Language-culture-identity: a paradigm for teaching English as a lingua franca, a talk by Rudi Camerer

This post is about English as Lingua Franca (ELF) and the talk by Rudi Camerer on ‘Language-culture-identity: a paradigm for teaching English as a lingua franca’, at the BE SIG Showcase in the 52 IATEFL International Conference. As a matter of fact, this was one of the most significant talks for me, it deeply tackles our deliverables as teachers and I confess I was positively bothered by what I heard, it made me shift my attention to other aspects of my teaching.

Let’s start by clarifying the meaning of ELF:

English as a lingua franca (ELF) is the use of the English language as “a common means of communication for speakers of different first languages. 

According to Rudi, when teaching ELF, learners should understand that there are no communication conventions which are globally accepted, also that trust-building is more important than accurate linguistics. They also should possess diverse discourse in ELF to deal with a variety of expectations and be able to deal with unexpected behavior and utterances in a way that does not risk damaging a trustful relationship. In other words, as I see it, students need us to teach them way more than language, so teachers must also be aware of students’ needs as listed above.

He contextualized his talk by mentioning a study presented in the book Business Discourse, which compares real-life business meetings and the language being taught in most business English course books and a clear mismatch was found between the two. The same discrepancy had been pointed out by Marion Williams in 1968, in her book ‘Language taught for meetings and language used in meetings. Is there anything in common?’. These findings showed a disparity not only in terms of trivial things but also in the context of relationship building. 

Based on these findings, the question the speaker raised was:  ‘Are we teaching the right things?’. He talked about a study conducted in Australia by Prof. Farzad Sharifian who interviewed English teachers in universities and asked them what kind of English they were teaching, and they all knew that the kind of English they were teaching represented a very small portion as compared to the great diversity of the Englishes to be found worldwide today.  After this shocking but realistic data was presented, another intriguing question emerged from the talk: ‘Are we preparing learners for the real world?’ Now you know why I started questioning myself and my own practice.

The speaker raised the issue around a phrase that has often been used to categorize the overall aims of our language teaching, which is, enabling learners to ‘get things done’.  And again, he proposed two other provocative questions: ‘Is that really our number 1 aim for language teaching?’, ‘Isn’t there something more important that would come first?’.

He asked these questions considering the aspects of Axioms of Human Communication, the theory by Paul Watzlawick published in the 1960’s, which serve as a framework for studying human interaction. According to Rudi, two of the axioms mentioned by the author match the context of language teaching, one is this: ’No matter what we do or not do, no matter what we say or not say, there’s meaning, and will be interpreted’, and the second one is ‘we sometimes do exchange information, sometimes, not always, but what we always do is when we communicate we negotiate our identities, roles, and relationships’.

Based on these ideas, the speaker argued that the number 1 aim of our teaching should be trust-building, and on the basis of a trustful relationship, trying to get things done. He mentioned the CEFR (Common European Framework of References), a document (which is, in fact, a book) published in 2001, and translated into a great number of other languages, which is used as the basis for many language educational systems worldwide. He said that, on the one hand, it was a very successful story, on the other hand, many of the central messages of the content of this book haven’t been explored so far. He continued by saying that many people are not aware that the book is an intercultural document, where language competence is explained on the basis of 54 scales, along with the lines of A1-C2, and only 4 out of these 54 refer to linguistic accuracy. According to the present, since it was published, there has been a lot of criticism around it, and he highlighted one of group of criticism which is interesting to our context, the fact that competence is defined by the distance to a native speaker, and from the point of view of ELF, such standards of native English will not necessarily be helpful. 

Rudi explained that since 2014 the council of Europe has set up a revision project on a large scale and one of the major changes refers to language seen as a social as opposed to a linguistic system and a greater emphasis on context. He argued that language without context has no meaning, only if we emphasize context, can we be clear about what language means. He told us that the 4 skills (speaking, listening, writing, and reading) have been redefined as mediation, interaction, production, and reception. According to him, speaking, listening, writing, and reading focus on the individual use of language, while mediation, interaction, production, and reception look at what happens between at least two people, and that creates context. 

He gave an example of how context is essential for effective communication. When teaching students the language to go shopping in English, it is one thing if they are shopping at a regular shop, but what if they are shopping at a street market in a completely different cultural setting they are used to? Will the language be the same? In this sense, the context makes a huge difference and will impact students communicative skills. He also said that in this new version of the CEFR, there is no reference to native speakers when it comes to pronunciation and that pluricultural and plurilingual descriptors are also available, and these reflect real life. 

The speaker also encouraged us to reflect upon mistakes from the point of view of ELF, regarding learning targets and mistakes and supported the idea that we can define competence in ELF by looking at comprehensibility in writing and speaking, appropriateness of register and language for context, and politeness in the context of relationship-building. For him, all of these aspects have clear cultural connotations, and we can’t take the culture out of the context. He also pointed out the section on mediation available in the new version of the CEFR, which is extremely helpful for the teaching of ELF. He explained that students at a certain level will be expected to be able to use language to mediate communication and clarify meaning, an approach to meta-communication skills (the sum of verbal and non-verbal communication, how people perceive you, not just your words), which, according to him, should be part of our curriculum, to provide our students with the language they need to use English as a real tool for communication in different contexts and cultures, for them to be able to interpret situations and negotiate meaning, and also to help them be more aware of how mastering meta-communication skills can impact the success of their interactions. 

My impressions of this talk: 

‘Are we teaching the right things?’

‘Is that really our number 1 aim for language teaching?’,

‘Isn’t there something more important that would come first?’

These questions got me really thinking about my own practice, am I delivering what my students need, or am I simply preparing tasks to keep them busy during the length of the class, tasks which are not necessarily going to bring them the results they need or expect?

I know how much my students need English to accomplish their professional and personal goals, I am aware of my duty as a teacher, to get them closer to their aims by facilitating their learning, but am I really providing them with the language and skills they need to succeed?

Personally, I feel like there is much more I can offer my students. It’s a never-ending search for the best practice, the best approach, and the best content. I’ll continue pursuing excellence and improving my teaching skills along the way. Of this I’m sure.

If you are interested in finding out more about the updates in the CEFR, you can find the CEFR Companion Volume With New Descriptors on this link:

I think this talk shouldn’t end here. This annoying feeling is what will keep me continuously developing. Would you like to share your views on this issue? I’d love to hear what you think about this subject.

I really hope to hear from you.

See you!