Connect, Grow, Thrive

Understanding English as a Lingua Franca

Book Review: ETAS Journal Volume 34 Number 2 Spring 2017

Barbara Seidlhofer

Oxford University Press (2011)

244 pages

ISBN: 978-0-19-437500-9

Following the creation of VOICE (Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English), a database with samples of English non-native speaking users in different contexts, Seidlhofer publishes Understanding English as a Lingua Franca to present her insights based on years of research. The book offers not only a literary review of what has been researched on the theme of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), but also promotes a reflection on the pedagogical implications of ELF for teaching the English language.

The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter one introduces the main concepts relevant to understanding the author’s argument throughout the book. She presents her understanding of EIL (English as an International Language) and ELF. Whereas EIL is “usually understood as covering uses of English” (p. 3), i.e. as a local and intranational communication, ELF is a “contact language” (p. 3) between persons who do not share a common native tongue, and for whom English is the chosen foreign language of communication. Defined in this way, ELF is part of the more general phenomenon of English as an international language or World Englishes.

Chapter two examines the problematic definition of ‘native speaker’. Considering the use of English as a second official language in many countries, and being the language adopted as the primary source of communication between non-natives, Seidlhofer questions whether the classification of native speakers and non-native speakers is still appropriate.

 Chapter three focuses on the contrast between the concept of Standard English and what the author calls Real English, i.e. the spoken language. Arguing that the Standard English is an ideology, Seidlhofer defends the notion that “increasing the access to corpora from lingua franca may modify the traditional role of the native speaker and reduce the sense of inferiority felt by many non-native speakers” (p. 59).

Chapter four looks at the varieties of English, observed and documented by sociolinguists. In this chapter, Seidlhofer concludes her argument stating that “English has spread because it has been appropriated to serve the social and communicative needs of communities” (p. 91). Therefore, it is necessary to reconsider certain concepts and assumptions, especially regarding the notions of standard language and the native-speaker.

Chapters five to seven summarize sociolinguistics dichotomies, such as variety and variation; description and prescription; and conformity and non-conformity.

In her final chapter, Seidlhofer focuses on English Language Teaching (ELT) and the relevance of ELF by deconstructing the superiority of “Standard Form” (p. 46) as the only means to teach a language. According to Seidlhofer, collecting detailed accounts of ELF use (for example VOICE) illustrates that, despite the ELF variation, international interactions in English have “enough self-regulating stability” (p. 19) to be viable as an object of research. Moreover, corpus studies, she states, are necessary to counter the pervasive myth that adherence to ENL (English as a Native Language) norms is necessary for effective intercultural communication. The author argues that prescription relies not solely on the authority of language, but mainly on the security it brings to teachers.

Even though the book uses academic language and reviews a number of important researches in the field of Linguistics, it is not only aimed at researchers specialising in Socio and Applied Linguistics. Teachers who are interested in reflecting on the role of English as a global language and how it affects the teaching of the language can benefit from this reading. The main strength of Seidlhofer’s book is definitely the discussion of a topic that has been generally neglected by other researchers. Several studies have focused on describing the varieties of English the so-called World Englishes, but so far, few researches have focused on the implications of ELF to Applied Linguistics and ELT.

In conclusion, Understanding English as a Lingua Franca represents a very useful resource for those seeking to better understand the role of English in a global context. In my opinion, the author succeeds in discussing a dense topic in 244 pages, and in a well-developed and informative manner. Seidlhofer provides a realistic exposition of a controversial topic in order to raise critical awareness of what ELF actually involves. Due to the large amount of works being referenced, the book is an excellent resource about past and current trends in ELF studies. As such, it certainly provides a good bibliography for further reading. Definitely a must-have for those interested in gaining a better understanding of the current situation of English as a global language.

Carolina Tavares