By Katy Simpson Davies, Laura Patsko

25 November 2013 - 16:16

Teachers are helping students to use English as a lingua franca.
Teachers are helping students to use English as a lingua franca. Photo ©

Todor Petkov, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Katy Simpson Davies and Laura Patsko will deliver a British Council seminar in Glasgow on 26 November 2013 on teaching pronunciation and listening in an ELF context (English as a lingua franca). They explain how teachers can teach ELF in their classrooms.

What is English as a lingua franca (ELF)?

What students need most from their language classes affects how we teach. But to what extent do we consider students' needs when it comes to pronunciation?

How often do we stop to consider the needs of students who are learning English to mainly communicate with other non-native speakers? In this situation, English is used as a lingua franca (ELF) - a common language between people who do not share the same native language. So their needs are quite different to students who go to the UK, for example, and want to integrate within that culture and so may want to sound as much like a native speaker as possible. The priority for students using ELF, on the other hand, is to be as intelligible as possible to the people they are communicating with. This does not necessarily mean sounding like a native speaker.

So how do we know what features of pronunciation are most important for maintaining intelligibility?

In her book, The Phonology of English as an International Language (OUP, 2000) Jennifer Jenkins collected data about the pronunciation features which caused the most communication breakdown in her multilingual classes, and used this research to draw up a list of pronunciation priorities in an ELF context. She called this list the Lingua Franca Core, or LFC.

There are four main areas that the LFC focuses on, which are thought to be essential for students to get right if they are to remain intelligible. These are:

1)    Most consonant sounds

2)    Appropriate consonant cluster simplification

3)    Vowel length distinctions

4)    Nuclear stress

'Appropriate consonant cluster simplification' means that adding a sound is better than deleting a sound. For example, if you pronounce ‘helped’ with two syllables instead of one by inserting a vowel sound between the /p/ and /t/ cluster, Jenkins’ data suggests you’re still likely to be understood in an ELF context. But if you miss out the /p/, for example, then ELF intelligibility is much more at risk.

Pronunciation features that we often teach as part of a traditional syllabus, but which are NOT included in the LFC because they have no impact on ELF intelligibility are:

  • / ð / as in the ‘th’ in ‘mother’, / θ / as in the ‘th’ in ‘thumb’, and dark ‘l’ as in the end of ‘little’ in most British accents
  • word stress (although critics have queried this omission, given that nuclear stress is included in the LFC)
  • stress-timing
  • exact vowel quality (as opposed to vowel length, which is a core item)
  • pitch movement (tone)

(adapted from Walker, R.: Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, OUP, 2010)

Pronunciation features that we normally teach but which are not included in the LFC because they actually have a negative impact on ELF intelligibility are:

  • vowel reduction, schwa and weak forms
  • certain features of connected speech – linking, assimilation, coalescence

(adapted from Walker)

It’s not to say that these non-core items are not worth teaching with the students’ listening skills in mind. Receptively, it may be useful for students to be aware of things like features of connected speech. But in an ELF approach, learners would not be expected to produce them, because it might only serve to make them less intelligible in their day-to-day lives.

Raising awareness of English as a lingua franca (ELF)

You could introduce the concept of ELF to your students by using statistics, like these from the British Council, as a starting point to discuss the role of English around the world:

  • English has official or special status in at least 75 countries, with a total population of more than two billion
  • one out of four of the world's population speak English to some level of competence; demand from the other three quarters is increasing
  • more than two thirds of the world's scientists read in English
  • three quarters of the world's mail is written in English
  • 80 per cent of the world's electronically stored information is in English.

This could lead to a discussion of the role of English in the students’ own country, and how students themselves use English or plan on using it in the future.

During the discussions, you might like to guide students to an understanding of these important points:

  • English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is English when it is used by non-native speakers to communicate with native speakers.
  • English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is English when it is used between two or more people who do not have the same first language. (There may be native speakers present, but they would be in the minority.)
  • EFL, ELF, etc. are just different contexts of using English; i.e. the different roles that English plays depend on who is speaking to whom, rather than where English is being used.
  • One is not inherently better or more appropriate than another – they’re just different things.
  • What learners need/want to learn will depend on the context in which they (want to) use English.

How do you teach English as a lingua franca (ELF)?

Conduct a needs analysis to find out whether your students use or are planning to use ELF, or whether they need to integrate in an English-speaking country. Then conduct a diagnostic test, like you would with other language areas such as grammar, to find out which areas of the lingua franca core, or LFC, students need to work on producing. It would also be helpful to know the language backgrounds of the people your students will be talking to, in order to work on appropriate accommodation skills, too (in other words, adjusting your expectations of what pronunciation you will hear, according to who is speaking).

If you’re using a set coursebook in your class, look at the LFC (see above) and consider how the pronunciation exercises in your coursebook compare to the pronunciation features identified as important for maintaining intelligibility in Jenkins’s data. Then match those areas to the needs of your students. If possible, skip the irrelevant pronunciation exercises and spend more time on LFC priority areas, such as nuclear stress, by taking extra pronunciation activities into the classroom to focus on these.

You can help learners to become more familiar with a range of non-native accents, especially those they are most likely to encounter in their specific context. Familiarity is a key factor in a listener’s ability to understand an accent (according to Field, J.: ‘Intelligibility and the listener: the role of lexical stress’ in TESOL Quarterly 39/3: 399-424, 2003). Being more aware of the issue of familiarity as a listener might also raise students’ awareness of how features of their own accent could cause difficulty for someone who is not so familiar with it. Using listening activities featuring non-native accents can help students accept the reality of accent variation, and challenge negative perceptions of their own accent and others’.

Where can I find audio featuring non-native speakers?

In his book, Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, R. Walker suggests using interviews with non-native internationally known figures, such as football managers, or using clips from news websites from around the world. His book also comes with a CD of recordings of non-native speakers. Other resources to check out are The Speech Accent Archive and The International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA). But don’t forget that, in a multilingual class, the students themselves are a great resource.

Attend our seminars for English language teachers in the UK.

For more free resources and suggestions on things like how to do an ELF needs analysis, visit Katy and Laura's joint English as a lingua franca pronunciation blog.

Katy tweets as @KatySDavies. Laura blogs at and tweets as @lauraahaha.

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