The implications of English as a lingua franca on students. By English with Stephen

Learning Strategies: English as a lingua franca for students

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at how the implications of English as a lingua franca have for English learners.

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Hello and welcome! My name is Stephen Greene, and this is the English with Stephen podcast. In the last couple of episodes, we looked at the origins of the word ‘lingua franca’ and then at the reasons why English is probably the world’s lingua franca.

In case you have forgotten, or haven’t listened to the last two episodes, ‘lingua franca’ means a language that people use to communicate when they don’t share a common language. In the modern world, for example, a German will probably use English to communicate with a Brazilian.

There are arguments about whether having one lingua franca is a good thing or not. In addition, there are pros and cons around English being that lingua franca. I will not talk about these arguments in this episode. Instead, I will try to examine some of the implications of English being the world’s lingua franca for English students.

All of this, after the break.

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And now back to the implications of English as a lingua franca for English students.

I’d like to give you an example of one of my students. She is in her 40s and works in a financial management position. She lives in Curitiba, in the south of Brazil, but the company she works for is German. The company has offices all around the world, but my student works a lot with other people in South America, Germany, and China. She has many online conversations with people from these countries, as well as constantly reading and writing emails.

She very rarely talks to someone from a country where English is the first or dominant language. She watches Netflix and films in English, but always with subtitles in her native Portuguese. She does not travel a lot, even before the pandemic, but when she does travel it is mainly to other places in Brazil.

Now, ask yourself this question. What type of English does this woman need? Does she need the type of English that I would use to speak to my friends back home? Or does she need something else?

There is quite a bit of research into the type of English that people use when they speak English as a lingua franca. Some of the findings show that there are far, far fewer uses of idiomatic expressions or phrasal verbs. Prepositions are less important. Articles are used less frequently. Words like ‘who’ and ‘which’ are used interchangeably.

And there are also differences in the phonology or pronunciation. There is a focus on how to be understood, rather than being ‘correct’. Features of connected speech, that is the way sounds join together and change, are far less common. Extra vowels are inserted between consonant clusters. Sounds that are difficult to produce are just ignored.

Now it is important to note that this is not the case with all examples of English as a lingua franca, but there is a definite trend. And the implications for my student are clear.

I don’t waste time teaching her strange idioms. I don’t force her to remember the difference between ‘look at’ and ‘look for’. I don’t obsessively correct her pronunciation of the sound ‘th’ in the word ‘three’.

But it isn’t just things that I don’t do. There are other things that I pay more attention to. I train her especially in communication strategies. These are ways to make sure you have communicated effectively with the other person. Ways to do this include repeating yourself, asking for clarifications, double-checking and giving space for the other person to ask questions. In an environment where it is easy to misunderstand, or be misunderstood, checking that real communication has taken place is invaluable.

I also give her lots of exposure to speakers of English from different countries so that she is comfortable with different accents. If you are interested in this, then I will post a link to a great resource on my site

And to be honest, I use a lot of these practices with my other students. The ‘th’ sound is one that particularly annoys me. There are many ‘native’ varieties of English that do not include this sound, or at least use it far less than standard British or American varieties of English. Both Irish and Jamaican English use these sounds far less, and yet Irish and Jamaicans are ‘native’ speakers and can communicate as well, or as badly, as anyone else. If you walk into a pub and ask for ‘tree’ beers it is pretty clear from the context what you want. The ‘mispronunciation’ of that ‘th’ sound is not going to mean you get four beers or two beers instead of the three that you want.

And communication strategies are important whether you are talking to a German, a Brazilian or an Australian. Being able to check you have understood properly, or that other people have really understood you, is a precious skill and one that should be practised by everyone, not just language learners.

To sum up, if we want to communicate with other non-English speakers, then we don’t need to worry about the details of the language that those other people will not use anyway. Instead, we need to worry about how we communicate and finding out of we have communicated properly in the first place.

What do you think? Do you need to speak the same English as me or an American? Or do you accept that you can communicate effectively even if you don’t have the same access to all the idioms and pronunciation features that I do?

That’s all from me. Make sure you subscribe on your favourite podcast app so you don’t miss another episode. If you need some links to some podcast apps, you can find them on my site

So long and thanks for listening.

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