English as an International Language in the innovative contemporary language classroom

“There are many things to love about this post by Luís Guerra: it is informative; it has depth and breadth in scope; it brings together several important issues about the English language in our current times in a concise and clear manner. Overall it leaves us (at least that’s the impact caused on me) with a sense of ‘I’m so proud of my English’ irrespective of where you live, where you come from, and how – and what for – you use this language. While reading this post I was also reminded of some of the reasons why I like the English language so much, and why this language has become my professional means and end. I hope this post triggers some positive reactions on you too!”

Denise Santos
Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

If we sought to find a word that could best describe the forms and functions of the English language in today’s global world, I believe this word could be ‘diversity’. Although the same may be said of other international languages such as Spanish, French, or Portuguese, which are used in a wide array of countries all over the world, representing a great diversity of norms and varieties, what sets the English language apart is its multiple contexts of language use and users. In essence, such distinctive features of English are due to its role as the world’s lingua franca.

Since the mid-20th century, applied linguists have proposed different models and descriptions of the international spread of the English language. Some of these models attempted to distinguish the groups of users of the language—those who speak English as a native language (ENL), as a second language (ESL) or as a foreign language (EFL), while others focused either on the historical and geographical contexts of language use—see Kachru’s (1988) three-circle model of English, or on the different regional standard and non-standard varieties of the language, oftentimes placing American English and British English in a central position.

At the turn of the century, other models were proposed which focused more on the uses and users of international English, emphasizing the features of English which are common to all native and non-native varieties that make up the core of the international uses of English, that is, which are comprehensible to most native and competent non-native users (Modiano 1999a, 1999b). By prioritizing the successful users of English and the international scope of the diverse contexts of language use, such models also challenge the traditional perception of the dominant role of the native speaker. Instead of placing the native speaker and the native varieties at the center of most descriptions of the spread of English, more recent approaches have attempted to incorporate the diversity of contexts of language use and users’ competence, as well as the whole range of native and non-native varieties and norms.

The underlying concepts within these approaches are the complementary paradigms of World Englishes (WE), English as an International Language (EIL) and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). Put simply, while these perspectives may share similar perceptions of the current role of English all over the world, the WE paradigm emphasizes the emergence of indigenized or localized varieties which have developed in territories previously influenced by the United States or the United Kingdom. The EIL paradigm, on the other hand, stresses the roles of English for global communication among native speakers as well as speakers of English as a second or foreign language. Similarly, the ELF paradigm reckons the significant role of the non-native speaker in these multicultural contexts of language use as it underlines the sheer number of these users in present-day multilingual/multicultural communicative interactions in English.

Once there seems to be a consensus among applied linguists regarding the global scope and influence of the English language, it becomes imperative to reassess the pedagogy of English in the language classroom.

Teaching and learning English as an international language: reshaping the language classroom

Several studies have provided clear evidence of both teachers’ and learners’ awareness of the role of English as an international language of communication. Moreover, they also acknowledge that these communicative contexts primarily involve speakers of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds who make use of English as a lingua franca. However, teaching practices do not seem to have fully incorporated these unequivocal perceptions of current language uses outside the classroom.

One of the most traditional strongholds of language teaching is the representation of the native speaker as the main learning target as far as language competence is concerned. Alternatively, the EIL/ELF perspectives call attention to a move from native competence to intelligibility and comprehensibility as realistic and effective learning goals, challenging the so-called superiority of the native speaker. In international communicative contexts involving speakers of different first languages using English as a lingua franca, native speakers are not competent users of EIL when they employ regional features or accents that are incomprehensible or unintelligible to the other native or non-native interlocutors. So, challenging the nativeness paradigm throws the spotlight on language expertise and the binary division between native and non-native speakers becomes dynamic and fluid.

Another major consequence to the language classroom of the perception of English as an international lingua franca is that the central position of native varieties and cultures in language teaching should be reassessed. Several studies have shown that the diversity of English varieties and native and non-native cultures is underrepresented in English Language Teaching (ELT) textbooks. In other words, textbooks continue to depict native varieties and cultures (mainly the US and the UK), with little or no references to or descriptions of standard and non-standard varieties and cultures of native and non-native speakers all over the world, failing to provide students with instances of out-of-the-classroom communicative experiences. Such practices perpetuate the idea that learners should only be exposed to the norms of Standard English—British English (BrE) or American English (AmE)—and the ‘standard’ pronunciation found in British and American dictionaries, Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA).

A similar perception may be found among teachers who do not want their students to make mistakes by reading or listening to non-standard features of non-native speakers, choosing to provide materials and lessons which contain references to and descriptions of native varieties and cultures. However, what might be missing in this point of view is the distinction between receptive and productive skills. On the one hand, it is somewhat consensual that the primary aim of language teaching is to develop learners’ communicative competence. However, when developing learner’s oral and written production skills, teachers should consider their students’ competence and ability to produce comprehensible and intelligible language rather than focus solely on the imitation or reproduction of native speakers’ discourse, a goal that is often unattainable in language teaching. On the other hand, developing students’ receptive skills should incorporate the reality of the use of English as a lingua franca in international contexts comprising speakers of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

At the turn of the century, several linguists had already pointed out the evolving trends in ELT which considered the necessary pedagogical effects of the global spread of English. Gnutzmann (1999: 167) suggested that English language classes should increase students’ linguistic awareness, by covering topics of “linguistic variation and varieties of many types: national, regional, social, functional, international”. More specifically, he added that English classes should aim at the following: 

(a) demonstrate the interdependent relationship between language, linguistic varieties and culture in national, international and global settings;

(b) illustrate the linguistic, cultural and intercultural diversity of English;

(c) provide theoretical insights into the description of linguistic varieties;

(d) help students to become aware of some systematic phonetic, lexical and grammatical differences between varieties;

(e) study and exemplify sociolinguistic variables.

However, teachers who believe their learners would surely gain from being exposed to a large number of varieties and accents of English may not find these topics in current ELT textbooks as most of them continue to develop their lessons based upon the standards and norms of BrE and/or AmE. As a result, teachers need to produce or adapt their own materials with useful and practical examples of real English language use among all sorts of speakers, native as well as non-native. A range of free and easy to access ‘real-life’ resources are available for teachers, such as internet sources (audio-visual materials such as songs, TV series, movies), online archives, Web 2.0 tools and digital media. Fulfilling some of the aims proposed by Gnutzmann above, Maley & Peachey (2017) have recently published a collection of chapters offering practical and creative language teaching ideas based on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals such as no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, climate action, among others.

In essence, Standard English will continue to be taught. Actually, what happens in the EFL classroom is that teachers have taught, and will continue to teach, the variety (or varieties) they are familiar with: BrE, AmE, a mixture of both, and most likely influenced by their first language. Yet, language teaching and learning has never been based on fixed and stable concepts and perspectives. It changes as societies and values change, attempting to provide the most favorable conditions for successful learning. Therefore, adapting to the international functions and forms of the English language and the linguistic and cultural contexts of use and interaction among multicultural and multilingual speakers should be a significant feature of the language classroom.

References:

Gnutzmann, C. (1999). ‘English as a global language: Perspectives for English language teaching and for teacher education in Germany’, in C. Gnutzmann (ed.) Teaching and learning English as a Global Language. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag, pp. 157-169.

Kachru, B.B. (1985). ‘Standard, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle’, in R. Quirk and H. Widdowson (eds.) English in the World: Teaching and Learning the Language and Literatures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 11-30.

Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (2017). Integrating global issues in the Creative English language classroom: With reference to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. London: British Council. https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/PUB_29200_Creativity_UN_SDG_v4S_WEB.pdf

Modiano, M. (1999a). ‘International English in the global village’, English Today 15/2: 22-34.

Modiano, M. (1999b). ‘Standard English(es) and educational practices for the world’ lingua franca’, English Today 15/4: 3-13.

Luis Guerra holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics/English Language Teaching from Warwick University, UK, and has taught English and Applied Linguistics in Brazil, US, UK, Spain and Portugal. He is a Professor of English Language and Linguistics/Applied Linguistics at the Department of Linguistics and Literatures, Director of the Language Centre of the School of Social Sciences, at the University of Evora, Portugal and researcher at ULICES – University of Lisbon Centre for English Studies. His research interests are ELF/EIL, World Englishes, ELF-based teaching methodology, and intercultural communication. He was the national coordinator of the ERASMUS+ ILTERG – International Language Teacher Education Research Group Project and is currently a member of the ENRICH – English as a Lingua Franca Practices for Inclusive Multilingual Classrooms Project.

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