Michael Griffin

My Priorities Teaching in an ELF World 
by Michael Griffin.


“Well, personally I only teach correct English.” 

“I’m not gonna teach some sort of bastardized English.”

“Why would I dumb things down for my students?”

“My students expect me to teach them English and not some made-up and impoverished language.”

“It’s insulting to students to assume they can’t learn proper English!” 

Do these sound familiar? The above are some of the statements I’ve heard related to ELF (English as a lingua franca) from a variety of teachers. I’ve heard quotes like this from teachers chatting casually in pubs to teachers speaking at conferences. I’ve heard similar lines from inexperienced teachers just starting out in the field and from published experts alike.  

While it might be interesting, I won’t use my amateur psychology skills to analyze those who might utter the above quotes. Nor will I use my beginner sleuthing ability to create a passable theory about the origins of such thinking. I’ll also spare you my basic historical explanation of the term lingua franca.  I’ll even overlook sticky questions over what “correct” and “proper” mean in this context. In this brief post I’d just like to share how I view ELF and how this view tends to shape my English language teaching. 

I don’t think of ELF as a language, new or impoverished or otherwise. I think of it as a fact. To me it means these days English is the preferred language of communication around the globe. Even those who would not consider themselves proponents of ELF would have a hard time disagreeing with the notion that English language students are likely to use English with others who do not use English as a first languageI suspect and hope that’s a pretty uncontroversial statement. If we start here, perhaps some of the ideas and practices we’ve previously assumed to be self-evident can be re-evaluated. If we think the end goal for our students is not always to sound like or impress “native speakers”, it might change some of our teaching practices or at least our priorities.

Image credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonasb/2876165381  

For me ELF is not about overtly teaching sentences like “She go to the gym every Thursday” (as I have heard suggested), but rather considering this to be a minor mistake and choosing to focus on other things. I believe that a big part of teaching is about setting priorities. So, when I consider ELF in terms of correcting students it’s often about making a choice to look the other way on certain types of mistakes and errors. I think of ELF as a justification, and in fact impetus, to re-assess the importance of what I teach and what I correct. If we hear something in class that doesn’t sound quite right but is unlikely to prevent a listener from understanding, we can choose to ignore it.  I assume many teachers are already doing this anyway without considering ELF.  To my mind, the reality of ELF can just help us as we set our priorities. We might ask ourselves, “Does this really impede intelligibility?” We might consider the degree to which we are emphasizing or even over-emphasizing “native speaker norms.” We might step back and consider if our expectations for students are reasonable or practical or even helpful and needed.  

Another area where I feel that thinking about ELF helps me or causes me to re-prioritize is with the language of idioms and slang. If I step back and consider that my students are going to be speaking with interlocutors other than “native speakers”, it becomes easier for me to de-prioritize unnecessary and rare idioms and slang. I find that even asking myself “Are students likely to need or want this idiom for international communication?” and “Will those my students speak with be likely to know this idiom?” can help my decision-making process. When I  ask myself these questions I often choose to focus elsewhere.  

As we de-prioritize certain things, we will also probably want to prioritize others. The first thing that comes to mind in this regard is clarification strategies. This might mean helping students to be certain they have heard correctly (“B as in boy?”), as well as practice with things like paraphrasing and seeking clarification on more complicated points and opinions. In my mind, this shift calls for more collaborative work where there is not exactly one correct answer but students have to come to a joint understanding (and perhaps conclusion) on something.  

I believe considering some of the questions I’ve laid out above will enable us to be more attuned to our students’ needs and might help us prioritize what is most useful and helpful to our students. I think when we consider ELF a lens through which to view our teaching it can help us make better decisions.  

I’d like to state that the above is just my personal take on how ELF influences my own teaching. While I hope it’s helpful for you, your mileage may vary. Also, your students might have specific reasons for using English and might want to sound as close to “native speakers” as possible. They might be obsessed with idioms and slang and expect you to provide a bottomless supply of idioms. Your students might have work or personal reasons that cause them to desire sounding as native-like as possible. I am not suggesting as teachers we ignore these needs and wants. I’m just suggesting that English students in the future speaking with other L2 users of English is the reality for most.  

I’d also suggest that acknowledging ELF and using it as a lens for examining our teaching doesn’t necessarily mean we have to make a drastic change in our teaching. For me it’s just something else to think about as I plan lessons and courses and make decisions in the flow of class. It’s something that helps me to set priorities and evaluate my choices.  

In this post I have barely scratched the surface on the implications of ELF for teachers of English.  If you are interested in learning more about ELF and these implications for your own classroom, I might recommend taking Katy Simpson’s upcoming course on this.  

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