ELF7 soundbites: Transient communities


ELF7logoThis is the fifth and final post in a series of mini-posts featuring “soundbites” from the 7th Annual Conference of English as a Lingua Franca, held from 4-6 September 2014 in Athens, Greece.

The aim of this series of posts is to give a flavour of the breadth of topics covered at the conference and simply to share some of the ideas, words and moments which made this year a memorable one for me.

Soundbite #5: Hartmut Haberland & Janus Mortensen

“Speech communities are typically defined with reference to a degree of shared rules for language use, as well as shared norms.  It is exactly this form of shared expression concerning language use that we cannot assume to find in transient communities – although we cannot rule it out either.”

This soundbite is a bit longer than the others in the series, so I’ve saved it till the end.  It might also need a bit more explaining, but bear with me – this talk was fascinating.  Really, there are just 2 key points to understand:

1. Traditional notions of how people use language together usually assume that those people already share some rules/norms.

To illustrate this point, let’s recap how linguists have traditionally talked about speech communities and/or communities of practice:

“Tentatively, a speech community is defined as a community sharing rules for the conduct and interpretation of speech, and rules for the interpretation of at least one linguistic variety.” (Dell Hymes, 1972:54*)

“According to Wenger (1998: 76), a [community of practice] consists of a loosely defined group of people who are mutually engaged in a particular task and who have ‘a shared repertoire of negotiable resources accumulated over time’.” (Mallinson & Childs, 2007:174)

Perhaps the second notion is more relevant for discussion of ELF, as its main difference from the first notion is that it makes linguistic practice the focus of our attention, rather than the people doing that practice.  In other words, how language is being used is considered to be more important than who the users are (broadly speaking).

Hartmut and Janus’s point was that the traditional approaches outlined above tend to assume that there is an established community of experts that a novice is initiated into; but communities which are more emergent in nature don’t really match with this assumption.

This brings us neatly to the second key point to understand from this presentation…

2. Some ELF interactions might not fit nicely into traditional notions of people using language in groups.  Such interactions may simply be too transient in nature.

Let’s take another look at the ‘how’ and the ‘who’.

If how English is being used is as a lingua franca, and if the users have only actually come together for a short time, then we can’t assume they’ll have any ‘shared rules and norms’.  They might, but they might not.

In other words, in transient communities (such as those in which English might be used as the lingua franca of the participants), there is no established community of ‘masters’ to initiate ‘apprentices’.  Any shared knowledge or norms will have to be negotiated.

What are the implications of this for learning, teaching and using English in lingua franca settings?

People using English today might find themselves in very ‘transient’ communicative settings.  And in these settings, a lot of different lingua-cultural backgrounds are being brought together–but not necessarily any shared background knowledge!

To my mind, this means that learners of English might benefit from support in tolerating ambiguity and in using communication strategies, for example to respond to others’ use of language which surprises them, or to clarify the meaning of unfamiliar expressions.

hartmut Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 21.35.36Hartmut and Janus are based at Roskilde University in Denmark, where they research English as a lingua franca, multilingualism and the linguistic landscape of international universities, among other areas.


*This quotation appeared in this conference presentation (the other was my choice to illustrate the concept of ‘communities of practice’).  Its original source is: Hymes, Dell. 1972. “Models of the interaction of language and social life.” (Revised from 1967 paper.) In Gumperz & Hymes, eds. 1972 Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. Blackwell:35-71.



One thought on “ELF7 soundbites: Transient communities

  1. Pingback: Language and empathy, Part 3: Making choices about language | Lauraahaha

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