ELF10 report: ELF, multilingualism, and non-hegemonic accents of English

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This is one of a series of short guest posts written by researchers who presented their work at the 10th annual ELF conference in June 2017.

The following post was contributed by Juliana Souza da Silva and summarises her ELF10 presentation with Sávio Siqueira. You can read a short biography of Juliana at the end of this post. And click here to read more about the work Juliana and Sávio do within the ELF Brasil research team.


ELF, multilingualism, and non-hegemonic accents of English

Once we understand that Bilingual English Speakers (henceforth BESs[1]) represent 80% of the total number of English users (Crystal 2003), we can estimate that most of ELF interactions are BES-BES, which, with at least 2 interlocutors, are going to feature a minimum of 3 languages: one first language of each speaker and, then, English. Although languages are theoretically named and delimited for political and didactic reasons (Irvine and Gal 2000), the actual relationship among them is fluid and in constant change. Such hybridity, inherent to human languages, has been unprecedentedly increased by the use of the internet, through which international linguistic encounters have become faster, cheaper and, consequently, exponentially more common.

Considering the fact ELF conversations must include at least one BES, it becomes clear that ELF itself is intrinsically multilingual (Jenkins 2015). It does not mean that ELF interactions always happen smoothly, without any prejudice or conflicts. Languages are social acts. Therefore, human communication of any kind tends to reveal how we relate to ourselves and to others, and those relationships may be just as harmonious as they can be conflictive. And nothing has the power to trigger prejudice like a marked[2] accent.

That is why, to illustrate some of the complexity that characterize ELF-related multilingual issues, we revisited part of the data in Souza da Silva’s (2016) MA thesis, which was an international attitude study on Brazilian accents of English. Here I will only pinpoint the discussion topics developed in the article, where the detailed analysis of the data can be found, in order to explore the influence multilingualism may have on someone’s attitude towards non-hegemonic accents of English. We analyzed from two opposite perspectives how someone’s multilingual background (familiarity with other languages or accents) may affect intelligibility for the interlocutors.

At first, it is common sense that the longer one has contact with an accent the better they are expected to understand it. However, this equation involves more than the ability to fine tune the listener’s ears to a set of sound patterns. It involves real people and their representation of themselves and their perception of others. Therefore, it is personal. And taking those variables into consideration makes the scenario of multilingual interactions much more complex than one might have imagined.

In order to reflect on linguistic competence in the opinion of the non-specialist (though not exclusively) one needs to remember that the ‘how’, the ‘where’, and the ‘through whom’ someone first got in contact with a certain variety/dialect has an important role in the shaping of his or her perception of its mastery. For instance, if he/she learned English at home and uses it to accomplish daily tasks, there is a considerable chance linguistic competence is more closely related to intelligibility. Nevertheless, if someone learned another language for “life” and English at school as a second or foreign language, there is also a significant chance their view of competence is linked to the idea of matching the Standard variety they had as the target during their learning process.

Willingness to understand a speaker whose accent is different from the regional or prestige one(s) will strongly depend on the kind of relationship the speakers have with each other, and that encompasses the group of people to whom they are socially linked. Thus, accents can be socially advantageous or disadvantageous, which is usually measured by how similar they are to the prestige ones. Studies about the relation between intelligibility and attitude towards language variation have shown that those two factors may simultaneously affect each other.

Similarly, though, lower intelligibility might generate a more negative attitude. As pointed out by Jenkins (2000: 14), “intelligibility is not necessarily reciprocal and may be the result rather than the cause of negative social-psychological attitudes which have, themselves, reduced the receiver’s motivation to make an effort to understand”. Niedzielski’s (1999) analysis shows that when the geographical origin of the speaker was provided, the listeners changed their answer about how well they could understand the prompts. The knowledge of those expectations themselves is an important step towards addressing language discrimination and educating the general public, teachers and linguists included (Jenkins 2007).

First and foremost, we need to contemplate the possibility of such familiarity with an accent not be a friendly case. Although meaning is negotiated online (Hua 2015), it does not usually happen without some degree of bias. Since for negotiation to take place there must be willingness of both interlocutors, its process depends heavily on the friendliness attached to the image of the group represented through that accent. That means familiarity with accents comes in handy if the interpretative party (the listener) of the interaction has a positive attitude towards that accent, but it might also work in the opposite direction.

Although we have focused our reflections on the implications of familiarity to intelligibility, willingness to accommodate to others is not vulnerable only to social harmony between the groups represented. Alternatively, one may become communicatively cooperative simply because there is a task to be fulfilled (for his/her own benefit) that depends on the success of that linguistic interaction, as it is presented by Cogo (2016) when discussing Business English as a Lingua Franca (BELF).

Those variables are the reason why studying attitudes towards language variation is a valid methodology to tackle ideologies that feed prejudice against minorities guised as linguistic prejudice (Garret 2010). Although not all communication hindrance is rooted in negative attitudes, that aspect plays an important role in the composition of language based interactions. Those investigations are also especially relevant to ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) studies as they reveal how expectations translate into evaluation of speakers, which might jeopardize comprehension.

[1] BESs stands for Bilingual English speakers and MESs for Monolingual English Speakers. Those terms were proposed by Jenkins (2000) to avoid the derogatory and inaccurate options Native Speakers and Non-Native Speakers.

[2] A marked accent is one that differs from the one the listener is used to, usually linked to a more prestigious variety of the language.

References

Cogo, A. (2015) ‘They all take the risk and make the effort’: Intercultural Accommodation and Multilingualism in a BELF Community of Practice. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 4 (1): 365-383.

Crystal, D. (2003) English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garret, P. (2010) Attitude to Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hua, Z. (2015) Negotiation as the way of engagement in intercultural and lingua franca communication: frames of reference and interculturality. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. 4 (1): 63-90.

Irvine, J. T. and Gal, S. (2000) Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation. In: P.V. Kroskity. (Ed.) Regimes of Language: ideologies, politics, and identities. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press: 35-84.

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.

Jenkins, J. (2015) Repositioning English and multilingualism in English as a Lingua Franca. Englishes in Practice, 2 (3): 49-85.

Niedzielski, N. A. (1999) The effect of social information on the perception of sociolinguistic variables. Journal of Social Psychology (Special Edition), 18(1):62-85.

Souza da Silva, J. (2016) Brazilian accents of English: an international attitude study. MA Thesis. Salvador: Bahia Federal University.

About the author: Juliana Souza da Silva

Juliana Souza da Silva holds a Master’s degree from the Language and Culture Post-Graduation Programme at Bahia Federal University (UFBA). She also did her B.A. in English teaching at the same university. In her undergraduate and MA years, she conducted research on international attitudes towards Brazilian accents of English and their intelligibility, as well as possible ideological and pedagogical implications related to subject. As of July 2017, she is about to start her PhD studies on strategies for intelligibility used by Brazilian speakers of English in multilingual interactions under the supervision of Alessia Cogo at Goldsmiths University of London.

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