Post-ELF 5: Beyond Dogma and Denial

When the implications of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) first hit the consciousness of the ELT community at the beginning of this century, reactions tended to polarize between dogma and denial. On the dogma side were militants who saw native pronunciation models such as received pronunciation (RP) as a residue of colonialism which needed to be uprooted. From the denial point of view, these militants were a noisy distraction who would hopefully tire themselves out and go away. These are caricatures admittedly, but let’s run with them a little…
Dogma took Jennifer Jenkins’s The Phonology of English as an International Language (OUP 2000) as a holy text, with the list of pronunciation features known as the ‘lingua franca core’ as a fixed set of commandments. They were commandments in the sense that they weren’t there to be questioned or understood, but simply obeyed – they were based on research. Pronunciation teaching must focus on these features and no others. A large number of features which had hitherto been popular components in any phonology syllabus, such as the TH sounds and weak forms, were not included in the lingua franca core. Militants were quite vehement in insisting that such features be dropped. Although ELF theory was actually much more nuanced than this, I think for most teachers who were paying attention, it was the lingua franca core that was the most salient takeaway. It may still be today, despite the fact that ELF theory has evolved into something quite different.
Meanwhile, denial consisted in closing your eyes and hoping it would all go away. It was best to keep quiet, because confrontations with dogma could get rather explosive. But it was difficult: there was something undeniable in the basic premise of ELF theory: English was a lingua franca, and this must have implications. It’s just that these implications seemed too destructive to contemplate – decades of accumulated wisdom and expertise at risk of tumbling down as the foundations were ripped away from underneath. Deniers tried to keep calm and carry on as before. Few of them dared to talk about ELF, but it was always there like a stone in the shoe.
When Elephants Fight, it’s the Grass that Suffers
This battle between dogma and denial was not a great boost for pronunciation teaching. Teachers who had never liked pronunciation gleefully concluded that they didn’t need to bother with it any more, since the message from on high seemed to be that ‘anything goes’. Teachers who had always liked it had to take their enthusiasm underground – carry on as before but don’t shout too loud about it. Between these two extremes, there was disorientation and pronunciation was quietly sidelined, much as it had been in the heyday of the communicative revolution.
A Change of Lens
The post-ELF scenario that I’ve been attempting to describe in this series of posts is a bid to see beyond dogma and denial. I think that we must embrace and assimilate the ELF premise, but this needn’t be as destructive as deniers have feared. It’s a change of lens rather than a change of substance. Fundamentally, we need to move away from seeing pronunciation features in terms of correctness towards seeing them in terms of effectiveness. Rather than correcting, give feedback. Discuss pronunciation features with students in a spirit of discovery, comparing your versions and their versions. Discuss which variations are merely superficial features of accent, and which are likely to cause intelligibility problems globally.
What is Intelligible?
In order to advise students what to keep or change in their pronunciation, we teachers need to develop our intuition as to what is or isn’t likely to be widely intelligible. The lingua franca core has an important role here – it helps to open our mind to the kind of depth we have to dig. No feature of English phonology is so fundamental that it can’t be questioned. The schwa, for instance, may be the most common sound in native English, but that doesn’t give it diplomatic immunity. It still has to justify the attention we pay to it in terms of its contribution to understanding and being understood.
Accent Awareness
Our intuitions about intelligibility can also be sharpened by an awareness of accent variation. If a given accent has a pronunciation feature which is ‘non-standard’, and yet speakers with that accent get along fine and are widely understood, then clearly that feature doesn’t need changing. A rule of thumb might be, ‘if it exists in a widely understood variant of English, then it’s probably ok’. For example, TH is pronounced as F in some widely understood accents of English, so it’s probably ok if my student pronounces it that way. I would mention it, but not insist on students changing it – I would leave that up to them.
An Obsession with Model
Dogma and denial has not been hugely beneficial for pronunciation teaching. It has hijacked attention and focused it all in possibly the wrong place: we’ve tended to obsess about product when really it would be more fruitful to focus on process. By product, I mean the target model. When ELF knocked native standards like RP of the pedestal, the most urgent question seemed to be: ‘What do we replace it with?’ Initially, it seemed the lingua franca core might do the job, but that was a misunderstanding. The global lingua franca is emergent and dynamic, not a stable model anybody can aim for. So still there was no model, and there seemed no way beyond this impasse.
But could it be that we don’t need to worry so much about a model anyway? As a matter of fact, there is a default model accent in most classrooms – the teacher’s. This was always quietly the case, even when RP was on its pedestal. Teachers didn’t all suddenly become RP speakers on entering the classroom. Why not simply admit and accept this fact?
A Focus on Process
Perhaps more important than product is process: the process of understanding and making yourself understood in varying global contexts. The implication is that we see pronunciation teaching as strategic – as empowering students to modify their speech to suit the situation, and helping them to be more flexible in terms of understanding the variety of speech they will hear. All of the features that pronunciation teachers have traditionally taught can be recast and evaluated in this light: as ways of increasing the students’ capacity to accommodate. This idea of accommodation, in fact, was an important element in Jennifer Jenkins’s (2000) book – it was not only about the lingua franca core. So ironically, it was there at the beginning – the key to the puzzle of how to get beyond dogma and denial.

This is the fifth and last post in a series. The previous posts are here.
Post-ELF 1: The ELF Premise
Post-ELF 2: Accent Snobbery
Post-ELF 3: A Hierarchy of Pronunciation Skills
Post-ELF 4: Essential versus Superficial



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