ELF in a multilingual class – finding common needs


As with all linguistic interaction, intelligibility is undoubtedly a two-way street – that is, it’s not only the speaker’s responsibility to make him/herself understood to others, but the listener also has the task of understanding.   In the classroom, we can work on both sides.  In other words, we can help develop learners’ productive and receptive competence.

In the multilingual classroom, however, this situation gets a bit complicated.

The problem

In my experience, if you have a classroom full of learners from different L1 (first language) backgrounds, they sometimes experience difficulties making their pronunciation intelligible to each other.

One problem lies with the listeners: they’re often unfamiliar with the pronunciation of English speakers from backgrounds other than their own.  Another problem lies with the speakers (and the teacher): how to address the particular difficulties of a student from an L1 background with which the teacher is unfamiliar?  Many English teachers I know speak another language, maybe even two other languages.  But it’s rare for them to be well-acquainted with ten different L1s – and yet this is just the situation they may face in the multilingual classroom.

The multilingual classroom is a ready-made ELF environment, but teachers may struggle to exploit this opportunity due to a lack of detailed background knowledge or suitable reference material that makes it reasonably quick and easy* to work out what to prioritise in a class full of learners from different L1 backgrounds.

The solution

This is the problem I set out to solve with my MA research, which I completed a few months ago.  I created a grid which featured details of the typical areas of pronunciation difficulty of 12 different L1 backgrounds, contrasted against the LFC.

The idea is simple:

  • find the L1s represented in your class on the grid
  • highlight those columns (or black out the others)
  • look across the selected columns to see where your students’ areas of likely difficulty overlap
  • this will quickly give you a shortlist of ELF pronunciation priorities to work on in class
  • you can decide how to rank the priorities according to how many of the students will have a particular point in common

The boxes on the grid are colour-coded (in greyscale) to show you how big a problem a particular area is likely to be.  For example:

Click to enlarge image

This means that aspirating this sound is generally difficult for Italian speakers.

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This means producing this sound is not usually problematic for Italian speakers (they just have trouble aspirating it, as is sometimes necessary in English).

Click to enlarge image

This means this sound is generally problematic for Spanish speakers, and ESPECIALLY (1) when it occurs between vowels and (2) the contrast with /v/.

Click to enlarge image

This means that producing this sound is not generally a problem for Spanish speakers, but that it can be difficult to pronounce accurately between vowels.


The 12 L1 backgrounds represented in the full grid are: Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, Arabic, German, Polish, Chinese, Turkish and Hungarian.  (A list of primary sources on which the information in the grid was based is given below.)

An example in practice

Imagine I had 6 students in my class, whose first languages were French, Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese and Hungarian.

1. First I’d black out the other columns on the grid:

Click to enlarge image

(click to enlarge)

2. Then I’d look at the extent to which these learners are likely to have similar difficulties, and I’d work out my priorities.

When I do this, I tend to follow a ‘majority rules’ syllabus:

  • if the same area of likely difficulty occurs in 5-6 columns, we’ll definitely cover it in class
  • if something shows up in 3-4 columns, we’ll cover it in class but perhaps work on it less frequently, or more briefly, with an optional homework task for extra practice
  • if something shows up in only 1 or 2 columns, I’ll just keep an eye on the learners from those backgrounds during lessons and if it’s clearly a problem for them, I’ll aim to cover it in correction and speak to them individually about it so they can monitor their own speech.  (Of course, this is always the trouble with teaching groups – you just can’t cover absolutely every individual need in class time.  But you can prioritise according to common areas of need.)

My annotated grid might look like something like this (top priorities circled in red, medium priorities in orange, low priorities in blue):

Click to enlarge image

(click to enlarge)

3. Written out separately, this would be the resultant syllabus.

(I’ve included examples to illustrate features wherever I’ve used phonemic script which may not show up on some computers.)

High priorities (common to all, or almost all, students):

  • aspirated /p/
  • the velar nasal consonant /ŋ/ (as in ‘sing‘)
  • consonant clusters at the ends of words
  • long-short vowel contrasts (e.g. /iː/ and /ɪ/ in ‘sheep’ and ‘ship’)
  • /ɜː/ (as in ‘bird’)
  • shortening long vowels before unvoiced consonants (e.g. the vowel in ‘back’ is a bit shorter than the one in ‘bag’)
  • word grouping and placement of nuclear stress

Medium priorities (common to about half the class):

  • aspirated /t/ as in
  • aspirated /k/
  • /s/
  • /z/
  • /h/
  • /w/
  • /ʒ/ (as in ‘vision’)
  • /tʃ/ (as in ‘chin’)
  • /dʒ/ (as in ‘gin’)
  • consonants at the ends of words

Low priorities (specific to only a couple of students):

  • /p/ in general (specific to Arabic learner)
  • /b/ (Arabic & Chinese)
  • /t/ (French & Portuguese, and only in some contexts)
  • /d/ (Chinese & Portuguese, and for the latter only in some contexts)
  • /k/ (Arabic)
  • /g/ (Arabic & Chinese)
  • /f/ (some Chinese speakers)
  • /v/ (Arabic & Chinese)
  • /ʃ/ (as in ‘shoe’) (Chinese)
  • /m/ (French & Portuguese, and only in some contexts)
  • /n/ (Portuguese in some contexts & Chinese for some speakers)
  • /r/ (Portuguese & Chinese, for some speakers only)
  • /l/ (Chinese & Portuguese, and for the latter only in some contexts)
  • /j/ (Portuguese, and only in some contexts)
  • consonant clusters at the start of words (Chinese & Hungarian, and for the latter only in some contexts)

Great! Can I have a copy of that grid?

You can download the full grid here and the accompanying teacher’s notes here.  The files are in PDF format.  You can either view it on-screen or print it out – but note, it’s formatted for printing on A3 size paper (otherwise it’d be too small to read!).

Some more information about the LFC grid, if you’re interested

  • Academic literature on phonology and the Lingua Franca Core uses a lot of terminology which many teachers are not familiar with.  The terms in this LFC grid have therefore been standardised, simplified & defined to make it more accessible to teachers without extensive phonology training (e.g. ‘paragoge’ and ‘epenthesis’ have been avoided in favour of ‘adding short vowel sounds’; ‘tense’ and ‘lax’ vowels have been called ‘long/short vowels’, though I acknowledge the somewhat problematic/ imprecise nature of this substitution).
  • The information in the grid has been collated from many sources, some of which take ELF as their starting point and some of which don’t, some of which refer to particular varieties of an L1 (e.g. Brazilian Portuguese) and some of which refer to different varieties (e.g. European Portuguese).  Including the greyscale code allows the grid to be a bit flexible vis à vis what different authors have written.
  • Nuclear stress is an area which doesn’t receive a lot of attention in ELT training courses. We’ve covered this in more detail in another blog post.  For now, if you want to learn more, see Jenkins (2000:154-5) for more thorough discussion.
  • I originally made this grid as part of my MA research and piloted it at my own school.  So the 12 L1s included reflect the most common L1 backgrounds represented in classrooms at my school.  In future, I hope to extend the grid to include more L1s.

(*Earlier I said that any resource for teachers wishing to devise an LFC-based pronunciation syllabus needed to be reasonably quick and easy to use.  I’m aware of Learner English – but this is based on native-speaker norms, so a lot of the guidance is irrelevant for ELF purposes.  An excellent ELF-oriented resource for teaching pronunciation is Robin Walker‘s book, but it’s still a book, and takes some time to go through if you’re looking for what difficulties your students will have in common across several L1 backgrounds.  Sadly, most teachers I know don’t dedicate that much time to course planning, let alone pronunciation syllabus planning.  Hence, the grid format adopted here.)

Bibliography of sources used in compiling the grid

Baker, A. (1982). Introducing English pronunciation: A teacher’s guide to ‘Tree or three?’ and ‘Ship or sheep?’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kallestinova, E. (2009). ‘Voice and aspiration of stops in Turkish’, Folia Linguistica, Vol. 38, Issue 1-2, pp. 117-144.

Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011). English phonology and pronunciation teaching. London: Continuum.

Siptár, P. & M. Törkenczy (2000). The phonology of Hungarian. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swan, M. & B. Smith (eds.) (2001). Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. (2nd edn.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (VARIOUS CHAPTERS)

Varga, L. (1975). ‘A contrastive analysis of English and Hungarian sentence prosody’. Working papers of the Hungarian-English Contrastive Linguistics Project.  Published by the Linguistics Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Walker, R. (2001). ‘Pronunciation for international intelligibility’. English Teaching Professional 21.  Retrieved 22 Dec 2011 from http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/internationalintelligibility.html

Walker, R. (2001). ‘Pronunciation priorities, the Lingua Franca Core, and monolingual groups’. Speak Out! The newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. 18: 4-9.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (VARIOUS SECTIONS)

Zhang, F. & P. Yin (2009). ‘A study of pronunciation problems of English learners in China’. Asian Social Science, Vol. 5, No. 6, pp. 141-146.

Zoghbor, W. (2009). ‘The implications of the LFC for the Arab context’. Speak Out! The newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. 41: 25-29.


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