Exploring languages and cultures
Exploring languages and cultures

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Exploring languages and cultures

2.2 English as a lingua franca

We now turn to the most successful lingua franca the world has ever seen, certainly in terms of the number of speakers – English.

In the next activity, you will listen to various people who have been working together on a project. Only one of them is a native speaker of English, yet they have used English as their lingua franca throughout the project. In this sense, they are like thousands of project teams throughout the world who, at any one moment, are communicating in English in fields such as science and business.

Activity 13

Listen to Teija, Nadia and Jim talk about their experiences of working together in English. Jim is the only native speaker of the language in the group.

As you listen, make notes about the advantages and disadvantages of using English as a lingua franca from the perspectives of the non-native and native speakers on their project. Type your notes into the appropriate spaces below.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Magicc
Skip transcript: Magicc

Transcript: Magicc

Maria:
Hello. My name’s María Fernández-Toro. I work at The Open University and I’m here with three colleagues from the Magicc Project, which is a multilingual project that brings together colleagues from universities all across Europe, and the purpose of this project is to develop a clear description of what it entails to be multilingual and multicultural in higher education. So I’m here with Teija from Finland. Hello Teija.
Teija:
Hello.
Maria:
Nadia from Switzerland.
Nadia:
Hello.
Maria:
And Jim from the UK.
Jim:
Hello.
Maria:
And we are going to be discussing um our experience as part of the Magicc project team. The peculiarity of this project team is that we all speak in English, but there are very few actual native speakers of English in the group. So I wanted to ask you, the first question I wanted to ask you was um, what do you think are the advantages and the disadvantages of speaking English in the project?
Nadia:
Well I think the biggest advantage of speaking English is that everybody understands. We are approximately, except those who are natives, we are at the same level I think mostly and it’s also the language of the theories and of the or … linguistics and … [inaudible] that we are using. So that’s the biggest advantage of using English. But the disadvantage of using English is sometimes it’s tiring. So, it would be so much easier to speak some other languages than English and listening all the time because it’s not the easiest language for instance for me, so for me it’s a little bit tiring.
Maria:
Would you agree with this view of the advantages and disadvantages?
Jim:
Well, um, I have the big advantage that everybody is speaking the language which I speak as a first language. So in terms of feeling tired or not, actually it’s quite interesting to be honest there is something tiring for me or it is sometimes difficult for me to stay focused on some of the … on some of the interactions. We’re dealing with quite complex topics. Added to that is the fact that people are speaking English as an additional or second language and are not always completely um accurate, from my point of view, in the way that they’re expressing themselves. So I am having to make those kinds of adjustments in my listening and I must confess sometimes I drift off.
Nadia:
Yeah, well I would agree that it must be frustrating to listen to people who are always making imprecise er discourse and as a non-native and quite tired person [laughs] I must say that I’m very much frustrated because I cannot be precise in my … in my interventions. I cannot rely on jokes. I cannot rely on quotations that the other people or references that the other people would understand without me explaining what I mean, which would be different in my own language of course. And um the frustration is it can be on both sides. But on the good side it’s clear that if we hadn’t a lingua franca, whatever it be, we couldn’t work together. There wouldn’t be any possibility of switching languages, from languages all the time. So we need to have some kind of common understanding. It would be, but it’s quite frustrating in the long term because you never develop the kind of vocabulary you need in, I mean, you have to learn it. You don’t have the nuance. You don’t have all the special er inflection that you would like to put into your interventions or, this is difficult to … it’s difficult to speak and it’s difficult to listen.
Maria:
What does it feel in terms of your identity? Do you think it does something to your identity when you are in a group like this?
Teija:
I think it does because er I do agree with Nadia because if I were speaking Finnish or even French, I would make jokes and I would have the different kind of vocabulary and different kinds of sentences. And now I’m losing a great part of my identity with English because it’s not a very good language that I speak, though I don’t speak it very well.
Maria:
Does it work both ways?
Jim:
Yes. It’s interesting. I mean, the first thing I want to say is that I’m actually overawed by the language ability of the people in the group, that I feel very inadequate in comparison. What I mean by that is that I’m … most of the time I’m aware that people are speaking English as an additional language and how well they are doing it, you are doing it. So that’s an important thing. It kind of reminds me, when I lived in the Netherlands, where people speak English very well as well, I’d go on and I’d forget that I was in a foreign country, and suddenly they would behave in a Dutch way and I’d sort of think ‘why don’t you behave properly?’ Because I’d forgotten [laughter] that they actually weren’t English people and they were speaking in, they weren’t speaking their own language. So I think there’s a bit of that as well in the group that I can forget that people are speaking English as another language. But a large part of the time I’m very overawed really at the ability which people are showing. And I feel somewhat diminished as well, so my identity feels reduced as well in some way.
Nadia:
I’d like to add that one thing which is really difficult on the long term is that it takes so much time to say the same thing. I mean if I had to explain, well I am working in software design, so we had a software design group today and I had to explain slowly each step because it’s not natural for me to do it in English. I do it in French usually. So it does take so much more time. It’s really difficult for the other people because they could go quickly in the same work. So, and if you add all this time lapse that er everybody is taking to explain things then it doubles the time you need to do the same task which is, well it’s better than not doing the task at all, but sometimes you just say, if we could just spend one sentence and one minute to explain what we need and that’s it because it would take no more than one minute if I had to tell it in French.
End transcript: Magicc
Magicc
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1

Advantages of using English as a lingua franca on the project:

(a) from the non-native speaker perspective

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(b) from the native speaker perspective

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2

Disadvantages of using English as a lingua franca on the project:

(a) from the non-native speaker perspective

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(b) from the native speaker perspective

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Answer

Given that some sort of shared language needs to be used by the participants in this project, the central advantage of English as a lingua franca, from the non-native speaker perspective, is that it is the language of the domains they are discussing. There are, however, three disadvantages mentioned from a non-native viewpoint, disadvantages that could be applicable to any language in which a speaker does not have native-like fluency: it can be tiring, requiring high concentration levels when speaking and listening; there may be a sense of reduced personality in that it is difficult to do justice to one’s ideas or use humour in the same way in a second language; finally, it is time-consuming.

From the native speaker perspective, the principal advantage is that of working in one’s own first language. Nevertheless, there may also be disadvantages: as for the non-native speakers, it may be tiring, due to the high level of concentration required when listening to non-native speakers, and Jim also mentions his feeling of inadequacy and being overawed by others’ linguistic abilities.

The discussion seems to portray the use of English in a rather negative light. Although its practical advantages are acknowledged in passing, the psychological difficulties of operating in a lingua franca are emphasised, along with the physical strain of maintaining the concentration levels required for successful interaction. The next part of the discussion strikes a more upbeat tone.

Activity 14

As you listen to the next conversation, make notes on the liberating and constraining aspects of speaking English as a lingua franca. Then type your answer into the box below.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Magicc Project
Skip transcript: Magicc Project

Transcript: Magicc Project

Jim:
I’ve been sort of told this so often in the different places I’ve worked that really English is not the language of England any more or America or United States. It’s a language which has been appropriated by different groups, different countries around the world. So, I kind of think of it in those ways really now, I think.
Nadia:
Quite generous of you …
Teija:
… Actually, actually it means that we are stealing your language. I do …

[interposing voices and laughter]

Jim:
… I still have it.
Teija:
You still have it, but I do agree with Nadia because it’s wonderful to have er a mother tongue like Finnish. No one is understanding and er it’s, actually, I think it’s a good thing and at the same time I can steal your language and use it when I need it …
Jim:
… This was the experience that I got in the Netherlands that um the Dutch people could speak English very well and so I worked in the banks there teaching language in banks, and er, teaching English in banks and if they had English in, er visiting employees the whole of the organisation would um the whole of the meeting would be carried out in English. All the Dutch people would speak in English for one English person and sometimes I did used to think to myself, and Dutch people used to say it, they felt rather proud of the fact that they could do that and that we couldn’t learn their language. So I was determined to learn their language.

[laughter]

Nadia:
There’s one more issue I would like to point out and this has to um something to say with the development of … the scientific language and I find it quite interesting that English is the scientific community language. But on the other hand as a French speaker or German speaker um I resent the fact that the language is, our language, is not going to evolve in a scientific language. And it’s almost difficult for me to make a presentation in French in my research topics because I’ve been spending years and years reading and writing in English and so if I have to explain these things in French now I don’t have the, I mean, I don’t have the proper flow, the proper rhythm and the academic language as it should be used by an academic. So this is one other aspect. It’s not directly an effect of what we’ve been doing in this project, but it’s on the long term it’s like kind of cutting the development of the other languages that we use English so frequently in the scientific circles.
Jim:
It reminds me of an experience from the Netherlands. It’s not from our project now that we’re working on, but I remember working with a group of university lecturers who were learning English for lecturing purposes and there was an Austrian er woman in the group. She had moved from Austria to the Netherlands and she had … and she had learned Dutch and now she was in an English language class. And she actually started crying in the middle of the class because in the course of our discussion, because we were discussing language, she suddenly said, ‘I don’t speak English properly. I don’t speak Dutch properly and I don’t speak my own language, German, properly any more,’ and it was really distressing for her.
Nadia:
It can be. I can understand that.
End transcript: Magicc Project
Magicc Project
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Answer

Jim talks of how English is no longer the property of British or American native speakers but is being exploited by a variety of different groups and nations. Teija follows this up by mentioning how being able to draw upon the resources of English while also having a first language which others do not understand is a form of liberation. Her words are reminiscent of a vision expressed by Robert Phillipson, a British linguist who sees English as an ‘additive’ resource which speakers can exploit for particular purposes without suffering a ‘subtractive’ effect on their own language (Phillipson, 2009).

However, the drawback of this notion of English as an additive resource is expressed by Nadia who resents the fact that she cannot communicate effectively in her native tongue about her scientific field of expertise. This is because English is the default language of science. If particular fields are predominantly discussed and written about in English, the danger of speakers of other languages experiencing what Phillipson describes as ‘dispossession’ seems to be very real. Jim’s anecdote about the Austrian woman confirms this danger. She suddenly had the sensation of being linguistically dispossessed because exposure to Dutch and English at different stages in her life left her feeling that she had mastery of none of her languages, not even her first language, German.

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