TEFL in Europe

Key Issues in SLA  Vivian Cook

Draft of chapter in E. Hinkel (ed.) Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Vol II, 140-154, Routledge (2011)

1. Introduction

This chapter looks at two issues about the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) that have been become increasingly important in a European context in recent years, namely the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and English as Lingua Franca (ELF). Hence what is discussed does not necessarily apply to the majority of language teaching within any particular country but reflects broad tendencies. These two issues represent language teaching traditions that have been developed in Europe over many years and that have had a considerable impact on recent teaching of English to non-native speakers. Both are in some ways connected to second language acquisition (SLA) research, in others parallel developments.

Europe itself is not easy to pin down as a concept; the twenty-seven countries and twenty-three working languages of the European Union – the political association of states - are not the same as the forty-seven countries and two official languages plus two working languages of the Council of Europe – a cultural body which promotes the CEFR among other activities. The UK is ambivalent whether it is part of Europe; a possibly apocryphal English newspaper headline once announced ‘Fog in Channel; Continent Isolated’. Language teaching policies and examination are primarily determined by national ministries, paying more or less heed to the policies of the European Union or the recommendations of the Council of Europe. Hence educational policies for language teaching in the UK are seldom fully in step with those in other European countries, for instance the removal of modern languages as a compulsory school subject after the age of 14.

A further preliminary is to tidy up the meaning of ‘foreign’ in EFL. According to Howatt (1984) the distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘second’ language teaching started in English Language Teaching in the 1950s. A typical European definition is provided by Klein (1986: 19):

… “foreign language’ is used to denote a language acquired in a milieu where it is normally not in use … A “second language” on the other hand, is one that becomes another tool of communication alongside the first language; it is typically acquired in a social environment in which it is actually spoken.

The distinction then embodies two distinct senses:

(i) a social dimension according to whether a language meets the learner’s current communicative need or not;

(ii) a location dimension according to whether it is used in a native speaker milieu.

De Groot & Hell (2005: 25) insist on a difference between European and North American use of the terms, where the North American definition does not include sense (ii). Stern (1983: 10) puts it as a ‘ “foreign language” can be subjectively “a language which is not my L1” or objectively “a language which has no legal status within the national boundaries” ’; in other words a definition that shifts between language as a mental individual property and language as a legal entity defined by law (Cook, 2010). A more neutral term provided by some is English as an Additional Language, describing children with a first language other than English.

A classic example of a second language is then Spanish learnt by a Japanese immigrant in Spain for immediate use in daily life versus Spanish learnt as a foreign language by a Japanese in school in Japan with no use outside the classroom. Since the start of communicative language teaching, this distinction became in a sense deferred as all learners were thought to be aiming at eventual communicative use, hence it is more a matter of communication now in second language teaching versus communication deferred in foreign language teaching. Nor are the two European senses always compatible: waiters in London use Spanish as a lingua franca (Block, 2006), making it a second language in London in sense (i) despite its absence from the surrounding milieu in sense (ii). A similar situation obtains for Italian in Toronto workplaces (Norton, 2000). To make matters more complicated, most teaching of foreign languages in Europe is actually referred to as modern language teaching, as opposed to teaching of the classical languages Greek and Latin. Indeed in the UK, modern language teaching of say French and foreign/second language teaching of English have had different teaching traditions, career structures and teaching qualifications.

Cook (2010) argues that the second/foreign distinction is past its sell-by date; it is rejected by probably most current second language acquisition (SLA) researchers, for example Myles & Mitchell (2004: 2); it is making a crude division into two types of learners and two types of situations, when a far more complex analysis of both is needed; it does not address perhaps the most common use of English today – non-native speakers in countries where it is not an official or indeed minority language using it to other non-native speakers, say Arabic businessmen communicating with Arabic businessmen in different countries through emails in English; a native speaker of English is not involved in 74% of tourist encounters using English (Graddol, 2006).  

What is the position of English in Europe? Apart from its geographical definition, the scope of Europe varies from one context to another – the Eurovision song contest includes countries such as Israel and Azerbaijan. Europe has never exactly been a cultural, religious or political unity, indeed having had several internal wars in the twentieth century. Confining discussion to the European Union (EU), the 27 current member countries have 23 official languages, such as Italian and Latvian, and more than 60 indigenous regional or minority languages, such as Welsh and Kashubian. In terms of sheer number of languages, this is only the tip of the iceberg; on one set of calculations 438 languages are spoken in the EU (VALEUR, 2007), on another 300 in London alone (Baker & Eversley, 2000). In European primary schools, English is the most widely taught second language except in Belgium and Luxembourg; in most European countries over 90% of secondary school children are taught English (EACE, 2008). To a large extent then second/foreign/modern language teaching in most of Europe means the teaching of English.

2. The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR)

The crucial area in the applied linguistics of language teaching in the 1970s was undoubtedly syllabus design. Till then specifying what learners were supposed to learn had largely been a matter of describing the structures of the target language, say the present continuous tense he is driving, and the situations in which the language was used, say the railway station ticket office – the structural and situational syllabuses used in classic coursebooks such as First Things First (Alexander, 1967). In the 1970s various alternative proposals were put forward to make the syllabus more relevant to teaching. Some suggested basing teaching on topics that people talked about such as food and jobs (Cook, 1975) – a topic syllabus; some advocated basing it on what the students wanted to do on a week to week basis (Breen, 1984) – a process syllabus; or on how students interact in conversational structure such as the sequence requesting/replying/thanking (Cook, 1978; 1980) – an interactional syllabus.

Van Ek & Alexander, 1991).

Table 1 Types of syllabus

Syllabus type




structural or phonological description and rules

the present perfect – have + past participle -en; the /p~b/ contrast


the context of situation in which language is used

going to the dentist’s, the station


the topics that people talk about in the language

the weather, football


whatever students request

subject to students’ requests


the structured moves of conversation



the concepts that people express through language

past time, possession


the reasons for which people use language

complaining, stating

Out of this background there emerged the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, usually cited in its print version (Council of Europe, 2001). Its avowed intention is to implement the Recommendation of the Council of Europe ‘to facilitate communication and interaction among Europeans of different mother tongues in order to promote European mobility, mutual understanding and co-operation, and overcome prejudice and discrimination’ (p.2), thoroughly worthy objectives with which it would be hard to disagree. This leads CEFR to the concept of ‘plurilingualism’:

"Plurilingualism differs from multilingualism, which is the knowledge of a number of languages, or the co-existence of different languages in a given society. ... the plurilingual approach emphasises the fact that as an individual person’s experience of language in its cultural contexts expands, from the language of the home to that of society at large and then to the languages of other peoples (whether learnt at school or college, or by direct experience), he or she does not keep these languages and cultures in strictly separated mental compartments, but rather builds up a communicative competence to which all knowledge and experience of language contributes and in which languages interrelate and interact." (CEFR, 2001: 4)

The CEFR is then the response to the recommendations of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe ‘To ensure, as far as possible, that all sections of their populations have access to effective means of acquiring a knowledge of the languages of other member states’ (Council of Europe, 1982).

So the CEFR is not concerned with the many languages found within a single national border, whether indigenous say Finnish and Swedish in Finland or in local minority communities, say the different languages spoken in the communities of Berlin or Lisbon. It is concerned solely with languages across borders – the chance for citizens of one European country to communicate with the citizens of another, say Germans with Portuguese. Plurilingualism is the ability of an individual to function effectively in more than one European language. The emphasis is on being able to do things with the language; ‘It describes in a comprehensive way what language learners have to learn to do in order to use a language for communication and what knowledge and skills they have to develop so as to be able to act effectively’ (p.1). It is not concerned with traditional educational advantages for learning another language, whether based on the improved cognition of the learners or on understanding the literature of a foreign language.

The bulk of the CEFR therefore describes what it means to be able to communicate in a second language. It is concerned with ‘communicative language competences’ ‘which empower a person to act using specifically linguistic means’ (p.9), made up of linguistic, sociolinguistic and pragmatic competences. In principle the CEFR applies to any of the languages of its member nations; various adaptations have been provided for different countries over the years. It establishes a series of levels, arising out of the earlier Threshold Level. Table 1 illustrates the levels at a global level.

  Table 2. Common Reference Levels: global scale




Proficient User


Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.


Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

Independ-ent user


Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages disadvantages of various options.


Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.



Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.


Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

The overall labels are basic user, independent user and proficient user, with two subdivisions at each level. These broad descriptions are split into Understanding (Listening and Reading), Speaking (Spoken Interaction and Spoken Production) and Writing, and presented in various ways, such as in a self-assessment grid of ‘can-do’ statements. For instance Level A1 listening becomes:

I can understand familiar words and very basic phrases concerning myself, my family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly.

The specification of levels is in itself hardly novel – at Ealing Technical College in London in the 1960s like most people we used a five way division: Beginners, Elementary, Intermediate, Cambridge Lower Certificate (now First Certificate) and Cambridge Proficiency. In the 1970s at North East London Polytechnic we used the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) levels of proficiency, now known as the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable, 2009), which has 4 main levels 0, 1, 2, 3, with subdivisions of ‘+’ at each level. Similarly the widely used IELTS (International English Language Testing System) Test has seven bands going from 3-9 (IELTS, 2009). What has distinguished the CEFR is its aim of specifying levels across different languages rather than for English alone.

The main achievement of the CEFR is probably the detail with which the different proficiency levels are spelled out through 54 sets of descriptors. For example the ‘domain’ of ‘personal’ has a subdivision of location:

Home: house, rooms, garden


         Of family

         Of friends

         Of strangers

Own space in hostel, hotel

The countryside, seaside

While ‘Free time and entertainment’ is subcategorised into:

4.1 leisure

4.2 hobbies and interests

4.3 radio and TV

4.4 cinema, theatre, concert, etc.

4.5 exhibitions, museums, etc.

4.6 intellectual and artistic pursuits

4.7 sports

4.8 press

In some ways the CEFR aims at a whole description of human existence, rather like Roget’s Thesaurus; any situation, subject matter, social relationship, use of language, interaction strategy or whatever has to be enumerated somewhere within its framework.

The CEFR is now widely used within the educational systems of European countries (EACE, 2008). The Council of Europe (2008) recommends:

all tests, examinations and assessment procedures leading to officially recognised language qualifications take full account of the relevant aspects of language use and language competences as set out in the CEFR

It is directly linked to the national syllabuses in over half the countries of Europe, ranging from Greece to Finland, Slovenia to Spain. The UK national syllabus for primary schools claims By age 11, they [i.e. children] should have the opportunity to reach a recognised level of competence on the Common European Framework and for that achievement to be recognised through a national scheme' (QCA, 2009). The languages ladder scheme in the UK relates its Breakthrough stage to CEFR A1 and its Mastery level to CEFR C2 (CILT, 2007). Examinations are cross-referenced against the CEFR, though Figueras et al (2005) caution that this is no simple matter:

Syllabus designers, coursebook publishers and language test providers worldwide, including Cambridge ESOL, seek to align their exams to the CEFR for reasons of transparency and coherence; claims of alignment can also assist in marketing communications to try and gain a competitive edge. (Taylor & Jones, 2006)

Hence Cambridge Proficiency is equated to CEFR C2 and First Certificate to B2 (Cambridge ESOL, 2009). From personal experience as a teacher of English at both levels, this considerably overstates the Proficiency level and leaves no room for improvement at university; many Newcastle MA students with first degrees in English are unable to ‘produce clear, well-structured detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices’, as required for the C1 level.

It is now common for British-based EFL coursebooks to state their aims in CEFR equivalents: Just Right (Harmer, 2004) claims to be CEFR B1, Move (Bowler & Parminter, 2007) to be A1-A2. Publisher’s catalogues sell books on their CEFR levels inter alia: the Longman Pearson English catalogue shows a CEFR tag for each book (Pearson, 2009), even if sometimes this stretches from A1 to C1, as in the confidently titled Total English (Bygrave et al, n.d.), though indeed most Longman courses claim similar coverage.

The CEFR has spun off the European Language Portfolio (ELP) (Council of Europe, 2009), which allows people to present their language record to prospective employers etc through a set of downloadable documents (CILT, 2007) and also to evaluate their own progress in learning a second language; the adult UK version is some 40 pages long. The crucial component is the Europass Language Passport (http://www.coe.int/T/DG4/Portfolio /documents/Pass_2spr.pdf ) on which the person assesses their own performance for each language they speak in terms of ‘can-do’ statements related to the CEFR six levels under the broad headings Understanding, Speaking and Writing. The scales are presented in the usual grid, of which Table 1 is the simple version. A number of ELPs have been developed in different countries using the CEFR descriptors ‘validated’ by the Council of Europe. It is hard to know to what extent the ELP is at present used by students and employers; in 2008 1.6 million people downloaded the ELP documents (Europass, 2009), 20% of whom were Portuguese, 15% Italian, 10% Spanish and 7% Finnish. The Europass is compulsory in Higher Education in Poland (Ministry of National Education, Warsaw, 2007). However, some students find, compared to other ways of doing curriculum vitaes (cvs), the Europass is ‘too rigidly bureaucratic and “like a form” ’ and ‘time‑consuming in the self-assessment of language skills’ (Gattoni, 2005).

The CEFR has exerted considerable and growing influence over the teaching of English in Europe, primarily at official governmental levels and in testing of students, seeping through to coursebooks and classroom teaching. It is, however, a strange beast. It appears almost anonymously as a quasi-governmental publication, written in a dense style all of its own compounded of European bureaucratese, academic jargon and invented terms, in the tradition of minutely numbered taxonomic lists like Mackey (1965) or van Ek (1975), almost unreadable but giving an appearance of great organisation. To take some examples, the CEFR term orthoepic competence meaning ‘the study of the relationship between pronunciation and a system of writing or spelling’ (OED, 2009) is certainly neither the preferred term in current writing systems research nor one used in everyday English speech; the CEFR’s list of intropunitive/ extrapunitive/ impunitive personality are hardly current terms in Applied Linguistics; plurilingual and multilingual are given as synonyms in the OED rather than the opposing terms of the CEFR seen above.

The CEFR claims to be 'developed through a process of scientific research and wide consultation’. The sources it cites are usually itself, i.e. the work of the Council of Europe; Figueras et al (2005, 265) claim that ‘the foundation of this quantification is empirical: the basic observations were the judgements of teachers’. In other words it is not based on research in second language acquisition, second language teaching, linguistics, psychology or other academic discipline, even if it draws indirectly on concepts in these areas; its conceptual basis is unreferenced through academic sources. Due to its lack of academic references, it appears like Topsy to have sprung into being full-formed from the minds of its creators. Its research base is the checking of descriptors by a group of teachers, equivalent to the claim by advertisers of a washing powder that ten million housewives can’t be wrong. In language teaching methodology it relates to traditional communicative language teaching, rather than to more recent developments. It rests on the authority of a group of experts recruited from prominent language teaching administrators. The simplicity of its basic approach with the six-level grid in Table 1 has been overlaid by a vast mass of publications, reports and manuals from the Council of Europe and national organisations, which have made it difficult to weave a way through the maze of mostly internet resources, as the references below soon show.

To some extent you have to take it on its own terms or leave it alone. As a checklist for teaching, it seems a reasonable way of designing a description of target language communicative competence; it is however curiously sanitised – no mention of toilets, police stations or politics, crucial as these may be to everyday living in another country. For practical purposes, because of the high regard given to it by official authorities in different countries, it can no longer be ignored, whatever one thinks of it. Traditionally language education has aimed at cultivating internal goals related to the social and cognitive development of the students as well as external goals related to their ability to communicate with other people though a second language (Cook, 2007a). The CEFR often refers to the other benefits that second language learning brings: 'it is a central objective of language education to promote the favourable development of the learner’s whole personality and sense of identity in response to the enriching experience of otherness in language and culture’ (p.1). Yet it is hard to see which parts of the reference scales in Table 1 refer to personal development. Intercultural awareness is spelled out in one brief paragraph (, with no check-list of descriptors: intercultural skills have a brief paragraph ( mostly concerned with the learner acting as a communicative intermediary. The CEFR comes across as utilitarian communicativism. What is needed, in the words of Mike Byram (2009: 212), is ‘a way of thinking about the purposes of foreign language education which is more than a simple focus on utility and gain together with the image of tourists speaking English wherever they go’.

In particular its key opposition of plurilingualism with multilingualism is at odds with other recent trends, such as the lingua franca concept to be discussed in the next section. Languages are treated as discrete objective entities; plurilingualism is an additive Language A + Language B model rather than an integrative model where A+B yields a new possibility C made up of both languages interacting in the same mind, i.e. multi‑competence (Cook, 2007b). The aim is to create citizens of country X who can speak the language of country Y, not a multilingual who combines citizenship of both in a way different from either; the idea of nation states and their national languages is paramount. It serves existing communities rather than creating a new community. Its concentration on the native speaker as the goal of language teaching is out of step with goals based on the successful L2 user, like the Japanese national syllabus which aims at ‘Japanese with English abilities’ (MEXT, 2003) or the Israeli curriculum which ‘does not take on the goal of producing near-native speakers of English, but rather speakers of Hebrew, Arabic or other languages who can function comfortably in English whenever it is appropriate’ (English Curriculum for Israel, 2002). While there are hints of this in the CEFR, the overall impression is given that the successful learner speaks like a native speaker.

3. English as Lingua Franca

The other pan-European trend concerns the target and value of L2 learning. Is the goal to speak like a monolingual native speaker of that language or is it to become a successful second language user who use it in distinctive ways from native speakers? Inevitably this comes back to questions of politics: ‘That all education is imbued with social, political and moral values ought to be self-evident, even though contemporary terminology of “skills” and “competences” tries to hide this’ (Byram, 2002). Some have argued that the native speakers’ claims to be the only true speakers of the language gives them unjustifiable power over non-native speakers so that the best the learners can do is to become successful imitations of monolingual native speakers, perpetually doomed to an inferior position. Many or indeed most second language students struggle with a feeling of inferiority; at worst none of them will meet the goal of passing for natives, at best a bare handful.

If you support a native speaker goal, you still have to decide which native speaker. In spoken language, many accents of English are spoken by native speakers both in the UK and round the world. English vocabulary varies from one place to another, what a Geordie calls a bairn, a Londoner calls a child; what a New Yorker calls a cellphone, an English person calls a mobile. In English grammar,there is still variation even if not so extreme; a black American speaker may leave out the copula He great; a Dublin speaker may distinguish singular you from plural yiz. Only in the written language and particularly in spelling is there a global consensus with limited variation according to British or American style in a few words like color/colour and aluminum/aluminium. The status of these different varieties has been a constant battle over the years, both for speakers of the non-prestige dialects in the UK, and for speakers of mostly ex-Commonwealth countries against the prestige varieties in England. The discussion also skates over the issue that many speakers of English in England know more than one language or dialect; it is possible to talk of British Indian English, British Chinese English or London Jamaican English. Concentration on the dwindling monolingual section of the population obscures the multilingualism of people not only in England but also in virtually all the other countries of Europe.

It is virtually taken for granted that there is no question of teaching anything but the standard prestige version, labelled variously Oxford English, BBC English or standard English, accompanied by Received Pronunciation (RP). Yet the RP accent is spoken by about 3% of the population of England (Trudgill, 2001). RP-based English language teaching is open to the complaint EFL students often made to me in London: ‘Why does nobody speak like this outside the classroom?’ Within Europe, unlike other areas of the world such as Sri Lanka (Canagarajah, 2005), the choice of which native speaker of English to aim at is hardly discussed, certainly not within the CEFR; a national standard language speaker is assumed to be the model for English students, usually from England, sometimes from the United States, even if the students are seldom likely to encounter one. The variety that is taught reflects the perceived structure of English society and now seems fairly dated in that RP accents, apart from media presenters, are rarely used in the modern spheres of business, celebrity culture or indeed politics.

Setting aside the debate about which kind of English to adopt as a teaching target, what about  the peculiar status of English as a second language? According to De Swaan (2001), languages form a hierarchy. At the bottom come peripheral languages such as Welsh and Finnish which are used by native speakers in fairly circumscribed localities for the full range of functions – the term local may be preferred as it sounds less discriminatory. Next come central languages such as German in Germany used not only by native speakers but also by members of communities with other languages living in Germany such as Turkish or Sorbian; these languages are used for a range of function both for contacts between minority groups and the majority community and for contact between members of different minority communities. Next come supercentral languages such as Arabic and Japanese used across national boundaries for a limited range of functions, say Arabic for religion or Japanese for karate. Finally come hypercentral languages, which are used everywhere for a broad range of functions, of which there is currently only one example, English. Within Europe other languages have been used in supercentral ways, such as German in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Russian in the old Soviet Union; Latin in the Middle Ages had a similar role across Europe for the functions of religion and scholarship. This hierarchy is discussed more fully in Cook (2009).

Virtually all second language teaching in Europe ascends the hierarchy by teaching a language of a higher group than that of the students; hypercentral English is the most taught language in Europe, followed by the central languages German in northern and eastern Europe, French in southern Europe, and Russian in the Baltic and Bulgaria (Eurydice, 2005). In conventional terms, the English languageas spoken in, say, England or Canada is the goal, the language described in the Grammar of Contemporary English (Quirk et al, 1972), the Oxford English Dictionary (2009) and An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English (Gimson, 1962). One goal of teaching English is indeed to teach this idealised abstract entity – the English language. In this case the matter of language target needs no further discussion. What the students end up with is a subset of native English, appropriate for their needs but in principle identical to whatever the native speaker possesses in that area. The target is no different from before, a national standard version of the language, even if it is described more comprehensively, say by the CEFR, and is taught by novel methods.

But is hypercentral English actually the same as this standard English language spoken by natives? For some years people have been claiming that English has escaped from the confines of English-speaking countries so that it is used primarily by those who do not have English as a native language and who do not need to converse with native speakers so much as with fellow non-native speakers; ‘World English (WE) belongs to everyone who speaks it, but it is nobody’s mother tongue’ (Rajagopalan, 2004: 111). Several varieties of English have been devised for particular international roles. One is for non-native speakers accessing English-speaking media. The Voice of America uses Simple English (VOA, 2009) and Wikipedia has a special section called Simple English Wikipedia (Wikipedia, 2009),both of which are partly based on the Basic English list of 850 words devised by Ogden (1937). Another is officially standardised forms of English used for jobs that stretch around the globe, whether Standard Marine Communication Phrases (IMO, 2001) or the Simplified English used in airplane maintenance manuals (Sarmento, 2005). These types of English are specific to international professions regardless of whether the users are native speakers of English or not. Indeed it has been claimed that some native speaker pilots do not speak aviation English as well as non-natives (Alderson, 2009). Crucially these simplified Englishes are constructed and maintained by one person or by an interested group; rather than emerging out of the users, they are dictated by an authority, whether right or wrong, rather like the CEFR. Simplified Englishes are not the same as hypercentral English; they resemble supercentral languages in having a highly restricted set of speakers and a limited range of functions rather than the unlimited sets of hypercentral speakers and functions.

This international English over the years this has been variously called Global English, English as a World Language, English as an International Language and English as a medium of intercultural communication, with various overtones – sometimes these are confusingly used by those who deny the existence of a non-native-based variety to refer to the national native standard rather than to the hypercentral non-native variety. The term ‘lingua franca’ implies a particular attitude to this variety as being both a non-native variety and one used for active communication: a “contact language” between persons who share neither a common native tongue nor a common (national) culture, and for whom English is the chosen foreign language of communication’ (Firth, 1996). Approaches to ELF have explored both aspects of this definition: ELF as a variety of English and ELF as a form of communication, which can be called the product and the process approaches. To quote Cook (2013), ‘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?’

To start with ELF as product; what are ELF’s characteristics as a variety of English? As virtually all description of English varieties or of L2 acquisition of English has been based on native speakers, the nature of ELF has only recently started to emerge. Pioneer work by Jenkins (2007) looked at when EFL students had problems with pronunciation.  She claimed on this basis that teachers could teach a Lingua Franca Core which concentrated on problems that non-natives had with comprehending each other rather than those that natives had with non-native speakers. This would imply inter alia concentrating on where to put the nuclear tone in the tone group >rather than the choice of tone, i.e. the difference between I love spinach, I love spinach and I love spinach, emphasising extra vowel length before voiced consonants, say the different /i/s in bit and bid, and not bothering with the voiced/voiceless ‘th’ distinction /D~T/ as in them/theme . The phonology of ELF is different from that of native English, or at least is potentially so if teaching allows it.

Text Box: Features of ELF grammar  • dropping’ the third person -s  • confusing the relative pronouns who and which  • omitting definite a/an and indefinite the articles where they are obligatory in native speech, and inserting them where they do not occur in native speech   • failing to use ‘correct’ forms in tag questions, say using isn’t it? or no? instead of shouldn’t they?   • inserting redundant prepositions, as in We have to study about…  • overusing certain verbs of high semantic generality, such as do, have, make, put, take  • replacing infinitive to constructions with that-clauses, as in I want that …  • being over-explicit, as in black colour rather than just black








The description of the syntactic characteristics of ELF is starting to emerge from projects such as VOICE (Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English) (2009) at the University of Vienna. This is based on a corpus of about 1 million words of spoken ELF interactions from 1250 ELF speakers with approximately 50 different first languages collected from meetings, interviews etc, perhaps the first attempt to analyse this variety from a large set of data. It is of course early days in that the size is small, equivalent to the early Brown Corpus of English of the 1960s (Kucera & Francis, 1962) rather than the 100 million of the British National Corpus (2009) or the 2 billion words of English of the Oxford English Corpus (2009) derived from the web. The world-wide nature of ELF and its diversity demands even bigger corpora than native English; there may indeed be multiple ELFs, not just a single variety (Meirkord, 2004). VOICE is nevertheless a promising start, though one has to be cautious about extrapolating from it too far.

The box above shows some of the characteristics of the ELF of VOICE, based on Seidlhofer (2004). Some are already familiar to any EFL teacher in classroom use such as the omission of third person -s, he go, and highly erratic use of articles a research. Others seem equally obvious as soon as they are pointed out, such as over-explicitness and redundant prepositions. But this is not of course a fair comparison. The VOICE data are collected from ordinary L2 use rather than the classroom. The classroom is for learning the language not for using it. While it would be surprising if some aspects did not carry over to the ‘real’ world, the interesting thing is what ELF users do in their everyday functional communication where the communication matters to them rather than in the classroom where a mistake is a potential learning opportunity, not a failed deal.

The process ELF approach is exemplified by the extract shown in the box, taken from Firth (1991).  Two businessmen are negotiating in English about a consignment of cheese, one an Egyptian, one a Dane. The recording is transcribed using Conversational Analysis conventions, e.g. capital letters mean extra loud as in YES; pauses are given in seconds in brackets (1.5),  colons mean extra length ha:d.

Text Box: Sample of ELF (Firth, 1991)  ((ring))  1. B: allo  2. H: yes hello Michael Hansen melko dairies Denmark 'calling (•) can I please speak to mister Akkad  3. (•)  4. B: 'hello mister Michael  5. H: is it Barat?  6. B: ye: (h)s, how are you (•) si::r  7. H: well I’m OK, but you ha:d tu- have some uh problems with the: cheese  8. B: uuuuuuhhhhh ((one-second sound stretch))  9. H: the bad cheese (•) in the 'customs  10. (0.5)  11. B: 'one minute (0.4) mister Akkad will talk (•) w[ith (•) you  12. H: [ok 'yes  13. (1.5)  14. A: YES (•) mister Hansen#   15. H: hello: mister Akkad (•).hh we haf some informations for you about the cheese (•)  16. with the 'blowing  17. A: 'yes mister Hansen

The pronunciation and grammar are clearly not those of native speech, as in haf (have) and informations (uncountable). Yet they understand each other well enough for the purposes of the conversation. The aim of the research is to look at how the interaction takes place between the participants. Partly this consists of learning on the wing, so to speak; the term blowing applied to cheese was unknown to A in a previous conversation but is now used fluently. Partly it is reformulating; problems with the cheese becomes bad cheese in the customs and then with the blowing. If there is a communication problem, the participants solve it between themselves with nobody explicitly discussing language or acting as the controlling expert. This is far from the teaching situations mostly described in ELF product research such as Jenkins (2007) or from the arbitrary abstract ‘tasks’ of task-based  learning with no point in the outside-world; according to Firth & Wagner (2007), it is ‘learning-in-action’ in which community of practice is created ‘before our very eyes’; ‘LFE [Lingua Franca English] is not a product located in the mind of the speaker; it is a form of social action’ (Canagarajah, 2007). Note that these businessmen are already highly proficient at English and trusted to conduct such transactions by their companies. The English of the Danes comes from college or university courses, doubtless on conventional lines. Thus a fair proportion of their English skill comes from prior learning; the learning-in-action that takes place during business conversations is presumably either the interactional skills of, say, reformulating or job- or task- specific vocabulary such as blowing, probably unknown in this sense to all but cheesemongers. Indeed one assumes that native speaker businessmen too have to acquire these skills on the job.

We can then contrast the CEFR with the product view of ELF with regard to language teaching. The basis of the CEFR is the straightforward description of native speaker competence, albeit executed in a highly idiosyncratic doctrinaire fashion; the basis of ELF is the description of a new variety of English unrelated to native speakers. The aim of CEFR is to create plurilinguals who can adopt the language and culture of another European country; the aim of ELF qua product is to create speakers of a specific non‑native variety who exist in a third space in between two cultures (Kramsch, 2009). Proposals for teaching and assessing the CEFR involve teaching this native variety and assessing how well the students do compared to this native standard, parallel to the UK Adult ESOL Core Curriculum (DfES, 2001) measuring success in terms of the standards for native speaker literacy (DfEE, 2001).

The process version of ELF denies the assumption of both CEFR and the product ELF view that a language description in whatever terms is appropriate for establishing the nature of non-native speech or as the foundation of teaching and assessment materials. If ELF consists of a set of processes that the user can employ in real world tasks, the goal is effective use of these tasks measured by their real-world success – rather like the early uses of communication strategies research in language teaching (Tarone, 1981). The three present very different, probably incompatible, solutions to the issue of TEFL teaching: is Europe big enough to contain all of them?

Conclusions: using multi-competence in language teaching

Much of the preceding discussion has been relying concepts drawn from the multi-competence perspective on second language acquisition. This has developed over twenty years as a particular way of interpreting second language acquisition that can be applied to issues of acquisition, use and teaching of second languages, for example in Ortega (2008) and Scott (2009).

Multi-competence is defined as ‘the knowledge of two languages in one mind’. This knowledge is not the same as that of a monolingual native speaker, perhaps obviously in the second language as generations of research into transfer and ultimate attainment have demonstrated (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2008), but also less obviously in the first language, as detailed in the various papers in Cook (2003). Indeed much current research has shown in addition that they do not ‘think’ in the same ways as monolinguals (Cook & Bassetti, 2010), affecting perception and categorisation among other aspects.

The starting point for second language acquisition is then the recognition that people who know second languages are different from monolinguals. It is not that they know another language imperfectly; it is that they have a complex language knowledge of their own. Hence multi-competence research started to use the term L2 user rather than L2 learner, as a recognition that they are achieving a state of their own rather than perpetually trying to achieve an unattainable native speaker goal. There may indeed be L2 learners who are not using the language apart from learning contexts in the classroom, say learners of English in China; but there are also vast numbers of L2 users who use it in their everyday lives whether as a central language, a language for the tourist industry, a language for flying (and indeed servicing) planes. The native speaker concept is a distraction from the reality of the distinctive nature of L2 users, as maintained by Grosjean (2008) among others.   

From the point of view of multi-competence, both the CEFR and ELF miss the point. Learning another language is not just adding a new extension to your house but moving all the internal walls about. The CEFR pays no attention to the transformation that L2 learning makes to the learner, hence its overall utilitarianism compared to traditional humanistic language teaching. Product ELF similarly sees the learner as acquiring another language system, not developing a new whole system in which ELF plays its part in interaction with the other language systems in the mind. Process ELF shows how the learners interact using a set of strategies but it does not describe learning as such (partly because it denies any distinction between using and acquiring a language).  Indeed if Danish businessmen can do as well as they seem to on the basis of conventional language teaching, there can’t be very much wrong with it as a launching pad for ELF use.

We need then to develop the programmes incorporated in the CEFR and ELF toward this view of the independent L2 user. The target is not just someone who can go to another country and speak the language like a native; it is someone who can successfully use the second language for the purposes of their life and who have reaped the mental benefits of learning another language as well as its utilitarian use. The CEFR and ELF represent some steps towards this goal but there is still far to go to see language teaching that genuinely teaches second language for real-world second language use.


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