The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Gap between ESL & EFL

Question:

submitted by Policarpio Cañari, Colegio Real, Barranquilla Colombia

Since the world is changing really fast and we have more and more access to real resources on the net, such as online captioned videos, interviews,  magazine and newspaper articles, don’t you think the gap between ESL and  EFL should be narrowed, or disappear and think of just English as a global  language?

Dr Richards Responds:

Your question raises a number of issues. First a note on terminology, since the terms ESL and EFL are used differently in different places. In Canada and the US, ESL often refers to English programs for immigrants. These programs focus on the language skills immigrants need to survive in their new English-language based environment. There are many textbooks written just for these kinds of learners and they are not normally used outside of the contexts they were developed for. Traditionally ESL/EFL was also used to describe the difference between English in countries where English is a widely used language (e.g. India, Nigeria, Singapore) and those where it is not and where it has usually been called a “foreign language”, e.g. Columbia, Japan, Germany.

However one of the major functions English fulfils in today’s world is a “link language” or “lingua franca”, that is, as means of communication between people who have no other shared language. This of course is the case for many people when English is used between Americans and Japanese or between Australians and Indonesians. It is also the case of Japanese speakers using English to communicate with speakers of Chinese Language, French or German. It is the case of Germans using English to communicate with Russians or Japanese speakers, of Italians learning English to speak communicate mainly with people who speak another European language, such as Polish or Dutch. Increasingly around the world English is used for communicating in circumstances like these, where it functions as a “lingua franca” or “common language” between people who have no other common language. The terms English as an International Language  (EIL) and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) have been used to describe the use of English in these situations.

The concept of English as an international language (or lingua franca) has a number of important implications for English teaching. In the past English was often regarded as the property of “native-speakers of English” and of countries where it has the status of a mother tongue or first language for the majority of the population. It was these varieties of English, particularly their standard varieties, that were considered legitimate models to teach to second or foreign language learners. And it was also assumed that English had to be taught in relation to the culture(s) of English speaking countries. This picture has changed somewhat today. Now that English is the language of globalization, international communication, commerce and trade, the media and pop culture, different motivations for learning it come into play. English is no longer viewed as the property of the English-speaking world but is an international commodity. New goals for the learning of English have emerged which include interest in foreign or international affairs, willingness to go overseas to study or work, readiness to interact with intercultural partners … and a non-ethnocentric attitude toward different cultures as well  other goals such as friendship, travel, and knowledge orientations . The cultural values of Britain and the US are often seen as irrelevant to language teaching, except in situations where the learner has a pragmatic need for such information. English is still promoted as a tool that will assist with educational and economic advancement but is viewed in many parts of the world as one that can be acquired without any of the cultural trappings that go with it.  Proficiency in English is needed for employees to advance in international companies and improve their technical knowledge and skills. It provides a foundation for what has been called “process skills” – those problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that are needed to cope with the rapidly changing environment of the workplace, one where English plays an increasingly important role.

In the past it was taken for granted that the variety of English learners needed to master was a native-speaker variety of English. In Europe, due to its proximity to Britain, British English was usually the model presented in teaching materials. In many other parts of the world American English (or more correctly, north American English since Canadian and US English are similar to most learners) was normally the target. In some places (e.g. Indonesia) learners are more likely to encounter Australian English, and this may be the variety of English they feel most comfortable learning.  However in recent years there has been a growing demand for a north American variety of English, particularly among young people for whom “American English” is “cool” and the variety they associate with popular culture, movies, TV and the internet. It more closely resembles their “idea” of English.

There are two schools of thought concerning how closely learners should try to approximate native-speaker usage when learning English. The traditional view is that mastery of English means mastering a native-speaker variety of English. The presence of a foreign accent, influenced by the learner’s mother tongue, was considered as a sign of incomplete learning. Teaching materials presented exclusively native speaker models –usually speaking with a standard or prestige accent – as learning targets. The second school of thought is that when English is regarded as an international language, speakers may wish to preserve markers of their cultural identity through the way they speak English, as we observed above.  In such cases learners may regard a French, Italian, Russian or Spanish accent in their English as something they do not want to lose. This is a question of personal choice for learners and teachers should therefore not assume that learners always want to master a native-speaker accent when they learn English. As one learner puts it, “I am Korean, so why should I try to sound like an American?”