Me vs Vicki Hollett on functional language and ELF

I originally started writing up my questions about functional language as just a statement of the issues involved in this vital but tricky area of language, but as I was doing so I suddenly thought “Come to think of it, I know someone who can probably actually answer these”. Not only could Vicki Hollett do so, she also continued answering my child-who’s-just-discovered-the-power-of-the-word-why-style follow up questions until I managed to restrain myself:

“Alex: What can you do about students who are quite happy with “I think…” for opinions and “Sorry” for interrupting and go back to saying just those things five minutes after a whole hour on more ambitious language? Or are they right to stick to that simple language when most of the non-native speakers they will interact with won’t understand “Correct me if I’m wrong but…” and “Can I just come in here?”

Vicki: Well firstly, most of the time people just give their opinions and interrupt without saying anything first. So are the students using “sorry” and “I think” too much? If they are using these (or any other expressions) in contexts which don’t seem to match their intent, I think teachers should point it out and then let them decide whether they continue to use them as much.

“Correct me if I’m wrong but…” and “Can I just come in here?” are less frequent (outside of business English textbooks). Teachers might need to come up with some pretty obscure contexts if they want to provide natural practice settings for them.

Alex: Those were some rather artificial and made-up-on-the-spot examples, but my point is that with functional language students need to stop at the phrases in Intermediate or even Pre-Intermediate level textbooks to be understood by most of the people they meet and by going beyond that you are simply making them more difficult to understand. I do try to select which more advanced language to cover by concentrating on things that will help them express their meanings more clearly, but in practice I find that it almost always means express themselves more clearly to native speakers (and sometimes just British people!) and less clearly to most non-native speakers.

I think the corpus-based data that people usually simply interrupt and give their opinions without using particular phrases also needs some looking at before we take it into the classroom. The same is true of English-language academic writing, where native speakers use far fewer signalling and linking phrases than non-native speakers. I have tried using that fact in my lesson planning and/ or classes but I’ve now gone back to teaching loads of linking phrases etc as my students need them to help them decide on the purposes of their sentences and paragraphs and then stick to them. It also makes their writing easier to understand when other language problems are making it tough to work out what they are trying to say, which is obviously more common for them than for native speakers. I’ve recently come to the same conclusion about lots of functional language that I would never use myself.

If there is at least some truth in my points, should language boards such as IELTS and the rest of us more generally change our emphasis on more advanced learners producing more complex functional language to prove their level? What can we teach them instead?

Vicki: On many of the functional phrases we see in higher level course books, I think you have a good point. They are formulae of sorts and ELF speakers seem to rely on formulaic expressions less than NSs. When native speakers use formulaic phrases, it seems to make life easier all round because it decreases the processing load. But when ELF speakers use them, they run the risk that the person they’re talking to might not know them. So there are instances in the data where, even though it’s clear they know a formula, they don’t use it because it might confuse.

Traditionally we’ve assumed that the closer our learners got to using our NS idiomatic expressions and functional phrases, the better. But a sensible ELF speaker will favour the transparent non-confusable ones and avoid the others.

Plus with functional phrases, there’s a big difference between knowing the phrases and knowing when to use them, and they are often pretty culture specific. (Take requests for example – it seems to be only Anglo English societies that like to pretend the other person has a choice when making requests). Knowing the expressions and when to use them is an important thing to know if you want be accepted in NS societies, but what if you don’t? I think we might labour too long on them and their main value might lie in raising cultural awareness.

On including phrases we might not use ourselves, I think you’re onto something there. I don’t know much about written ELF, but in spoken ELF they’ve found a lot of redundancy and repetition because the speakers want to be crystal clear. If the message is important, it’s better to risk saying it twice than not saying it at all. You seem to be helping your students to ensure their message is crystal clear in written English here. Mind you, it’s also just occurred to me that I read somewhere that adherence to NS norms carried prestige in professional ELF written communications

I’ve wondered about IELTS exams too – the spoken one, anyway. It’s awkward separating speaking and listening skills if you’re trying to measure conversational ability. Capable ELF speakers adapt to their audience, but if there’s just one candidate and a NS (or near NS) examiner, there are going to be no opportunities for grading students on their accommodation skills. And because it’s largely student monologue, there don’t seem to be opportunities for negotiating meaning either. That said it’s hard to know what exam boards can do. I gather that in some of the business exams, they instruct examiners not to penalise students for grammatical or lexical errors if the meaning is clear. Clear to who, I wonder? Sometimes my students understand one another better than I understand them.

The exam boards have to get examiners all over the world calibrated to ensure their scores are reliable and that’s a hard task in itself. But we’re also saying we want validity too in the sense that we want them to be measuring the students’ ability to communicate well in ELF contexts.

There are videos around on the web of Jack Ma, the ex-CEO of Yahoo. His English has got better over time, but in some of the early videos it’s pretty inaccurate. I doubt he’d have done very well on an IELTS test, yet he was an extremely successful ELF communicator. I think we’ve all met lower intermediate students who somehow manage to convey their ideas more effectively than upper intermediate students – so why? Is it the way they structure their thoughts, their choice of analogies and metaphors, how they adapt their message to their audience, pacing? Quite possibly all of these things and more, but whatever it is, presumably it’s that stuff that needs testing.

On what we can teach them instead, with advanced learners, I do think we can probably keep expanding their lexical repertoires so they have more choices and I think we can keep giving them lots of different contexts too. “So, OK that’s how you’d say it in this situation, but what about this one, and this one, and this one….”

Alex: Isn’t most functional language even more based on native speaker norms than the kind of useless idiomatic forms thrown up by corpus analysis? How can we get away from that?

Vicki: I’m not sure which “useless idiomatic forms” you’ve got in mind. But yes, I think functional language in textbooks is often based on native speaker norms. Some of it isn’t based on NS norms – “I don’t agree/disagree”, for example. It’s prominent in textbooks despite the fact native speakers hardly ever say it. But if you look at something like request forms, they seem to be very Anglo-English.

But the biggest problem in my view is functional language gets taught at sentence or phrase level, out of context.

Alex: I think 90% of “spoken grammar” is useless to 90% of our students, for example. In my opinion “I disagree” is a great example of where the old textbook English just happens to have been teaching what is already basically an ELF form, as well as helping make that so of course, and newer textbooks that teach students not to say so due to the results of corpus analysis are moving away from what they need.

Vicki: I think the solution lies in the middle – so teach it AND point out that native speakers rarely say it. Not pointing it out seems to be a failure on our part to me. It doesn’t take long to say it’s rare in NS speech and it helps our students make a more informed decision about whether or not they want to use it in the contexts they find themselves operating in. (They probably will anyway, but that’s fine.) Plus it makes them more aware of a peculiar difference in the way people from other cultures might behave. There seems to be win-win potential there to me.

Alex: It’s difficult enough to teach the functional language anyway, won’t telling them after each lesson to avoid most of those forms with most of the people they meet mean they lose all motivation to learn what you just taught them?

Vicki: Well, first you’re not telling them. They are going to decide themselves and you’re just giving them usage information so they can make a better decision. And secondly, hopefully you haven’t just taught some phrases. You’ve also given them some insights into conversational behaviours that they might not have noticed before.

Alex: What will EIL/ ELF functional language be like? Won’t “excuse me”, “pardon” and “sorry” all merge, “I’m afraid but” become standard and “I disagree” become a common spoken form, making all my functional language lessons useless?

Vicki: I think hypothesizing about this is rather like trying to draw up a list of ELF grammar and vocabulary. It’s interesting for linguists to think about but a waste of time in terms deciding what should be taught. I can see how we might not want to correct students if they say “excuse me” where we might have said “sorry”, but will our students want us to teach ELF forms? I doubt it.

I think it’s more helpful to look at what successful ELF communicators are doing and try to develop those skills and capabilities. “Effective communication” has always been a holy grail in business English but it’s a very woolly term. It’s getting less fuzzy now. So we know that successful ELF speakers are good at accommodating to their audience, adjusting the pace and how they deliver their ideas. They negotiate meanings. They draw on other shared languages and coin new terms as needed. They use accessible metaphors and images.

Alex: I think you’re right that is more useful to think about what we don’t teach and don’t correct than to think about what we must, but in those terms the consequences are already here in our classrooms and in the communication most of our students have outside. My favourite example is “Pleased to meet you” which I pushed for years as better than the rather artificial (to me) sounding “Nice to meet you” but which I now realise has almost certainly been making the poor students who listened to me incomprehensible all around the world. Ditto with all responses but “I’m fine thank you and you” to “How are you?”

I can’t really imagine actually teaching my students to slow down and simplify their language – it’ll be like telling them to go back to Pre-Intermediate level and forget everything I’ve taught them, or, as I’ve actually done recently while wondering if I should, telling them to almost never use the thing I’ve just finished teaching them in their own business lives. What should we actually be doing in the classroom instead, and is it something they’ll be happy to be studying and something that is actually teachable?

Vicki: Well, let’s think about that one. When we walk into a beginner or elementary class, we have to be careful to grade our language. We don’t think much about it after a while, but it’s often hard for new teachers to do. It’s a skill that develops with practice.

Another example is help desk workers in India, the Philippines etc. When customers call up, they have to assess the technical competence of the caller and how upset they are. And the speech data suggests that the good help desk workers do, and they adapt their language in all sorts of ways.

The technically competent callers get the information they need in more abstract terms, and the upset ones get lots of reassurance. And with the technically-challenged there’s more checking going on and they get the information delivered more sequentially. E.g.

‘Select ‘pictures’ from the start menu’


‘Click ‘start’ and select ‘pictures’’.

Competent ELF users are good at packaging meanings differently for different people. But it’s a skill.

I think we could help develop it by simulating lots of contexts in class.


“How would you present this problem (that you just told me about) to:

1. a visiting American colleague who already knows lots about it and who you want to impress

2. a layperson (or perhaps your seven year old son) who doesn’t know any technical words

3. a visiting colleague from country X whose English isn’t as good as yours”

You asked another important question too, about “what should we be teaching and is it teachable?”: Firstly, to state the obvious that you already know (sorry), whatever the language we teach, it’s going to be different from the language that’s learnt. Our students may humour us in the classroom, but they’re only likely to invest effort in learning stuff they think will benefit them.

Now the main answer. I think that if we want to impart all the rules of use along with the language our students may need, there’s way too much to be teachable. I’ve complained elsewhere about speech acts getting taught without usage information, but it takes native speakers years to learn that stuff. We don’t know who our students will be communicating with and what strange social rules they may encounter. And even if we did, we couldn’t possibly give our students practice in even half the things they may need to say in all the different ELF contexts they may need to communicate in. We have to be sensible about it, prioritize and aim instead to help our students develop some of the abilities they’ll need to cope.

So with ELF users, our primary goal shouldn’t be to teach the language. It has to be to develop their ability to cope. It’s not entirely different from what we do now because we’d do it by working with the language. So for example, we might show our students how NSs make and respond to requests. But we’d accept the fact that much of the language we’re showing them will never be used outside the classroom, so it’s not language they necessarily need to learn. But that doesn’t negate its value because it’s language to be learnt from rather than language to be learnt. And there’s a lot of important stuff about how human beings communicate that can be understood and explored by looking closely at our peculiar English request forms, I think. (Bulge theory, impositions, rights, indirectness, power, linguistic politeness and whimperatives, for starters.)

Alex: I do like your idea of using phrases we’d like them to learn to illustrate more general communication points we’d also like them to know so that if they learn at least something from one of the two they will have got something out of it. It’s kind of like my(?) “tips and useful phrases” approach ( in reverse, but with the added advantage that it’s easy to put together with reading and (especially) listening practice.

More generally, though, a “coping skills approach to ELF” reminds me of teaching coping strategies for skills more generally. For example, we are all agreed that we can’t teach our students enough vocabulary to understand every text we give them so instead we teach lessons on reading skills like skimming, scanning and guessing from context. However, it turns out that those things are even more difficult to teach than all the vocabulary they could possibly need (at least in my experience, especially in IELTS classes, and some things I’ve read on the topic). I can see it being the same with ELF coping skills – they simply won’t be teachable in the time with have available for most of our students, and the students who do really take those things in in class are the ones who would have picked it up for themselves anyway.

Vicki: Yeah, nobody said it would be easy :) How to improve the way we teach functions was much on my mind when I was writing the Pre-Intermediate level of Longman’s Lifestyle course. I couldn’t go overboard, but there were a lot of improvements I could make and I gather it’s an easy book for teachers to use.

Some researchers reckon pragmatics and speech acts have to be taught more overtly. It’s not like grammar where you can look at sentences and work out how they’re being manipulated. They argue that the social rules we follow can’t be learnt with our normal ‘learning by doing’ approach, and we actually need to tell the students the rules explicitly.

Most of the students I teach now are on crash courses so we don’t have long, but I often give them a little lecture on positive and negative politeness – lots of examples, but basically a little ‘chalk and talk’ session. I have a friend who does something similar on high and low context cultures with his students. So we’re both trying to do quick and dirty introductions to communication universals. I don’t know how helpful we’re being but it might be another way to go.

Alex: You can make functional language lessons less Anglo-American-centric by including a text on apologising in Asia and using “mate” in Oz, but isn’t that just tokenism unless you actually change the models you give them for their speaking and/ or writing activities? For example, if they text explains that Thais give few excuses when apologising but English native speakers almost always give reasons for what happened, why do the speaking exercises and/ or listening models always practice giving more excuses rather than both options?

Vicki: What models we use is an interesting question. I think it goes back to them needing to be models our students can learn from rather than models we expect them to follow. And obviously demonstrating other ways of going about things is a good way to raise cross cultural awareness.

Functional language in textbooks tends to focus on speech acts, so things like apologies, requests, offers, invitations, agreeing and disagreeing etc. I’m not sure why, but maybe because it’s been perceived as more straightforward or easier to teach. The students tend to wind up with lists of phrases, inadequate information on when they are used and then teachers wince when they hear the students using them inappropriately. As well as providing more context for the speech acts, I think there’s other pragmatic stuff that could be given more attention for ELF speakers – just from the point of view of raising awareness about differences in how people communicate.

Pragmatics is important. The thing is, if you make a grammar mistake then everyone knows it’s a grammar mistake. The worst case scenario is they think your English sucks. But if you flunk the pragmatics, folks could think you are weird or rude or unsympathetic or ungrateful or whatever, and it can harm relationships. And if you follow your own social rules when you’re communicating with someone from another culture, you are likely to flunk the pragmatics along the way.

Depending on the students, including stuff on turntaking, non-verbal behaviour, illustrative critical incidents and misunderstandings, indirectness, ambiguity, phatic expressions, metaphors, euphemisms, back channelling and active listening, etc could be helpful, I think. There are questions about how universal linguistic politeness theories really are, but there’s still lots of stuff being written about them decades on from Brown and Levinson’s work, which I think means there’s something very useful there. And we don’t have to approach it from the point of view of “you need to follow Anglo-English pragmatic rules”. That would be silly. But they could be used as illustrations of how things are done differently elsewhere, and the social rules of other cultures could be explored too.

Alex: I absolutely agree that those are things we want our students to know, but isn’t there a danger of ending up with a classroom where we only ever communicate about communication, like the old textbook Handshake? I taught two classes with that textbook and it was fascinating and useful for all of us in Unit 1 but by Unit 4 we just wanted to talk about the weather or even Posh and Becks instead. We’d also forgotten the communication tips from Unit 1 because we’d had so many others since, and I think some of my pre-experience students became convinced that international communication was so complicated that they may as well give up on it.

Vicki: Oh, I’ve misled you. I’m not suggesting that the texts we use should all be on the topic of communication. Just as we might use a conversation about the weather, Posh, Becks, or whatever to illustrate grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation, we can also use it to illustrate pragmatic features of language. So our texts could be about all sorts of things – whatever turns our students on.

I think international communication might seem less complicated if we approach it one context at a time. It just requires a shift in thinking. And we mustn’t forget that there are millions of very successful ELF speakers out there. So not only is ELF learnable, but English teachers must be doing a lot that’s right.”

 A huge thank you to Vicki. I have a feeling I’ll be pondering these points and writing follow up posts for at least twelve months. Any initial thoughts from anyone else?

This entry was posted in English as an International Language/ Lingua Franca, Functional language and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Me vs Vicki Hollett on functional language and ELF

  1. Tony says:

    Many thanks to both of you for a fascinating post – I really enjoyed it. In terms of communication strategies, my Russian learners are most concerned with the phonological core these days. As they have become more and more international in their outlook, they have become increasingly dissatisfied with the audios of traditional course books which tend only to have NS accents on them. They particularly want to hear different Asian and European nationals speaking English so they can become attuned to them. However, I suspect what they really need is an international classroom where they can get used to interactive speaking and listening, modulating their own English accents as much getting used to those of others. Anyway, I look forward to reading your thoughts over the next 12 months.

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