ELF: Central or Atypical Second Language Acquisition?
Vivian Cook, Newcastle University  Other online papers

Draft of paper in Singleton, D., Fishman, J.A., Aronin, L. & O Laoire, M. (eds.), Current Multilingualism: A New Linguistic Dispensation (2013), Berlin: De Gruyter, 27-44, first given as a paper at AILA Essen

The past decade has echoed to the sounds of supporters of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) cheering their side on to victory. An English out of the clutches of its perfidious native speakers, an English that adapts itself willingly to the needs of its global users, none of whom speak it natively, an English with qualities as distinctive as any self-proclaimed national standard, an English for the modern world of the twenty-first century, ELF has had an immense influence on the second language (L2) teaching of English. It has also had an impact on second language acquisition (SLA) research as seen in articles such as ‘Doing not being a foreign language learner: English as a lingua franca in the workplace and (some) implications for SLA’ (Firth, 2009) and ‘Points of view and blind spots: ELF and SLA’ (Jenkins, 2006).

The present paper discusses the relationship between SLA research and ELF. It does not question the existence of ELF as an approach but raises questions about its relevance to SLA research. It applies the tools provided by two recent papers on SLA research (Cook, 2009; t.a.) to ELF to see whether the learning of a lingua franca is an unusual form of second language acquisition . First it considers what we mean by ‘language’ in the ELF context and what groups of L2 learners ELF users belong to; then it looks at the similarities and differences between typical second language acquisition and lingua franca acquisition.

1) Is ELF a language?

The word ‘language’ can have many senses, six of which are enumerated in Cook (t.a.). First how do these relate to English?

i) language as a representation system known by human beings – ‘human language’

At this level men are distinguished from apes by knowing language, whether ‘a species-unique format for cognitive representation’ (Tomasello, 2003: 13) or ‘Hoc enim uno praestamus vel maxime feris, quod conloquimur inter nos ... ’ (Cicero De Inventione, I, IV55BC) (The one thing in which we are especially superior to beasts is that we speak to each other). Like all human languages, English is an example of the unique human ability for language, hard as it may be to pin down exactly what this consists of.

ii) language as an abstract entry – ‘the English language’

The English language is also a set of rules etc independent of its speakers, laid down in grammars and dictionaries. Some languages are officially regulated by bodies such as the French Academy. English exists as an abstract idea in Popper’s Third World (Popper 1972), like the rules of golf; it is the vast abstraction captured in the 1859 page of the Cambridge Grammar of English (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002) and the Oxford English Dictionary (2009) with its 60,000 words about ‘set’. ‘The English language’ refers to this abstract form; it may be coded, written down, authorised by academies and pundits and lauded as a national treasure. No one human being knows the English language in its entirety even if what English speakers know corresponds to it in some fashion.

Debate has raged whether there is one English or many Englishes; the language spoken in Scotland has as much right by centuries of history to the name Scottish as the one spoken in England has to the name English, yet we commonly speak of Scottish English; Australian English is codified in dictionaries but still seen as English rather than Australian; Indian English, Singapore English and all the others Englishes will doubtless one day shed their chains and become distinct languages just as we don’t speak of Spanish as Spanish Latin or French as Parisian Latin.

iii) language as a set of sentences – ‘the language of Shakespeare’

English can also mean a colossal set of sentences, say the two billion words now in the Oxford English Corpus (OED, 2009) or the total writings of Shakespeare or of J.K. Rowling. English is all the things that English people have ever said. This view of language  goes back to ‘the totality of utterances that can be made in a speech-community’ (Bloomfield 1926/1957: 26). English in sense (iii) is inseparable from objective concrete data; analysing English means extracting regularities and patterns without imputing any mental reality to them, as in contemporary corpus analysis (Hunston & Francis, 2000). The purpose ‘… is to obtain a compact one‑to-one representation of the stock of utterances in the corpus’ (Harris, 1951: 366), the view that Chomsky was fighting against in Syntactic Structures (Chomsky, 1957).

iv) language as a community resource – ‘the language of English people’

English is furthermore an external social force binding together the members of a community. It is spoken by various groups of people to carry out their lives cooperatively, a shared core value (Smolicz et al, 2003). Although since the eighteenth century languages are often identified with nation states (Anderson, 2006), the communities may be pockets within the country, like Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland, or extend across many countries, like Kurdish spoken in Turkey, Iran and Iraq. English has many different roles in different countries and communities, sometimes identified with revolution as in South Africa (Biko, 1978), sometimes with a ruling elite as in the British Raj. Language is for communicating with other people in groups, leading to social/functional approaches to English like Halliday (1985).

v) language as an individual’s knowledge – ‘I know English’

Another form of English is internal to the mind, the linguistic competence known by each individual: ‘a language is a state of the faculty of language, an I‑language, in technical usage’ (Chomsky 2005: 2). English is known by the individuals who speak it. Much linguistics in every tradition has been devoted to the description of language in individual minds whether as static declarative knowledge or as dynamic procedural processes. Many linguist’s grammars aim to describe this inner mental reality, what Chomsky termed ‘descriptive adequacy’ (Chomsky, 1964), rather than the pure description of grammars as enumeration of forms in sense (ii), ‘observational adequacy’. vi) language as a form of action – ‘language is doing’

For many, English is a form of action, a tradition in European linguistics going from Malinowski  (1923) through Austin (1962), Halliday (1985) and Schegloff et al (2002) to Pekarek Doehler (2006) ‘a competence-in-action… socially situated, collaboratively established and contingent with regard to other competencies’. English is a way of doing things in a social situation, not just an abstraction of patterns or knowledge.

In terms of these definitions ‘English’ is multiply ambiguous. Cook (t.a.) relates these six senses of language to different ways of conceptualising second language acquisition, claiming that ‘SLA researchers often do not realise that they are working from different maps and exhaust their energy quarrelling over differences in basic assumptions or patiently defending them against their critics’ (Cook, t.a.). Here we will continue this thread of argument by relating the senses to ELF.

First there needs to be a clear idea of what people mean by ELF. Historically the term ‘lingua franca’ came out of contact languages employed in the eastern Mediterranean during the Byzantine period with the modern use still incorporating its earlier essence ‘a prestige language reduced to a mini-structure – for colonials’ according to Kahane (1976: 41). ELF has taken a more positive attitude, as seen in a representative handful of definitions:

- ‘a way of referring to communication in English between speakers with different first languages’ (Seidlhofer, 2005)

- ‘an additionally acquired language system which serves as a common means of communication for speakers of different first languages’ (VOICE, 2009)

- ‘the English that is used as a contact language among speakers who come from different first language and cultural backgrounds’ (Jenkins, 2004–5)

-  ‘an emerging English that exists in its own right and which is being described in its own terms rather than by comparison with ENL’ (Jenkins, 2007)

- ‘a distinct variety of English used internationally as a lingua franca in a particular region of the world’ (Saraceni, 2008)

In quotations (a) and (b) ELF is called a ‘communication’ system, in (c) a ‘language’, in (d) and (e) a type of ‘English’. Definitions (a), (b), c) refer to it being used by non-native speakers rather than native speakers, (d) implicitly so, while (e) regards it simply as ‘a distinct variety’. Quotations (b), (c), (d), (e) see it as a ‘language system’/‘English’/‘variety of English’ distinct from English/ENL (English as a Native Language). Let us then venture to call it a ‘language system related to English that is used by non-native speakers to communicate with each other’.

In terms of sense (i) of ‘language’, ELF is a human language. There may be an interesting question whether it has the normal characteristics of human language, as has been explored for second languages in general by generative SLA researchers (White, 2003), say in terms of syntax or of variation.

Does ELF qualify as a language in terms of the abstract entity of sense (ii)? In the minds of some of its proponents, there seems to be a single ideal form of ELF independent of any speakers. It has rules and words like any language and their nature is currently being established by projects such as Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE) (2009); Seidlhofer speaks of ‘a codification of ELF with a conceivable ultimate objective of making it a feasible, acceptable and respected alternative to ENL in appropriate contexts of use’ (Seidlhofer, 2001: 150). House (2003: 557) argues that LFE is already a fully fledged language: ‘ELF is neither a language for specific purposes nor a pidgin, because it is not a restricted code, but a language showing full linguistic and functional range’. While the task of sheer description is well under way in VOICE, ELF does not belong to any nation-state; it is global rather than regional.

To other researchers though, ELF is a communication system continuously being created by its users, not a language in an abstract sense so much as a set of processes; sense (ii) is irrelevant. It does differ from World Englishes under (ii). It is one thing to argue that there are many Englishes in a sense (ii) institutional and often national status; it is another to argue for a supranational language called ELF, as Berns (2006) and Saraceni (2008) have pointed out. Indeed Saraceni (2008) raises the issue of whether ELF itself has varieties, whether Chinese ELF, South American ELF, or whatever, in response to local needs and the relationship to various first languages. Meirkord (2004) also points to the lack of stability in ELF compared to World Englishes: ELF is perpetually created afresh each day rather than having a set form.

In sense (iii) ELF can clearly be construed as the set of sentences produced by non-native speakers of English communicating with each other, distinct from the sentences of monolingual native speakers addressed to each other or from those of natives and non‑natives addressed to each other. Establishing this distinctive set is a Herculean task since it potentially involves a billion users, only a small fraction of which can be tapped, from a minute range of situations, usually from those that are most accessible to researchers in some way, such as university students. As the uses of a second language are even more diverse than those of a first language, the problems of making a fairly complete or even representative description resemble those involved in compiling the Cambridge Grammar of English and the Oxford English Dictionary multiplied by a large factor: in terms of (iii), ELF is considerably bigger than English. Current attempts to describe ELF necessarily scratch the surface in terms of numbers of users and of functions.

Whether ELF acts as a community resources in sense (iv) will be debated further below. Here we can simply raise the question of whether L2 users of ELF constitute a single social community or a multitude of different communities; even virtual communities in Anderson’s sense (Anderson, 2006) have some shared characteristic that brings them together on Facebook or in reading science fiction, while the whole ELF community seems to have as little in common as say all the television viewers in the world.

ELF is clearly the mental property of individuals in sense (v): L2 users possess strategies, processes and knowledge that enables them to communicate with each other. Past discussions of this have been obscured by the veil of the monolingual native speaker;  anything that is not native-like in terms of the native speaker’s knowledge of English was thought deficient. A mental grammar or lexicon of ELF are the possession of multi-competent L2 users, not monolingual native speakers, and evade description in simpler monolingual terms. One issue is then indeed how the two language systems relate in the same multi-competent mind; it is potentially misleading to consider how they relate to a monolingual system in somebody else’s mind.

ELF is also in a sense a form of action in sense (vi) when it is conceived of as a ‘competence-in-action’, a set of procedures, strategies, etc for communicating with other people. Firth (1990) talked of ‘lingua franca encounters’ and has particularly concentrated on workplace encounters (Firth, 2009); Canagarajah (2007) states ‘LFE [Lingua Franca English] is not a product located in the mind of the speaker; it is a form of social action’.

ELF is then a funny sort of language. Compared to English, for good or for bad, it arguably does not have the sense (ii) characteristics as an abstract entity and does not serve in sense (iv) as a resource for a definable community. If these are the senses of ‘language’ we consider important, ELF does not belong in the same category as English. If on the other hand we think of language as a set of sentences in sense (iii), as knowledge in the mind in sense (v) or as communicative potential in sense (vi), ELF has similar characteristics to English, with the various quibbles detailed above.

In particular this highlights an important split in thinking about ELF, expressed by Saraceni (2008) as a difference between ‘form’ and ‘function’. In the current discussion it can be called a ‘product’ view of ELF that sees it as a set of sentences in sense (iii), potentially capable of the abstract status of sense (ii), versus a ‘process’ view of ELF that sees it as psychological processes in sense (v) and actions in sense (vi). Put in a nutshell does an ELF learner acquire a specific form like ‘When you will start practicing?’ or do they acquire word order strategies that will yield this sentence among many others?

The product view of ELF has effectively reified ELF into a distinct object, unlike the process approach. Much of the continuing debate about ELF can be seen as quarrels between people holding unacknowledged views of the nature of language. Treating ELF as a corpus in sense (iii) is not the same as treating it as a social possession in sense (iv); looking at ELF as a mental reality in sense (v) is not the same as considering it a form of action in sense (vi). Doubtless there is a birds’ eye view at which the different senses of language merge together; Cogo (2008) for instance claims ELF research ‘is documenting the ELF features/strategies that are common to all ELF users and the local features/strategies that characterise distinct ELF varieties.’ But this confuses a sense (iii) analysis of features with a sense (v) account of mental processes; internal strategies can’t be directly derived from external corpus data: we know what people produce but that does not directly tell us why or how they produce it. We need to be careful not to argue from one sense of language to another without great care; the logical connections need to be painstakingly built up rather than trying to demolish arguments based on one sense of language with arguments based on another, as happens in the tedious bickering between generativists and cognitive psychologists in SLA research. After a hundred years of debate on such dichotomies as langue/parole (de Saussure, 1915) or competence/performance (Chomsky, 1965), the issue is far from resolved – yet it underlies any extrapolation from sense (iii) ELF data to sense (v) mental knowledge or strategies.

2) what kind of L2 users are speakers of ELF?

While it is convenient to make generalisations about the L2 user or the ELF speaker, these labels cover up an immense diversity – all the differences that monolinguals have plus the complex relations between two or more languages and extra uses of second languages, in short as diverse as human beings could be. A starting point for looking at variation in L2 users is De Swaan’s hierarchy of languages (De Swaan, 2001), seen below:


The De Swaan hierarchy has four different levels. Going from the bottom up:

- peripheral languages are spoken locally. (I prefer the term ‘local languages’ as less evaluative). Finnish is an example of a language spoken in Finland and Sweden but virtually unused outside these countries except by expats. English is a local language to monolingual English native speakers living in say Cheltenham, who need nothing else.

- central languages are used within a specific area by native speakers and by others for purposes of communication between different first language (L1) groups within a  country, for example the use of English in India. English is a central language in Newcastle upon Tyne for the Chinese, Francophone African and Deaf communities.

- supercentral languages are used across national boundaries for particular purposes, say religion as in Arabic and Hebrew or martial arts as in Japanese. English is the official language of aviation, used everywhere in the world even between pilots and controllers with the same first language. While Swahili has 770 thousand native speakers mostly in Tanzania, it has 30 million lingua franca speakers spread across several African countries (Gordon, 2005 ).

- hypercentral languages are used for all purposes everywhere in the world. At the moment only English belongs to this category; in the past Latin may have had a hypercentral role, though only within Europe.

The De Swaan hierarchy has two dimensions. One is geographical spread: the further up the hierarchy the greater the coverage of countries and continents (though local languages may of course exist in pockets spread across several countries, say Welsh in Wales and Patagonia, or Kurdish in Turkey, Iraq and Iran). The other dimension is specialisation of function: the higher up the language is on the hierarchy the broader its range of functions, say the supercentral use of English in broadcasts by the Voice of America (VOA, 2009) versus the hypercentral use of English for most functions.

According to De Swaan, L2 learning typically goes up the hierarchy. Speakers of local languages need to learn central languages for everyday living, say the Toronto Japanese learning English. Speakers of central languages learn supercentral languages for particular purposes, such as British Muslims learning Arabic to understand the Koran. Anybody anywhere may learn the hypercentral language, English, whether in the Cameroon or Korea, for almost any purpose apart from those for which they use their local language. In reverse, going down the hierarchy is possible, say an English speaker who moves to Finland acquiring Finnish, but it is certainly comparatively rare, particularly in taught second language acquisition. The supercentral languages cover virtually all language teaching in England (though Hindi and Swahili are not taught to any great extent); speakers of these twelve languages in other countries undoubtedly concentrate primarily on the study of the hypercentral language English.

Clearly in a sense ELF is also going up the hierarchy. English is the hypercentral language used by anybody anywhere: Graddol (2006) sees it as an additional ‘R’ on the primary school curriculum: reading, writing, arithmetic ... and English. As it can be used for almost any function anywhere, it has the flexibility of the hypercentral language and is not confined to particular language functions, unlike say German for engineers, but covers any function for which its users may require a non-native language – not duplicating the uses they have for their local language but including additional functions. However, as we have seen, ELF is not a language in sense (ii) in which English is a language; it does not belong to a nation-state and have a codified set of rules. Nor is it a language in sense (iv) in that it does not have a community of native speakers by definition. Hence in a sense ELF is not on the De Swaan hierarchy, while English is; it seems problematic whether the English that is at the top of the De Swaan hierarchy is actually ELF.

By freeing itself from native speakers, ELF has gone off the hierarchy into a different dimension. Perhaps we need a new hierarchy of languages used for special purposes, starting with central systems like the use of Italian among foreign workers in German-speaking Switzerland, going up to supercentral systems like Arabic for religion, having at the top the hypercentral language English that covers a multitude of functions. ELF is then different from English as a World Language that teaches English for communication with native speakers – the view incorporated in the Common European Framework notion of plurilingualism (CEF, 2009) – in that it does not aspire to English at all. The term English as an Additional Language (EAL) is revealing: becoming plurilingual is adding another language to your first, not becoming a multi-competent speaker in whom both are combined, maintaining in perpetuity Weinreich’s notion of coordinate bilingualism (Weinreich, 1953).

Let us now turn to the different groups of L2 user found for English, categorised by Cook (2009) into six main groups:

a. people using an L2 within a larger community

These people are users of English as a central language , whether in England or in India. Their need may be for contact with officialdom or for social contacts with the wider English-speaking community or with L1 speakers of other L1s. These are people living or working in a country, temporarily like Polish plumbers in Ireland, or permanently like Acadian French in Louisiana, citizens or non-citizens, who happen to speak a language other than English whether a local language like Scottish Gaelic, a language from a well-established local community like Greek speakers in north London or a language that has as yet no long-established local community, say Tigré in Newcastle. Though the crucial contact is with the central language of the community and its native speakers, the relationships with other language communities through English may be as important, for instance the Bengali-speaking newsagent in Bethnal Green using English to talk to an Arabic-speaking customer – in a sense a central language as a lingua franca. Examples of other lingua franca situations going beyond English include the multilingual service situation described in Kramsch & Whiteside (2007), the use of Spanish as a ‘niche’ language in London restaurants (Block, 2006), of Italian by Spanish migrant workers in German-speaking Switzerland (Schmid, 1994) and by Vietnamese and Poles in their workplaces in Toronto (Norton, 2000) .

b. people using an L2 internationally for specific functions

The supercentral language is the classic territory of English for Special Purposes (ESP), language for carrying out a particular job, whether a Hungarian doctor treating patients in England or a Swedish airline pilot flying to Malaysia. As a supercentral language English is being used widely, but for a limited range of functions, whether by seamen, footballers, diplomats or whatever, including teachers of English in that their teaching role is as a user of English for a specialised function. Again this group of users may share a lingua franca in that it is used primarily but not exclusively by non-native speakers and it often has its rules and vocabulary laid down by a particular body like Simple English (Wikipedia, 2008) or Maritime English, set internationally by the International Maritime Organisation in 2001 in the form of Standard Maritime Communication Phrases (IMO, 2009).

c. people using an L2 globally for a wide range of functions

This global hypercentral language has become the territory of ELF, that spans the globe and knows no restrictions as to function. It is learnt as a tool in addition to the other language s the person may know; hence it is an aspect of multilingualism. People may come from any culture and may be learning it potentially to speak to people from any other culture. Arabic-speaking businessmen send emails to each other in romanised Arabic or English; hotel receptionists in Cuba speak to Korean guests in English; international sportsmen need English for TV interviews, and so on. Obviously it is difficult to make a hard and fast line between the group of special users in (b) and those (c) group users using it for a large variety of functions; to what extent are the businessmen employing a specialist or a general lingua franca?

d. people historically from a particular community (re)-acquiring its language

The concept of heritage language has become increasingly important for people seeking to establish their cultural roots. Chinese around the world are learning Mandarin; educational systems are recognising the need to honour the child’s own linguistic background, say in Singapore, something that was suspended in England in the 1980s. Perhaps English itself is of marginal relevance as a heritage language. It might perhaps apply to children with English-speaking parents educated in Welsh-speaking schools or say speakers in African countries where English has been lost. L2 users of English as a heritage language seem thin on the ground.

e. people using an L2 with spouses, siblings or friends

A unique group of L2 users that has come to light in recent years consists of pairs of people with different languages in a close relationship such as husbands and wives (Piller, 2002) or indeed grandparents and children. These people often feel that they are highly efficient at using the second language within their own situation (Piller, 2002) and are capable of passing for native speakers, though this claim cannot be verified by outsiders.

ELF is therefore the domain of international users in situations where native speakers are not involved; that is to say it is Japanese tourists going to Spain, not to England, or French doctors practising medicine through English in Guyana, not in London. The borderline between ELF users and other type (b) international users are the hypercentral use of many functions and the lack of native speakers. These are the people described in workplace studies such as Firth (2009), with the proviso that to be hypercentral rather than supercentral, their use has to be multi-functional rather than restricted to a single use.

What Cook (2009) explicitly excludes from these groups of language users are classroom students of English. These students have no current need to speak English to carry on their everyday lives – the classic so-called foreign language situation of say English in China. Their goals are all in the future when they may become users of English through travel, careers or other pursuits . In many cases they do not have any goals other than to get through the hurdles of their educational system and acquire the qualifications needed for whatever they want to do after education – a class academic instrumental motivation.

Jenkins (2002) studied how students from different backgrounds comprehend each other’s pronunciation of English, on the basis of which she has designed syllabuses for teaching pronunciation, i.e. a product-derived approach that yields a specific inventory of ELF forms for teaching. On the argument used here, this treats students as users rather than as learners; but their speech is not that of people who are using ELF for real-world purposes and they are not interacting with skilled L2 users, except inasmuch as the teacher is an example type (b). The product should not be the interim system of a student in transition in a classroom but the ELF system of the successful L2 user. What matters is that other L2 users will understand them in the world outside not whether they understand each other in the classroom.

Oddly enough ELF speakers are never apparently seen as multilingual individuals in multilingual communities. From the multi-competence perspective, ELF exists alongside the L1 in the mind, forming a complex supersystem. ELF seems to be treated in isolation, perpetuating the traditional monolingual conception of bilinguals as being two monolinguals rather than different people from monolinguals in L1 . Nor do ELF researchers engage with the multi-competence of the community (Brutt-Griffler, 2002), as Canagarajah (2007) points out: it is only their role as ELF monolinguals (to coin a phrase!) that matters not the relationship of ELF to the other languages in their community.

But suppose that ELF is not a product describable in its own terms so much as a set of skills for interacting with other people; ELF ‘... is intersubjectively constructed in each specific context of interaction’ (Canagarajah, 2007) . Describing the product is reducing it to a language in sense (iii). Instead ELF is a set of processes that people employ when they deal with other people, rather like the compensatory strategies that Poulisse (1990) and others established for overcoming the lack of a word, whether in the first language or the second, or the processes for creating a pidgin described by Bickerton (1981) and others.

Bickerton (1981) has indeed outlined an innate bioprogram for language that is only activated when a language is being used for the first time, as in say the Nicaraguan Sign Language (Senghas et al,  2004). He remarked that 'Pidginisation is second language learning with restricted input and creolisation is first language acquisition with restricted input' (Bickerton, 1977: 49). In the natural L2 situation of the workplace something akin to pidginisation must be taking place; people are drawing on the resources of their bioprogram to communicate across the gap between their two first language s. Process ELF is like pidginisation; for example the processes of dropping third person ‘s’, omitting articles and use of dummy verbs like ‘make’ and ‘put’ (Seidlhofer, 2004) resemble the typical reduction and simplification processes in pidgins (Andersen, 1983) or indeed those at work in Venetian lingua franca in the mid-eighteenth century (Kahane, 1976). In a way the product view of ELF seeks a stable creole that is no longer in process of being created by pidginisation; however, unlike a creole, it does not have native speakers or a community of its own.

The question is whether there is any virtue to lumping all these different types of user together as a single group of ELF users speaking a single English-related lingua franca. The group (a) L2 users of English as a central language are also creating their own variety of English for talking to other people within the same larger community, as are the international specialised (b) group of pilots and the like, sometimes with official sanction. Even classroom learners produce their own school lingua franca with its own jokes and convention (Rampton, 1995). Is there a supra-variety that includes all of these lingua francas? Or are they just the product of the same communicative and psychological processes applied to different circumstances? In which case the products are beside the point; what is needed is an account of the processes and ultimately an application to teaching that does not teach product but process. As Canagarajah (2007: 937) says, ‘it is … premature to say if LFE [Lingua Franca English] is teachable like other languages in a product-oriented and formalistic manner.’

3) Is ELF a form of second language acquisition?

Let us now try to put these threads together and compare the two areas of ELF and second language acquisition.

Existence of a second language

While second language acquisition implies the existence of a second language in sense (ii), ELF does not. What ELF learners are aiming at is not ‘English’ but an English-derived variety without national status or community; they aim to acquire the ability to speak to other people who know this variety, as well as to those who know English. English has native speakers; ELF does not. In so far as this affects second language acquisition, it means that, for good or for ill, there is no clear model of people who speak ELF available, and perhaps there never could be as they are as diverse as humankind.

Target user

As ELF is targeted at non-specialists, an ELF type user is potentially anyone anywhere, distinct from the specialist lingua franca users of type (b) and more general in spread than the central language type (a) users. An ELF user is seen as an international wheeler and dealer who uses ELF for practical purposes, unlike most type (a) users who are forming a multilingual multi-competent community. ELF users are not changed by the English they learn; multi-competent users are. The target for a L2 user has often been seen as a native speaker, i.e. to become a person with a definite L2 internalised such as English; more recently it has been seen as a multi-competent user with two interacting language systems, neither of which corresponds to a monolingual native speaker’s first language . ELF is effectively ignoring the issue of multilingualism.

Relationship to teaching

The proponents of ELF divide as ever into two factions. One side see ELF as the product of teaching; this is why the vast majority of school learners in the world are taught English and therefore teaching should be based on a description of ELF as product. The other see ELF as process arising in natural situations; wherever non-natives try to communicate with each other there ELF is at work. Teaching is more or less irrelevant; at best it can provide the resources for the user to employ in their communication situation. SLA research has seldom concerned itself with different situations of learning, mostly taking for granted that classroom learning under a teacher is the norm. Cook (2009) argues that classrooms learners are only one group of L2 learners, distinguished from the other groups by not being users; concentrating on them almost exclusively undervalues the many other situations of L2  learning, particularly as the classroom is the most controlled by a dominant individual, the teacher. Firth (2009) distinguishes the natural behaviour of the workplace encounter in which people’s role is not that of learners with natural social encounters in which they do see themselves as learners. All of these are second language acquisition; even people’s behaviour in the workplace is subject to constant modification from experience, a definition of learning. The classroom has always been a difficult place to study second language acquisition, partly because it is contaminated by teaching whether through the teacher, the syllabus or the coursebook. One solution has been to test classroom students on areas of language that they have never been taught, say eager/easy to please (Cook, 1973), so that they will have picked it up despite the teaching. The other solution is to adopt the straightforward psychological experimental approach to learners, controlling and assessing their  learning in controlled circumstances where any teaching involved is perfectly explicit, for example the micro-artificial languages used to test acquisition of word order (Cook, 1990). Pace Firth (2009), some SLA researchers have been aware of the dangers of concentrating on the classroom.

So is ELF a typical form of second language acquisition? In many ways the answer has to be no:

- the type of language that ELF belongs to is unusual, if not unique. There is currently only one hypercentral language, English, and ELF represents it in its most distilled form, separated from native speakers, specific functions and nations. If we are interested in how people learn second languages, it is necessary to look at languages that are not the hypercentral language. In linguistics and first language acquisition gone are the days when English was the only language that was studied; SLA research has also been turning its attention more to other languages so that feature like the order of acquisition of grammatical morphemes are treated as language-specific rather than universal. It would be foolish to let ELF become the main theme in SLA research, even if it becomes the predominant target of language teaching in the world.

- The type of L2 user that ELF represents is only one of the different groups of L2 users and learners. SLA research has a responsibility to a much wider constituency and has to see the putative ELF user as one amongst many others.

- The product version of ELF belongs more among the descriptions of English than those of  learning. Indeed it is noticeable that most of the publications for product ELF appear in journals like English Today, World Englishes and English World-Wide – i.e. descriptive journals concerned with properties of English rather than those concerned with language learning. Data from ELF users or learners are relevant to SLA research only in as much as they reveal how people learn or use second languages; the properties of sheer observational data may suggest the form of acquisition that is occurring but that entails a  learning theory whose predictions can be checked by evidence – the same dilemma that performance data have ever presented as signs of acquisition processes (Cook, 1990).

Process ELF has more to offer to the study of second language acquisition. Partly it is within the tradition of studies of strategies for communication going back to Anderson (1983)’s pidginisation, Tarone’s communication strategies (Tarone, 1980) or the Strategies Inventory in Language Learning (SILL) (Oxford, 1990 which see second language interactions as based on common social or mental strategies and processes employed by the learner or user. Second language acquisition must indeed involve processes of this kind; people invent their knowledge and use of languages for themselves out of their mental resources, not just through reacting deterministically to properties of the input – they have free will as human beings. But the ELF processes are only one aspect of second language acquisition and make up one sub-area of research rather than taking over the whole shebang. SLA research is such a potentially vast field, encompassing the study of the majority of the human race, that it cannot be constrained solely by the types of resources one group of users bring to the use of one language, English, in a limited range of communicative situations.


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