World Englishes in ELT: Mounting Evidence from the Cutting Edge

In previous a previous entry, I outlined why I support linguistic variation in English language teaching (ELT). The case that I made was predicated on embracing linguistic variation and helping students to strengthen their strategic competence to better take advantage of their varied linguistic repertoires. Tomlinson (2016), in his discussion of materials development, uses the English as a lingua franca (ELF) framework (see Jenkins, 2000, 2012; Pennycook, 2014) to argue for new directions in materials development that also embrace local and regional variation in the English language. He focuses this argument on materials for use in classrooms where students will likely engage in international communication.

Now, I’ll readily admit that I disagree with Jenkins—the veritable maven of ELF—on certain ideological and theoretical grounds. But, Tomlinson (2016) uses the ELF framework to great success to advocate for new directions in materials creation that address the fact that many students who are currently engaged in English language learning may never need, nor want to, communicate with so-called native speakers (p. 53-54). From this, he develops nine ways that materials development needs to be revisited to better meet the needs of these students. Four of his areas of concern provide a strong practical argument for the further deployment of the world Englishes paradigm in ELT. They are: (1) the use of authentic texts; (2) the use of spoken interactions between non-native speakers; (3) the use of pragmatic awareness tasks; and (4) the use of texts written by non-native speakers for a global audience.

Authentic Texts

Users of English as a Lingua Franca need to experience language as it is actually used in the real world, not as it is practised in the idealised world of the typical coursebook dialogue (Tomlinson, 2016, p. 56).

Frankly, I couldn’t agree more with Tomlinson (2016). We do our students no favors when we limit them to carefully constructed example texts that have been sterilized of the natural linguistic variation that occurs between speakers of different varieties of English. Mainly, we rob them of a crucial moment to practice and to gain in intercultural and strategic competence. This is one place where the world Englishes paradigm may be helpful. Through the careful collection and cataloging of examples of authentic texts, world Englishes literature provides us with ripe grounds from which to cull examples for students and to better discuss with them—in research grounded ways—how linguistic variation is realized and under what circumstances it might be eschewed by the multilingual communicator. We can then use a version of the analysis carried out by world Englishes scholars to help our students become more consciously aware of their own linguistic practices and how they can fit those practices to the communicative demands of the situation that they are facing. We can also use authentic texts to better discuss the influences of local and foreign rhetorical expectations and how they impact shaping a message.

Spoken Communication between Non-native Speakers

Tomlinson (2016) correctly points out that many students learning English in the outer and expanding circles may never communicate with native speakers. So, having them just parrot back dialogues based solely on native speaker norms is doing them a disservice (p. 59). Setting aside the fact that most idealized dialogues in textbooks ignore actual usage, Tomlinson is again on to something here. There’s no reason, outside of standardized testing and assessment, that only examples of native-to-native speaker interaction should be held up as the model. Not only does this not provide the learners with a variety of input, but it also sends the tacit signal to the student that the only proper English is that of the native speaker. This to me casts the learner as perpetually being in a power-under position. That is, no matter how proficient they become, they’ll never be a native speaker…they can only hope to be native-like. So, close, but so far away.

By modeling non-native-to-non-native interaction we not only provide students with a more realistic representation of their possible communicative spaces, but we also disabuse them of this tacit signal of being “less than.” Additionally, and this is important, we give them exposure to accented English. This is important because it helps them build essential listening skills that will aid them in future interactions. As a learner of Chinese as a second language, I can usually tell which Chinese speakers I interact with are used to hearing accented Chinese—I’m much more successful in communicating with them. Others, just can’t hear past my horrible American accent.

Pragmatic Awareness Tasks

This is an area where I had hope Tomlinson (2016) would have dug deeper, though I understand how much important work he was already doing in a relatively short chapter. I wish he had spent more time thinking about written communication, but that’s because I am primarily teaching writing-intensive courses. It’s also an area where both world Englishes and intercultural rhetoric (see Connor, 2011) could be particularly useful.

For example, carrying out rhetorical analysis of authentic world Englishes texts—specifically those written by the same author for different purposes—can lay bare for students how the rhetorical situation and the highly localized rhetorical expectations of a given nation or region interact to constrain linguistic choice. For example, there is more linguistic freedom in computer-mediate communication (CMC) interactions with peers and colleagues, but far less linguistic freedom when writing a white paper to brief your bosses on a current project. Likewise, there is likely less willingness to tolerate linguistic variation in client-to-business CMC interactions.

Non-native Produces Texts Written for a Global Audience

In this regard, I can think of one immediate way that world Englishes can help fulfill this need. World Englishes can contribute here through the use of contact literatures in the language classroom. Contact literatures are those literatures that have been produced by speakers of outer or expanding circle varieties of English about national contexts and experiences in those circles. Contact literatures represent a unique genre of creative fiction and non-fiction that can serve as models for learners by showing how others have deployed their multilingual, multilectal resources to engage in a creative and communicative act. This can lead to discussions of how other varieties of English may enable a writer to better capture and reflect local experiences in ways that some International, Global, or other native-speaker driven model of English never could.

Tomlinson (2016) was a cutting-edge piece that dug into what needs to be addressed in materials creation in modern ELT. My response to Tomlinson is that the world Englishes paradigm provides us with a real path forward to address some of his concerns. Now, it’s just a matter of developing the materials and testing them in classes. An Internet-based, collaborative repository would be interesting. Maybe there’s a grant out there and a chance for some of us to collaborate…

Source Materials

Connor, U. (2011). Intercultural Rhetoric in the Writing Classroom. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2012). English as a lingua franca from the classroom to the classroom. ELT Journal, 66, 486-494

Pennycook, A. (2014). The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London: Routledge.

Tomlinson, B. (2016). Current issues in the development of materials for learners of English as an international language (EIL). In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 53-67). New York: Springer

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