The new lingua

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 June, 2008, 12:00am

When a Dutch scholar, a French professor and a German academic meet to discuss their field of interest, the chances are they will be conversing in English. Fifty years ago this might almost have seemed the stuff of science fiction, but today it is the norm, part-and-parcel of academic reality in the 21st century.

English as a world language of communication is by no means a new phenomenon, but what now interests linguists is the sort of English non-native speakers are using when they interact.

And it turns out they are inventing words, playing around with different verb forms and twisting grammar. In some cases second-language learners consciously choose to use what native speakers might consider 'non-standard' forms of English.

A school of linguistics is arguing that rather than view the various idiosyncrasies of their language as 'errors', they should be welcomed as a new, emergent form of the language. They call it Elf - English as a lingua franca.

Delegates at a three-day international conference on the global role of English at the University of Hong Kong this week heard that the language had effectively reached tipping point.

'There are now more non-native speakers of English in the world than there are native speakers,' said Jennifer Jenkins, professor of English language at the University of Southampton. 'When I go to international conferences, where English is the focus, I am very often in the minority because I am a native speaker.'

Non-native speakers here refers not to people who have just picked up a spattering of English phrases, but those who regularly use it as a language of communication.

'Most Elf is being used not with native speakers, but between other non-native speakers of English,' Professor Jenkins said. 'Their main goal is communication.'

Common features so far identified among predominantly European non-native English speakers using the language as their lingua franca included a preference for the present-continuous-ing form of verbs when native speakers would normally use the simple form, the dropping of the final 's' on verbs when using he or she, and the invention of words including 'unusual' prefixes, such as disemployment to mean unemployment.

Professor Jenkins said such traits tended to be common among European Elf speakers regardless of what their native language was - meaning they were different from linguistic traits creeping in from the speaker's mother tongue.

'A typical feature of Elf is the removal of redundant information. It needs to be recognised that this is legitimate. We need to stop seeing these as simply errors.'

Professor Jenkins said the legitimisation of Elf had taken a major step forward recently when a Scandinavian academic journal published an edition which had deliberately not been proofed by native speakers of English.

'It clearly hadn't been checked by a native speaker, but I don't see anything wrong with that.' Although elements of the phrasing and grammar did not conform to international standard, these were not due to careless errors.

The journal argued against the prevalent selection of academic papers for publication based not on their academic merit but on 'linguistic criteria whose relevance for international intelligibility have not been established', she said.

Barbara Seidlhofer, professor of English and applied linguistics at Vienna University, said it was too soon to tell what the ultimate influence of Elf would be as work had only just begun on defining it.

'There is precious little descriptive research we can look at so far,' Professor Seidlhofer said. 'We have a very reliable body of research done on English as a native language, but there have been no comparable research efforts on Elf.'

She said that without any codification or reference of what it meant to use Elf, people would be 'reluctant to use this form of English that they use in their everyday lives' in a formal or written context.

Professor Seidlhofer is the director of a major study of the linguistic characteristics of Elf. The Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English has logged more than a million words used in conversation by 1,300 native speakers of more than 50 languages - including English.

The database is due to go online in December.

'It is quite a challenge to transcribe what people actually say rather than what you, with your high level of English, think they meant to say,' she said.

Those using Elf often felt more comfortable communicating with other second-language learners. Elf was seen as a 'more fun, playful' form in which they could invent new words or alter pronunciations, while many felt native speakers spoke 'flat English'.

Their attitude was akin to that of native speakers of dialects of English.

Professor Seidlhofer said it was envisaged by researchers that the development of a legitimised form of Elf could have an influence on the way English was taught internationally.

Not constantly holding students up against the near-impossible benchmark of speaking like a native speaker would improve their confidence and allow them to focus on the important aspect of getting their meaning across. It could help cut out unnecessary teaching practices.

'If you have three businessmen in Malaysia and you know they will only ever use English to speak with people in Russia and Finland, why would you teach them how to make the 'th' sound?' she said. 'That is one thing that could save teachers a lot of time.'

But much research needed to be done before Elf could begin influencing school curriculums. 'We don't have anything to give teachers yet,' Professor Seidlhofer said.

Speaking on the conference sidelines, Jim Cummins, professor of curriculum, teaching and learning at the University of Toronto, said there was an important power dynamic in English which could be about to change.

'The control of the norms or of what is acceptable has in the past been held by the traditional elite in native-speaking countries. It hasn't been with the people, who have generally spoken one form or another of non-standard English, but it has been with the elite.'

He likened the dominant trends seen in Elf to the efficiency of newly evolving language used by youngsters when texting on their mobile phones or using instant messaging.

'With 20 per cent of the keystrokes, you can get the same message across,' he said. 'This is the sort of communication that develops when you need to get the meaning across and there is no one there to assess whether it is right or not.'

Chris Davison, associate professor of English-language education at the University of Hong Kong's education faculty and an organiser of the conference, said she was dubious whether second-language speakers' English would coalesce into a standardised international alternative - but rather that regional varieties were forming in different parts of the world. However, the pressure to get papers published in international journals, and predominantly American ones, meant academics were now under more pressure to one particular flavour of English - US.

'I believe we are going to see greater diversity in the way people speak, but increasing uniformity in the written language,' Dr Davison said. 'As an Australian, I find I am constantly needing to alter the language I use and change my spelling to ensure my writing will be understood and accepted.'

Professor Jenkins said that while she felt it was 'perfectly sensible' that Elf would take its place as an acceptable form of English alongside native-speaker varieties, she recognised many people disagreed.

But she felt the 'gatekeeper' mindset of maintaining standards was ultimately flawed. After an initial knee-jerk reaction, naysayers often softened their stance.

'When people think about it a bit more and consider it a bit more, then they tend to be more interested in it,' she said.

'It could be that English as a native language is developing in exactly the same way as Elf, but Elf is just changing much more swiftly.'