ELF Pron, or Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, is a global perspective on teaching pronunciation. It steps away from prestige "native" speaker language models and offers a more international approach. I personally like to think of it as the inclusive way to teach pronunciation where all accents are valued and intelligibility is the key.
All over the world, English is used as a lingua franca. It is the most common language for communication in business, travel, and educational settings. Interestingly, it is estimated that 80% of interactions in English take place between speakers whose first language is not English.
This challenges the need to sound like a so-called "native" speaker. Instead, the ability to modify speech in order to be understood is more important. It also empowers all language learners around the world to embrace their own accents and unique style of English usage.
As language teachers, we need to equip our learners with the pronunciation skills to be understood in a variety of settings. In this post, I’ll explore exactly how ELF Pron does that.
"Native" and "non-native" speakers
I’ve used the terms "native" and "non-native" speakers in quotation marks above and throughout this post. The reason for this is to show an awareness that the terms can be divisive and have been used to incorrectly label and discriminate against "non-native" language users.
There is an inaccurate perception that so-called "native" speakers are better at communicating in English. In reality, interactions between English users whose first language isn’t English can be more successful.
This is because "native" speakers tend to use complex language structures such as idioms and slang. They are also more likely to use fast, connected speech and speak less clearly.
In many ways, taking an ELF approach to teaching pronunciation is one way to fight against native speakerism and ensure English belongs to everyone!
The lingua franca core
It is not possible to write a blog post about ELF Pron without mentioning the Lingua Franca Core (LFC). As the name suggests, it is at the center of global communication skills.
Let’s go back to the early 21st century, when Jennifer Jenkins published a book with her research into intelligible communication. Her research found that certain aspects of pronunciation and language usage were more important for being understood than others.
Since then, the LFC has developed with more research. Here is a sketchnote summarizing pronunciation features we can focus on to support our learners to communicate intelligibly. It was created by Gemma Archer, an ELF Pron expert:
Most important features of the LFC
You’ll notice that consonants, consonant clusters, vowel length, and nuclear stress are described as "most important." Here’s why:
Consonants are the backbone of many words. If we remove the vowels but say the consonants, we may still be able to guess the word:
- frnd (friend)
- lngg (language)
However, if we were to keep the vowels but remove the consonants, we’d have no clues:
- ie (friend)
- auae (language)
As a Scottish English speaker, I am guilty of omitting consonants while around my other Scots speaking peers. One common example is that many Scottish speakers don’t pronounce their t's!
So, there’s no "t" in "Sco’land" (Scotland), "Sco’ish" (Scottish), or "bu’er" (butter). This makes it particularly hard for people unfamiliar with this particular variant of English to understand.
Of course, in class and around international language users, I have learned to modify my own accent to be intelligible. By ensuring that I pronounce all the consonants, I can be understood more easily. Other speakers of Scottish English are not so aware and, therefore, can be harder for language learners to understand.
By teaching students (and everyone, in fact) to pay particular attention to their consonants, we can make them more intelligible.
Consonant clusters are groups of consonants close to each other. For example:
"st" in "cluster," "gr" in "groups," and the often dreaded "sps" in "crisps."
It’s particularly important that these are pronounced clearly, especially at the beginning of words. Students must learn to produce each consonant within the cluster.
If they have difficulty with this, it’s usually okay to add a schwa. For example, in "crisps" (meaning potato chips in American English), many users add a schwa between the "p" and "s" (i.e., /krɪspəs/) and we can still understand them.
The length of the vowel is more important than the quality of the vowel in an ELF Pron context. So when a learner finds a particular vowel sound difficult, it’s okay for them to replace it with a similar vowel from their first language.
The important thing is that they get the vowel length correct. For example, if a student says "ship" in place of "sheep," for example, they’ll likely be misunderstood. However, if they say "shep" for "ship" in the right context, they’ll likely be understood.
Another important aspect of pronunciation, as identified in the LFC, is nuclear stress. This is when a speaker places certain importance on different words.
- The CAT ate my homework. (The focus is on "cat.")
- The cat ATE my homework. (The focus is on "ate.")
- The cat ate MY homework. (The focus is on "my.")
- The cat ate my HOMEWORK. (The focus is on "homework.")
Important features of the LFC
In the middle of the LFC, with some importance for intelligibility, are word stress and dental fricatives. Here’s a summary:
Whenever I think of word stress, my mind always goes to the difference between desert and dessert. In a hot, dry place, the stress is on the first syllable. For a delicious after-dinner treat, the stress is on the second syllable.
In the LFC, word stress is less important than other features, but still important. If a language learner orders a "desert" in a restaurant, it’s unlikely that the waiter or waitress will bring them a bag of sand. Thankfully, when it comes to intelligibility, we have contextual clues to rely on!
Dental fricatives /ð/ & /θ/
I still have nightmares about trying to grasp the difference between voiced /ð/ and voiceless /θ/ as a newbie teacher. For words such as mother, weather, that, this, and there your throat will make a vibration on the "th" sound.
Meanwhile, voiceless "th" words do not make your throat vibrate. Some examples are throat, think, mouth, and truth. Put your hand on your throat and try saying them. Hopefully, you’ll notice the difference more easily than I did 20 years ago!
For those of you (and your students) who don’t instantly feel a difference in the sound, the good news is that mixing voiced and unvoiced "th" doesn’t impact intelligibility too much. Moreover, the sounds can even be switched for consonants /f/ and /v/. For example, many users say "fʌrd" instead of "third" or "/mʌvə/" for "mother."
Less important features of the LFC
In Gemma’s sketchnote of the LFC, schwa, reduced vowels, weak forms, and connected speech production are the least important in terms of intelligibility. Here’s a quick explanation:
Schwa, reduced vowels, and weak forms
The schwa is an unstressed vowel sound. It is also the most common vowel sound in English. Some examples are the "i" in "family" or "o" in "carrot." It makes communication less intelligible exactly because it is unstressed.
Likewise with reduced vowels and weak forms. If English users reduce the strength of a sound in English, their pronunciation becomes less enunciated and therefore less clear.
(Producing) connected speech
Connected speech is when language users speak so quickly that their words run together. For example:
- Howzitgoin’ for How is it going?
- Whatime isit? for What time is it?
This can lead to misunderstandings. So in order to communicate clearly, it’s important to leave space between our words.
I’ve put "producing" in parentheses here as we can provide activities for our learners that support them to speak clearly. However, in the real world, every language learner will be challenged by fast speech. Consequently, it's important that we give them opportunities to hear and understand connected speech but not necessarily to produce it.
How to teach ELF Pron
In many ways, teaching ELF Pron is a state of mind. It’s switching the pronunciation focus from sounding like a "native" as a goal to being understood in a global context. It’s also about giving students the confidence to feel proud of their own language identity and accents.
Along with focusing on the key features of the LFC, we can also help students to explore their own accents and help them to become aware of which aspects of their accents they love or may need to adapt.
You may also want to discuss where they intend to use their English skills and familiarize them with accents that they might need to understand.
Of course, students will always encounter individuals who they find difficult to understand or who find them difficult to understand. It can be helpful to provide training in repeating, rephrasing, or finding ways to communicate.
If you’d like to learn more about ELF Pron, I’d highly recommend following experts like Gemma Archer and Robin Walker on social media and reading more on the LFC. Keep an eye out for Gemma and Robin’s book, Teaching English Pronunciation for a Global World, too. It looks like a game changer.
How do you teach pronunciation for the global classroom? What features of pronunciation do you prioritize? We’d love to know your thoughts and tips.