I got talking to a woman with an amazing Scotish accent, yet with slight twinges of Spanish. I asked her which bit of Scotland she was from and how long she’d been in Spain – only to be hugged and kissed on both cheeks as she revealed she was actually Spanish, but had spent a year living in Dumfries!

    2. I can’t resist commenting on the perceived need for a “native” English name.

      One of the first courses I taught in a company in Germany had been running for years with a string of native English teachers. I came in on my first day with the attendance list, but was very confused to discover that I had among others a “Georgina”; “Andrew” and “Kathy” in my class. Gudrun, Andreas and Käthe had been given English names by previous teachers.

      Although I am a native English speaker, I do not have a typical English name. My name is Brigitte, pronounced the German way (not Bridget, but actually phonetically [bri gi te] (final e as a schwa), like the youngest daughter in “The Sound of Music.” Was I supposed to introduce myself as Bridget?

      I kept my name as it was, and they continued to learn English.

      1. This is actually something that’s always really really annoyed me – on many levels!

        Firstly, the whole idea of what a native speaker name is is based on some ridiculous 1950s white Anglo-Saxon notion of Englishness or Britishness that’s just totally out of date. It usually means one of about ten middle class names and ends up making life harder for anyone who actually IS a native speaker but doesn’t have the name )or, often, the skin colour!) that maybe some people expect. I mean, just thinking of people I know who actually ARE native speakers, there’s Hassan, Jamal, Babatunda, Savannah, Egiarte . . . I could go on.

        Secondly, there’s often just a lazy kind of unconscious racism behind giving students ‘English’ names. In my experience, it’s often Chinese students who’ve been told by natives that their names are difficult (despite almost always just being two syllables!) and that they need foreign names, whilst most of the rest of the world gets left alone.

        Thirdly, what kind of model does it send to students? I can’t be bothered to even learn your name properly, but you have to learn my language! Crazy.

        Finally, there’s actually just the pragmatic issue that just because an English name might be easier for some English people, it doesn’t mean other foreign students will find it easy! I mean, take my name – Hugh. One syllable, but seemingly impossible for thousands of students!!

      2. That being said, it was a very important part of our Desuggestopedia full immersion experience where I taught in the Czech Republic. The students would come and stay at the converted farmhouse for a week, but before, THEY would select an “English Name” – not really…just an alternative persona, so we had Michael Schumaker, Claudia Schiffer, Hugh Grant, etc etc. It was thought (and I believe, still is part of the theory behind the methodology), that by choosing to “be” another person for that language immersion experience, students would leave their inhibitions behind, and be open to the language learning experience. They had fun with it.
        I also remember the students who came to my boarding school from Taiwan (talking about NZ here) would adopt an English name, only they called it their “Christian Name” – and said it came from a cultural habit of taking on a new name whenever they had a major change in their lives. Perhaps someone might know more about this?

        However, what you are saying about foreign names being perceived as “difficult” so students must take on an English name, is NOT the same thing, and I agree – it does smack of racism, and is not something I ask my students to do…mind you, I am teaching in Italy, where everyone wants to know what “my name is in Italian”. I tell them it is Jo in any language 😉 Also my children – their names are Emily and Liam NOT Emelia and Guglilemo!

    3. Hi Jo –
      Yeah, I guess if students insist that they want to be called as pretty much anything, you can’t really argue with it, but I still think it’s weird – and unnecessary! I mean, if I met a Czech lad called Michael Schumaker, it’d be far weirder than if he was called Jiri or Tomas!

      Never heard of the new name for new phase in life thing.
      Wonder if anyone else knows about this?
      Makes some kind of sense, I suppose.
      Plenty of Brits reinvent themselves by taking on stage names, etc – Elton John, say!

      My ‘Italian’ name is apparently Ugo, but I still like to be called HUGH.
      Because that’s my name!

      1. I wondered about your name a while back! I thought, “OK, being called “Emende” is a bit of a pain in the butt, but how on earth do Hugh’s students cope with HIS name?!? You must hear some interesting variations of it in your line of work!!!

  4. Well…I had the experience when I first moved to the city where I teach now, of having to pretend I was ENGLISH…I am a native speaker, but from NEW ZEALAND, and was told that students came in wanting only British teachers…Luckily, I had spent some time in London, so I could pretend with some panache…but I was very glad when the school changed that rule. 🙂 I find that most students are quite happy with a Kiwi – interest factor and all that…

    1. As if most students even notice whether you’ve got a Kiwi accent or an English one! In my experience, it takes students a LONG time – perhaps until somewhere around Proficiency level – before they have soaked up enough different English to really have any idea where folk might be from based solely on accent.

      You can never underestimate interest value either, I agree. I think the same SHOULD also apply to non-natives with an excellent level of proficiency, of course!

      1. My dearest husband (hereinafter known as “DH”), with whom I have been together for 16 years now, is a native German speaker and also teaches English at a German grammar school. Under my gentle tuition, he has become an extremely proficient user of English, but he, too, confesses to being hard-pressed to identify the various accents of English. However, the other day, we – a day apart – watched the film, “Sunshine Cleaning” and he asked me after I had also watched the film if one of the characters had a New York accent. I do believe the chap in question did! My DH was really chuffed at having worked this out!
        And, as for me, after 20-odd years of living here in Germany, I, too, can only place accents which are very strong. The other stupid thing I do is that I tend to assume that people who speak “Hochdeutsch” are somehow more intelligent, even if they only speak that way because they’re from Hannover!!! I can’t believe that my English upbringing is so ingrained that I transfer this stupid snobbery into my interpretation of German accents!

      2. As I said, accents really take time to get to grips with. That said,l I still think it’s a good idea to ensure that students get to hear as wide a range as possible from as early as possible. Anything but the bad old days of out-of-work RSC actors doing plummy RP!

  5. Your post was so thought-provoking that I have to get all these thoughts out of my brain before it explodes! Where to start?
    Like you, Hugh, I am not at all happy with this idea of “Global English” – especially the dumbed-down kind – being touted as the model we should use when teaching our students. One aspect of this concept is particularly horrifying: its presumptuousness!!! It reminds me of the dark old days of political correctness when it was deemed by some to be insulting to use the word “handicapped” and ridiculous expressions such as “differently abled” came about. I always thought that if I were handicapped and in a wheelchair, I would have found these words more insulting than being called handicapped!!! Is the word “handicapped” or being handicapped so bad that it has to be disguised? Does using the word “differently abled” make my wheelchair disappear? NO!!!! All these words do is assume something that other people may not feel.
    In the same way, who do these people think they are, claiming that it is perfectly OK for teachers to teach some kind of sub-standard English to our students, along the lines of, “Well, they’re only foreigners; it’s good enough for them!”??? How about trying to find out – when appropriate – what kind of English our learners want to learn instead of presuming we know best in some kind of elitisit fashion? My blood boils when I think about it!!! (And saying “my blood gets very hot” would certainly NOT convey what I mean, to hijack one of your examples).
    The second problem with this concept of Global English is that you can’t teach something you don’t know. I can only teach the English I KNOW, which in my own case is British English. I mention some items of American English vocabulary in some of my classes and point out that my pronunciation is slightly regional (I use the flat northern English ‘a’ sound), but I tell my students that it would be wrong of me to try and pretend that I can teach them, say, about the grammar of American English, because I am simply – despite being a native speaker of English – not that proficient. I think it should be the duty of every English teacher to make themselves as aware as possible of the varieties of English out there, but not to be so arrogant as to assume that one individual can have a command of all of these varieties.
    You also mention the teaching of pronunciation, in particular, that thorny old problem, the English “th” sound. In my experience of teaching English here in Germany, it does indeed seem that the importance of producing a “th” sound is over-stressed (in schools) to the detriment of getting other sounds right, especially sounds which cause problems for German speakers and cause them to misunderstand native speakers or be misunderstood. These would be the “a” in “apple” (some Germans call me “Emende” when they are trying to produce an accurate rendition of my name “Amanda” and it makes my skin crawl!), the vowel sound in “cow” and voiced consonants at the begininng and particularly ends of words. I have a German friend who had me very confused once when he spoke of the singer “Mango Cherry”. It took me a few minutes to realize that he meant “MUngo Jerry”…
    As for how to approach the “th” problem, I would mention one aspect which you didn’t point out, which is that teaching pronunciation – in my experience – needs to be handled differently depending on the ages and needs of your students. From my reading on the matter, the younger a learner, the easier they will find it to reproduce the sounds of a foreign language. With younger learners, the time spent on pronunciation is generally time well spent, but with learners over the age of, say, 60, a certain amount of pragmatism might be necessary. I have been teaching a group of ladies for about five years now, who are now aged between 55 and 70+, and I allow them to say “zis” for “this” because they find it difficult to say “th” and seem to feel very stupid if they are forced to lisp. I do try to get them to HEAR the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds at the end of words, so as to help them say and hear “baG” and not “back”, for example, and try to get them to reproduce them, but with some of my students it seems that the window has closed and their brains are simply no longer able to register what the difference is. I then tell them that even if they mispronounce something, it will be usually clear from the context that they mean “beD”, for example, even if they say “beT”, so as not to totally demotivate them. (And having a strong German accent isn’t always a problem, as the example of Henry Kissinger shows.)
    But, even for younger learners, the “th” can be problematic. I have another student – now 13 – who can’t say the “th” sound, either, but he doesn’t use the “Z” sound, but has the Estuary English pronunciation and says “wiv” for “with”, which sounds pretty OK to me. He gets in awful knots when I try to get him to lisp, so, in his case, I now work on other (more important?) sounds, such as getting him to produce an English “R” instead of using a “W” sound, as this can cause misunderstandings (or even ridicule) as well as those typical problems I mentioned above. His teachers have said that his English pronunciation has improved a lot, so in his case, I think a pragmatic approach has helped.
    Another argument for pragmatism where the “th” sound is concerned is the awful word, “clothes”. Many Germans pronounce this as “clothies” (rhyming with the word “bothy”), which is truly horrible and would lead to problems, I imagine, in the real world. I learnt of a pragmatic approach to this problem about twenty years ago when I was lucky enough to attend a very good pronunciation workshop where an attendee mentioned this problem. We then conducted an interesting experiment on the native- and non-native speakers present: some of the native speakers said sentences using either the super-correct pronunciation, i.e. using BOTH voiced sounds at the end of the word, and others pronounce it “cloze”, still with ONE voiced sound, but not the voiced “th” sound immediately followed by a “z” sound. The result was that NONE of us – natives and non-natives alike – could hear the difference!!! Since then, if the problem crops up, I always tell my students to say “cloze” for “clothes”, rather than tie themselves in knots desperately lisping or – God forbid – they use the awful “clothies” word!
    My very last comment on pronunciation and one I mention to my students when they get themselves all worked up about their poor pronunciation is that being able to perfectly reproduce a native-speaker-like rendition of the target language can also create problems and end up with you getting treated like a mentally subnormal native! This happened to me here in Germany: when you move house here, you have to register your new address and tell the local councils in question that you have moved within four weeks of moving. I once missed this deadline and, being new to the country, was unaware that all that happens to you is that you get fined or have your wrist slapped and sent home. I had visions of immediate deportation and a prison sentence and put off going to the local council office for months. Finally, I plucked up the courage and practised my German phrases beforehand so as not to make an idiot of myself. However, I ended up achieving just that! I had learnt my phrases so well that the guy I spoke to thought I was German and a very very stupid one at that for not knowing about these regulations. When I produced my British passport, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me before that you were foreign?!?! I didn’t realize!!!” The next time I missed this deadline, I went to the office in question and spoke with a thick English accent, apologizing profusely for being an idiot and the bloke was SOOOO nice!!! He patted my arm and apologized for the nasty German bureaucracy and told me to come again any time I had a problem! Moral of the story: sounding a little bit foreign can be helpful!
    And to wind it up on pronunciation, I have a question for you, Hugh: how do you approach the problem of pronunciation when you have one individual student with a severe pronunciation problem? I am lucky insofar as I have monolingual classes where, generally speaking, everyone has the same problems, so I CAN do choral practice of certain sounds and minimal pairs, but I once had a Proficiency class of about 15 students with a Greek girl who could not, for the life of her, produce a “sh” sound. The German students in the class often had trouble understanding her but I never knew how to approach this problem as it was a kind of “baby” problem and not one that any of the Germans had trouble with. Sadly, she was the only person in that class who actually failed the exam and I have always wondered if it was this pronunciation problem which was the kicker. What should I have done? How do you approach this problem with your multilingual groups?
    Sorry for the length of this post, but I just had to get these things off my chest!!! I hope my comments have also given you food for thought!

    1. Wow. What an amazing response Amanda.

      I don’t know where to begin with responding to it!! From the top, I guess.

      Well, whilst I share your concerns about any kind of dumbing down or lack of clear and ambitious targets, I don’t see this as having any much to do with political correctness, which I guess I view in a more benign light than many maybe do, and which I can see I’m going to have blog about sometime soon, as this is maybe the third time it’s reared its head already!

      Secondly, I’m in broad agreement with the idea that we can only teach our own English, but have a responsibility to know about variations. There are obviously many limitations to this. My grasp of American English is through films, travel and students saying things to me and me then looking it up and finding out it really is OK in the States. I think a bigger issue is actually not really to do with teaching our own variants, but to do with teaching what’s common across variations, which is actually the vast bulk of stuff. I mean, when you’re watching US TV shows or movies, the vast vast majority of the language used is the same as it would be here, give or take the odd idiom and, of course, pronunciation differences. I think we need to bear that in mind and try, if we now about glitches, to maybe avoid overly localised input and to give US / UK options where possible. Then leave it to students to decide.

      In terms of pronunciation, what you’re suggesting sounds pretty sensible to me: try to get students to say all manner of different sounds, model these sounds for them, hope this gets them nearer – but don’t kill either them or yourself if they stay sounding pretty L1 influenced, especially if they’re still basically intelligible. This is also almost certainly more true with older students as well, yes. My point is really just that we have to TRY at least to have targets for pron we would like students to try and get near to. If they don’t then they don’t, but at least we tried. At it’ll have a knock-on benefit to their listening as well!

      Which connects to the excellent thing you said about the importance of doing work on receptive ability to hear / distinguish between sounds in English, even if students can’t really SAY the differences all that well. A point not made often enough, I feel.

      To finish off, in answer to the question about how I approach the problem of pronunciation when I have one individual student with a severe pronunciation problem . . . well, it often happens in our classes here – and it’s hard! In the end, you can only pick up on different pron issues with different students at different times, so maybe get Spaniards and Japanese students to practise saying Very Violent a few times when relevant, and so on. Everyone can work on connected speech stuff and intonation, and weaker students can be ‘picked on’ more often and helped to realise what their mouths are doing – and what mine is. In the end, after that, you can just suggest homeworks – listen and repeat exercises, self study with good pronunciation books, that kind of thing – and make them aware of the fact that their pron is hampering their otherwise excellent English and requires work. It’s especially hard if they’ve already learned a lot of English, but all in written form, and haven’t spent time learning how to say those words individually or together. There’s only so much you can do, though.

      In an ideal world, we’d have a kind of pronunciation clinic at the uni where students could get individualised help, but until then . . .

      1. Glad you liked my post! And I’m glad to see that a friend of mine has already posted here, too! I’m trying to get a bit of publicity out there for your blog so that is actually a blog which is READ and not just out there floating aimlessly in cyberspace.

      2. Thanks for spreading the word Amanda.

        It’d be really lovely to know folk out there were actually reading all this and digesting it. Otherwise, it does get quite disheartening when you feel you’re essentially writing into a void.

      3. I really don’t think you are “writing into a void”: one, there’ve been quite a few responses just to this one post and, two, if you click the “Follow” button in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, then you’ll see that there are already – at time of writing – 921 followers of this blog. Of course, who knows whether they all read every single post you put here, but, still, I am sure that some of them do! I’ll be sharing your stuff to various FB pages (one is a so-called secret group where a bunch of English-speaking mums hang out, but quite a few of them teach English, too, so I’m sure a few of them will be interested in your words of wisdom).

      4. Yes, but you have to bear in mind that that number includes all the folk who have clicked LIKE on our facebook and my Twitter followers as well, so only about five actual real blog followers! Still, from little acorns and all that.

        Great to know that you are reading and enjoying, and to know you’re sharing it all is even better. Thanks for the support.

    1. Point taken!

      I suspect cucumbers may be some weird local – or maybe even personal (!) – variant then!

      1. I just thought it was a lovely photo, too!

  6. Dear Hugh

    I realise I am reading this blog post almost a year after it has been published, but I think the point you are making is still standing.
    I’d like to say something about the situation in Flanders (Belgium), where children are often confronted with English (through pop songs, TV programmes with Dutch subtitles, gaming …).
    Quite often you can tell from what the pupils say in English, which songs or TV programmes are popular. At the time of Allo Allo an abundance of phrases (not always with a great English pronunciation, but that was exactly the point after all) like “Listen carefully I will say this only once”; Keeping Up Appearances brought us “the lady of the house speaking” and I have assertive students explaining their classroom behaviour saying “I was born this way” (Lady Gaga) or on their idleness “Today I don’t feel like doing anything” (Bruno Mars).
    I often see the fun on their faces when they utter these lines; but also the other faces in the classroom show a similar expression. It is one of recognition.
    For me this shows that it feels good to use “real English”, things native speakers would say. The failure of Esperanto as a lingua franca was maybe exactly that it was a rather synthetic, constructed language?
    Frequency research has taught us a lot about what natives actually say. Let us use that and teach our students a real and vivid language. I would have hoped we had surpassed the times of Pidgin English. (Although I admit using Pidgin Spanish myself, when I’m there, though every time I try to get better at it, and try to make it sound as Spanish as possible.)

    1. Hi Bruno –
      It’s amazing for me to realise that folk out there are finding things I posted up almost a year, reading them and responding, so thank you!

      I was interested to read about your experience of local kids in Flanders picking up on and playing with whole sentences / fixed phrases that come into circulation via the media and TV. In his wonderful book LEXICAL PRIMING, Michael Hoey talks a lot about the way that (both natives and non-natives) are primed via the media to expect language to work in certain ways, and I’m very conscious myself of the debris of pop culture that litters my mind. Advertising slogans fro the 70s and 80s bonce around at odd moments (For mash, get Smash! / Carlsberg: probably the best lager in the world, and so on) – and of course increasingly this stuff becomes global and becomes part of the fabric of our everyday banter and humour.

      I hear you on hoping we’ve gone beyond Pidgin inputs, but fear that much of the ELF debate was moving us back towards that direction, with an insistence on a kind of lowest common denominator approach – “for international communication”!

      One final interesting point to note: on READING your comments above, I’d have not a clue as to whether you’re native or native from your use of language.
      Which was pretty much my point in this post!

  7. Thank you for sharing this provocative, counter-fashionable rant that makes numerous insightful points. Well done!

    You’re spot on about the intense desire to impose a rather limited vocabulary on native-speakers under the dubious banner of accessibility. This paragraph nails the situation:
    “At a recent conference I attended in Poland, I heard someone put forward the notion that “in international contexts, the simpler, the better”. It put me in mind of Orwell’s monstrous Doublespeak, the language imposed upon us in some parallel or futuristic totalitarian world where words are to kept to a purely functional minimum and where we end with ‘good’, ‘ungood’, ‘plus good’ and ‘doubleplusgood’. A world few of us really want to inhabit, surely.”

    For worse or for better, I had almost the identical reaction at the TESOL 2016 conference. The demonization of standards as mere elitism and celebration of lowest common denominators – by sophisticated educators uttering noble ideals – poses real cultural dangers. Must everyone be reduced a vocabulary of 1500 words? Surely not.

    Having said that, I would note that context matters most. If teaching working adults in a developing nation hoping to work in a hotel, ELF makes some sense. Audience, context, and purpose indicate distinct goals.

    Yet I teach graduate students at an elite global university. Their goals require mastery of standard – if not exceptional English – to realize their professional and personal goals. English teachers are failing our students when we deny them accurate, clear, and focused feedback so they can compete in highly competitive markets. As with so many other misguided radical movements, ELF advocates claim the moral right to limit other individuals from realizing their potential under hazy and lazy notions of equality. If my students followed their advice, they would disqualify themselves from thousands of desirable positions. Isn’t it better to strengthen students so English language learners can better contribute to the world?

    1. Hi Eric –
      Thanks for finding this old post and taking the time not only to read it, but to add such a detailed and thoughtful comment.

      I think the whole issue has particular resonance for me as I was starting my schooling at just the time that these experiments into using and validating lower-class variants were being discredited in UK schools, and am very grateful I had a couple of teachers who, while never mocking or putting down my accent or some of the English I grew up speaking, made it clear that it would close rather than open doors for me further on down the line. That experience has really stayed with me.

      Obviously, as you say, context and level are absolutely central to decisions about what to teach next, but even this seems to so often be ignored in discussions about ELF, as does the fact that there are ever-growing numbers of so-called non-natives out there who are able to use English as a medium of international communication more adeptly than many natives.

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