First, let’s recap:
The concept of ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) is simple: many learners of English today do not want/need to use English with people whose first language (L1) is English. They are more likely to use English in situations where nobody shares an L1 (e.g. a native speaker of French, a native speaker of Japanese and a native speaker of Arabic might use English to communicate with each other).
Barbara Seidlhofer, a linguist at the University of Vienna who has studied and written extensively on this use of English, explains ELF as follows:
“any use of English among speakers of different first languages for whom English is the communicative medium of choice, and often the only option.”
From ‘Understanding English as a Lingua Franca’ , pg. 7 (reference below)
In this sense, people who speak English as their first language might also be present in ELF interaction, but they’d more than likely be in the minority.
What does this mean for pronunciation?
Way back in 2000, a linguist called Jennifer Jenkins wrote a book about this way of using English, including research on what aspects of pronunciation appear important to produce and understand accurately if a learner’s goal is NOT to sound precisely like a native speaker, but mainly to communicate intelligibly with other non-native speakers.
(More on the definition of “intelligible” in a future post… for now, let’s just understand it as the extent to which a listener understands a speaker’s pronunciation; and let’s just focus on the speaker’s side of things.)
One result of this research was the ‘Lingua Franca Core‘ (the ‘LFC‘). This is a list of pronunciation features which appear to be crucial to produce accurately in order for ELF communication to be intelligible. (There’s much more to it than this, of course – more detailed discussion will appear on this blog in due course!)
Outside the ‘core’ are all other features of pronunciation that might occur in different varieties of English; but these are probably not necessary for learners to be able to produce if their goal is mainly NOT to communicate with (or sound like) a native speaker.
By teaching features outside the ‘core’ receptively, rather than productively, learners can still understand other accents of English and maintain something of their L1 accent, which many learners may wish to do, given that accent is an important part of personal identity.
Jenkins’ suggestions for the LFC were very thoroughly explained in her 2000 book, which we’d urge you to read if you’re really interested in understanding the logic behind it.
In the meantime…
Here’s the LFC in short:
- Most consonant sounds + one vowel (/ɜː/)
- Preservation of most consonant clusters
- Vowel length (especially before voiced/unvoiced consonants)
- Appropriate word grouping and placement of nuclear stress
You may have noticed that some popular areas of focus in ELT (e.g. word stress, tone) aren’t included. That’s not a mistake–those areas didn’t appear crucial to intelligibility in an ELF context in Jenkins’ data. (More on this in later posts.)
And in more detail:
1. Consonant sounds
• All English consonant sounds are necessary EXCEPT /θ/ and /ð/ (for which most substitutions are possible, such as /f/ and /v/, but probably not /ʃ/, /ʤ/ or /z/).
• ‘Dark /l/’ (also written as [ɫ]) is not necessary. Speakers can substitute ‘clear /l/’ (possibly preceded by a schwa if the /l/ is syllabic, like at the end of ‘bottle’). Substituting /ʊ/ for /l/ at the ends of words might also be acceptable, but more research is needed to confirm this.
• /r/ should be pronounced as in General American pronunciation (technically called a “rhotic retroflex approximant” and written as [ɻ]. It should also be pronounced everywhere it occurs in spelling, as in American English.
• /t/ needs to be carefully pronounced between vowels (e.g. ‘Italy’) and in clusters in the middle of words (e.g. ‘winter’). It should not be ‘flapped’ (as in General American pronunciation, ‘Italy’ might sound like ‘Idaly’ or ‘latter’ might sound like ‘ladder’); and it should not be replaced with a glottal stop (like in Cockney ‘better’).
• The consonants /p/, /t/ and /k/ must be aspirated when occurring in initial position in a stressed syllable (e.g. the first /p/ in ‘paper’).
2. Consonant clusters
• Clusters of consonants at the beginning of words must not be simplified (e.g. learners mustn’t drop the /r/ at the start of ‘product’).
• Clusters of consonants in the middle or at the end of words are a bit more complicated. They can be simplified if it makes articulation easier, but only according to rules of elision (i.e. dropping sounds) that also apply to native English varieties (especially in clusters containing /t/ and /d/, like ‘postman’).
• If learners have trouble producing consonant clusters, it’s usually OK to insert a very short schwa vowel between consonants, providing they don’t then stress this syllable (e.g. ‘product’ could be pronounced more like [pә’rɒdʌkәtә] by Japanese speakers without damaging intelligibility).
• Similarly, learners can add a short schwa at the end of a word ending with a consonant, provided this does not create another word which it might be confused with (e.g. ‘hard’ sounding like ‘harder’).
• Length contrasts must be preserved, e.g. ‘pill’ versus ‘peel. However, the actual quality of vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent (e.g. don’t keep switching between different pronunciations of the vowel in ‘hat’ so sometimes it sounds like RP [hæt] and sometimes it sounds like New Zealand [het]).
• The length of diphthongs must be preserved but, again, the actual quality of the vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent.
• When a vowel occurs before an unvoiced consonant, it should sound slightly shorter than when it occurs before a voiced consonant. For example, the vowel in ‘right’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘ride’, and the vowel in ‘kit’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘kid’.
• The /ɜː/ vowel, as in ‘girl’ or ‘first’, must be pronounced accurately.
4. Word groups and nuclear stress
• The stream of speech should be divided into meaningful tone units (also known as ‘tone groups’, ‘word groups’ or ‘thought groups’).
• Nuclear stress (i.e. which word is stressed within a ‘tone group’) must placed appropriately, especially for contrast/emphasis. This means the difference in meaning should be clear between, for example, ‘Let’s meet NEXT Saturday’ and ‘Let’s meet next SATURDAY’.
How to practise features in the LFC?
In due course, we’ll be posting practical resources on this blog for working on these areas with learners whose main aim is to use English as a lingua franca.
One such resource, focusing on just one part of the LFC (consonant sounds) is already available: Battleships.
Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jenkins, J. (2007). English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seidlhofer, B. (2011). Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.