Tag Archives: ELF

In the four years I’ve been teaching I’ve worked at 2 different high schools and, through various workshops and organisations, had the pleasure of meeting many native English speaking teachers around Korea. While the experience and expectations in each school are undoubtedly very different, I have noticed one common theme running through

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most people’s experiences. That is, as the native English speaking teacher, we are expected to share, and teach, the native speaker expressions, idioms and slangs our students are going to require if they are going to converse in English. Of course, at face value, this does seem to be a common sense requirement. After all, we are native speakers of English, and to communicate with us native speakers fluently, surely our students are going to need to be able to use the native lingo (0 hits)? Well, if native speakers were the people our students are likely to be communicating with, this would probably be true (I say probably because many expressions and slangs vary depending on region and time).

However, when this line of thought is scrutinized, the usefulness of the native speaker idioms/slangs/expressions we often teach becomes questionable. This is due to the fact that the vast majority of our students are actually quite unlikely to be using English to communicate with native English speakers (see Jenkins et al. 2011 or Seidlhofer 2004). Now, while I don’t want to get too deeply into the theoretical background of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in this post (please see note at bottom of blog), the basic premise is that the majority of English speakers are now non-native speakers of English, and the majority of communication that takes place is between non-native speakers of English, thus this is the type of communication we should be preparing our students for.


This now brings me back to my original question, how useful are the native speaker expressions/slang/idioms countless hours have been spent teaching. Well, I decided to consider this question in my context using the framework laid out in the excellent book ‘About Language’ by Scott Thornbury (1997). Thornbury (1997) suggests five ways that might determine the selection of language to be taught:

1) Frequency: Is the word (and this meaning of it) common?

The only real way of knowing how common an expression is is to refer to a corpus. A fantastically easy to use ELF corpus (that includes both native speakers and non-native speakers) run by the Vienna institute can be found here. I decided to run a little test (a completely unscientific one but this is only a Friday afternoon blog post!). I googled ‘common english expressions esl’, clicked on the third link and chose the first expression for low-intermediate students and then the first idiom, which happened to be ‘off the top of your/my/his/her/their head’. I then whacked this in the corpus search engine and received… 0 hits. The second expression, ‘ring a bell’ also received… 0 hits. My third attempt, ‘from scratch’ received… 4 hits. Please bear in mind (8 hits) this was only a two minute experiment.

2) Coverage: Can you use the word in a wide range of contexts, or does it have a very narrow coverage? For example, is its meaning very specific, is it only used regionally, or is it jargon or slang?

I think this is important, how regional are the native idioms/expressions/slangs we are teaching? Again, I think the corpus can help us with this, but I would suggest that, at the very least, many of the idioms/expressions/slangs are regional to the native countries, if not regions, they originate from. I know that when I go for a few beers with my mates (1 hit) from the South of England that, by our fourth beer, a lot of the conversation becomes incomprehensible to me, a native speaker. The typical idioms/expressions/slangs they use are very different to those I use as a Yorkshire man. If this is the situation for people who live in the same native speaking country, imagine two non-native speakers trying to sound native by using various idioms/expressions/slangs.

3) Usefulness: How relevant is it to our students’ needs? (Sometimes relatively infrequent items with a narrow coverage might nevertheless be very useful.)

This factor is probably the most dependent on your context. If you’re teaching English with a specific purpose, while you may receive only one hit on the corpus search, the idiom/expression/slang may still be very useful for your student. For me, in preparing my high school students for the type of communication they are most likely to face, I must take into account the likelihood of their interlocutor, who is also likely to be a non-native speaker, being able to both recognize and interpret what I am teaching my students. Considering this, I have to accept that the good old Yorkshire expression “broke” (meaning having no money) (0 hits) probably isn’t terribly useful besides if my students ever get the privilege of watching Last of the Summer Wine at some point in their lives.

4) Use: Will the learner need only to recognize the item (i.e. while listening or reading) or will it be needed for production (speaking and writing)?

This is quite an interesting one; there is no doubt that my students love US and British TV shows, movies and music. I am actually teaching a course on ‘English through Movies’ at the moment. For understanding the movies there is definitely a case for the teaching of the native English expressions featured in the movies. However, when we come back to conversational English, both my students and, just as importantly, their non-native interlocutors, are going to need to be able to use understand the idioms/expressions/slangs. In fact, teaching idioms/expressions/slangs my students’ interlocutors are unlikely to know may actually be detrimental to my students’ ability to communicate if all it does is cause misunderstanding and confusion. With the sheer number of native idioms/expressions/slangs out there, what are the chances of both my students and their interlocutors having been taught and remembering the same ones?

5) Learnability/teachability: Is it easy to learn and remember? Is it easy to convey the meaning and form of it to learners?

To be honest, I don’t think I have too much to say about this one. If the idioms/expressions/slangs fit nicely in with the syllabus, don’t take too long to teach and are usable then, to me, there is certainly a case to be made for teaching them, if done right (something I will discuss more in my next blog post).

Overall this analysis seems to indicate that, from an ELF perspective, we need to be very careful when selecting ‘common English expressions’ to teach our students. However, if your teaching environment is anything like mine, both my school and students expect me to teach a certain number of native English expressions. If I don’t, they will probably find a teacher that will. This presents a very awkward situation as I am required to teach language that I know might not only prove to be mostly a waste of time, but could actually be detrimental to my students’ ability to communicate in English. In my next blog post I hope to share some of the strategies that I believe can be used to teach native English idioms/expressions/slangs while also preparing students for ELF communication.

Note – For further reading regarding ELF I am going to put some articles I recommend checking out at the bottom, or you can read my thesis, which I’ll be uploading any day now. Alternatively, for a detailed yet eloquently summarized discussion of ELF, I highly recommend my friend Alex Grevett’s blog posts here including the discussion in the comments.

Note 2 – I have decided that from now on, personally I will only be sharing my blog posts through the AlienTeachers facebook groupmy twitter account and email subscription.

Bibliography + Recommended Reading

Cogo, A. (2012). ‘English as a Lingua Franca: concepts, use, and implications’. ELT journal 66(1), 97–105.

Jenkins, J., Cogo, A. & Dewey, M. (2011). ‘Review of developments in research into English as a lingua franca’. Language Teaching 44(3), 281–315.


Thornbury, Scott. About language. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 1997.

Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 209–239.

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Using Students Output in Preparation for Lingua & Cultura Franca

The use of authentic materials in foreign language learning has a long history, dating back to Sweet (1899:177) who highlighted the use of “natural, idiomatic texts over artificial methods”. The authentic materials we have access to and utilize in our classrooms are often created by native English speakers, or, extremely competent and fluent like non-native speakers of the English language. Yet, we are now living in a global society where by one billion people are learning English as a foreign language, Crystal (1997) predicted that by 2010 there will be more speakers of English as a foreign language than there are native speakers, and approximately 80% of English used worldwide does not involve a native speaker (Crystal, 1997). Given these facts, I questions whether by confining our students to tasks based on native/near native speakers of English we are adequately preparing our students for the communicational needs they are likely to encounter outside of our classrooms. This challenge has provided the inspiration for a project a close colleague (John Pfordresher) and I have been working on called the ‘ESL Learners Output Library’. We believe the open resource we have created can provide the tools we need to better prepare our students for inter-cultural communication.

There is no doubt that English is now a global language, and as such it has inevitably “diversified into a proliferation of forms, varying in pronunciation, intonation, grammar, vocabulary, spelling and conventions of use” (Gilmore 2007:103). With English now a global language it is no longer adequate to prepare our students to communicate simply through the ‘English language’, we need to prepare them to communicate with English as a lingua franca, in other words English as a common language used as a means of communication between speakers of many different native languages.

A conversation with one of my students last week provided a clear example of this need: I started teaching Mina just before she spent her two month break from university travelling through Europe. Last week was our first class since this trip, and while discussing her travels I asked her how she found communicating in English. She replied that she was extremely shocked as she often found herself sat in hostels and bars, communicating in English with people from China, Japan, India and many other places around the world. I asked why she was shocked by that situation and she replied that she didn’t feel she had been adequately prepared for it at school, or in English classes she had taken since school. She stated that she is only familiar with native accents, native sentence structures and native uses of vocabulary. She went on to tell me she has never been more highly motivated to improve her English, as she now realized it is not necessarily about communicating with native speakers, but the whole world. Given this reality that the English language is now a lingua franca we have a duty to our students to overcome the linguistic imperialism our textbooks and materials often force upon us. In other words, we need to find a way of exposing our learners to the output of other speaker of English as a second language (L2 output).

The need for exposure to L2 output is not only necessary due to English being a lingua franca. If English is being spoken by people with vastly different backgrounds, it is impossible that all L2 English speakers are disassociating themselves from their cultural knowledge when communicating in English. This cultural loading of language has resulted in English becoming a cultura franca as well as a lingua franca. As Pulverness (1999:6) explains, this is simply an issue that most textbooks fail to deal with. In fact, their usual solution is to side-step it all together by presenting completely inauthentic and impractical ‘international contexts’. This is not through fault of material developers, as how can one possibly expect to disassociate themselves from their own culture, especially when language is so representative of one’s culture? All of our communication, and interpretation of others communication, is inevitably loaded with our background and culture, this includes both our actual and our own interpretation of others meanings in writing, speaking, listening and reading.

The need for us to help our students develop the skills to deal with English as a cultura franca isn’t only apparent when our learners are communicating with people outside of their own country. We now live in huge urban melting pots of nationalities and cultures. Our students’ ability to successfully communicate is therefore dependent on their ability to understand English from as by people of different cultures and ethnic identities. As teachers, both John and I firmly believe it is our responsibility to expose our learners to as much output from different L2 speakers as possible. By doing this we not only develop our students communicative competency, but also their intercultural competency. Quite simply, if we can present our students with examples of other L2 output (which is the aim of the ESL Students Library) we can substantially reduce the likelihood of our students facing cross-cultural miscommunication.

Of course, I am not suggesting we completely overhaul the materials we present to our learners. As teachers, if once or twice a week we could just commit five minutes to the exposure of our students to materials that represent the myriad of levels, cultures and backgrounds they will be exposed when communicating outside of the English classroom it would make a significant difference to their confidence and skills in communicating with other non-native speakers, a situation they will almost definitely encounter.

It is for these reasons that John and myself were inspired to create the ESL Learners Output Library, a resource providing teachers with access to all the L2 output they could need. We realized that such resources don’t have to be difficult to find because as educators we have all the L2 output we need right at our finger tips, in the form of our learners output (work). It is to take advantage of this that we built the ‘ESL Learners Output Library’. This project is a free service that is designed to allow educators all around the world to share the output of their students. Our mission is, through this website, to create a global community sharing their students’ output. This can then be used to expose our students to English language produced by learners of different cultures, background, levels, ages or any other factor that will help our students communicate outside of our classrooms. We can create tasks for our students that will prepare them for inter-cultural communication, we can inspire each other to try new activities in our own classrooms, we can encourage our students by showing them projects students are doing all over the world, we can compare and contrast the specific needs of certain groups of students, we can even create links between our classrooms that will allow our students to interact with each other, the possibilities are both endless and necessary.

We welcome you to join us in creating this special project, to get involved simply visit www.esllol.org to explore, share and contribute to the ESL Learners Output Library.

Also please check out this passionate blog post from the co-founder of http://www.esllol.org @johnpfordresher http://observingtheclass.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/why-create-the-esl-learner-output-library/

Bibliography

Crystal, D. (1997). English as a global language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gilmore, A. (2007). Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning. Language Teaching. 40 (.), 97-118.

Pulverness, A. (1999). Context or pretext? Cultural content and the course book. Folio 5.2, 5–11.

Sweet, H. (1899). The practical study of languages. London:Oxford University Press.