Mainstream approaches to second language acquisition are outdated. They perpetuate the idea that mastery of a foreign language equals speaking and writing it like native speakers do. It is questionable whether this goal is achievable, even more questionable whether it is desirable. Do students really need to sterilize their output in the foreign language, to remove their own footprint, their accent, personality, and linguacultural heritage when communicating via a foreign language? In short, is it really the case that you become competent in a foreign language only if you are willing to give up on who you truly are?
Moreover, a question arises as to whether the native-like obsession in second language acquisition can equally apply to all languages taught in schools and tertiary level institutions or whether this goal should be functionally motivated and language-specific. Let me take the example of Italian, my own native tongue. Italian has official status in Italy (surprise, surprise), San Marino, the Vatican City, Switzerland, as well as in some Croatian and Slovenian regions. If you were to learn Italian, you would most likely use it while spending your holidays in the geographical areas mentioned above or while talking to your customers or friends who reside there. However, Italian does not generally function as a lingua franca; that is, it tends not to be used in interactions that do not involve native speakers, as is instead the case with the global, 21st century lingua franca, namely English.
In this respect, English has a special status, for its non-native users vastly outnumber native ones. Thousands of interactions are carried out daily via English, in which native speakers are in the minority or not involved. Does it make sense to teach English with exclusive reference to what an assumed native-speaker standard might be, thereby neglecting that English is also widely used in interactions among non-native users?
In formal educational settings, learners of English as a foreign language are extensively trained for interacting with native speakers. But when they use it in the physical (or virtual) world out there, they are confronted with a reality that is a far cry from what they have been prepared for in school. Of course, it is easier for the teachers to assess English against native speaker standards, but is this approach in the learners’ best interest? Shouldn’t English teaching also accommodate the learners’ communicative needs in a globalized world and be oriented toward real-life applications in lingua franca scenarios?
In the 21st century, students should be trained “to effectively communicate with people from a variety of different cultures and using a variety of different techniques” (National Research Council 2011: 1). However, in formal educational settings, they are usually only exposed to instances of native-speaker usage: they are not sufficiently prepared for engaging with the complex reality of a globalized world in which intercultural communication increasingly happens online and via English. So, how do students go about using English as a lingua franca in their real-life, virtual exchanges? What informal learning processes, what instances of relearning are activated through their naturally occurring interactions? And what communication strategies do they develop over time?
These questions have guided my research aimed at Exploring Virtual Communication in English as a Lingua Franca (forthcoming). I think of Virtual English as a Lingua Franca (VELF) in terms of “the flexible adaptation of English, and of other linguistic and non-verbal resources, to the online communicative needs of multicultural social formations” (Bosso 2021a: 291).
I started my enquiry back in 2014 when I left Sardinia and moved to Vienna to study a PhD in English linguistics, focusing on English as a lingua franca communication, under Barbara Seidlhofer’s supervision. Like many other international students, I found accommodation at a student dormitory, which became the physical setting of my study. The vast majority of dormitory residents lived in small apartments for single occupancy, so close and yet so isolated from each other. I soon learned that they would use English as a shared means of communication and employ a private Facebook group as an extension of the physical place. That is, while they happened to live together at the same physical place, they became a community through their repeated interactions in the virtual space. They formed a multicultural hybrid community, namely “a relatively long-lasting multicultural social formation, whose members overcome both physical and linguistic barriers to communication by exploiting the affordances of virtual environments” (Bosso 2021b: 17). I asked them for permission to collect and analyze their VELF exchanges, and 94 of them decided to join my study. I observed their interactions for two years, from October 2014 to September 2016.
Despite their different linguacultural backgrounds, and the complexity inherent in their exchanges, over time, they managed to
- Engage in the complexity of intercultural communication via translational practices, either overtly or covertly, interlinguistically or intersemiotically (Bosso, forthcoming).
- Enhance the comprehensibility of their utterances by accommodating to each other’s linguistic and non-verbal behavior, thereby pre-empting potential problems of understanding, for instance via multimodal glossing (see Bosso 2021a, and the picture above)
- Build rapport and deal with conflict by developing endonormative rules for uttering communicative acts of complaint (Bosso 2021b)
- Bring about changes in the physical place through their virtual interactions (Bosso 2018)
- Exploit the ‘habitat factor’, for English as a lingua franca exchanges are “‘locally colored’ and variable according to local context” (Pölzl & Seidlhofer 2006: 154)
Translating, that is, adapting the verbal and non-verbal resources in international students’ repertoires to their specific contextual circumstances, appears to play a major role in their complex communicative practices. Furthermore, the process of translating is arguably intrinsic in any learning process, whereby we relate what might be new, such as using English as a lingua franca, to what we already know, such as using our native tongues (see also Widdowson 2020). It is precisely this natural process of adaptation that mainstream approaches to second language acquisition oppose: “[t]here are textbooks, methods, syllabuses and organizations in which you must never use the students’ own language; absolutely everything must be in English, always and without exception” (Cambridge University Press & Cambridge Assessment English 2019: 1, emphasis in original). Consequently, English largely remains a self-referential subject, detached from the students’ personal experience with language, in an English classroom that shuts its doors in the face of globalized English uses in the world out there.
This is a snapshot of my journey and reflections on the exploration of informal learning processes, activated through naturally occurring virtual English as a lingua franca exchanges. Is that it? No. On the 30th of March 2021, there will be a double-panel discussion on “Virtual Exchange: Bridging the gap between formal and informal learning” within the framework of the International Conference #YouthMediaLife 2021. This conference offers a rich programme on the investigation of mediatized lifeworlds. Come join us!
P.S. Interessierst Du dich fürs lebensweite Englischlernen? Lies doch weiter: Marlene Schwarz hat einen spannenden Beitrag dazu geschrieben!
Rino Bosso is about to complete his doctoral thesis in English linguistics at the Department of English and American Studies, University of Vienna, and he is a member of the extended team of the #YouthMediaLife Research Platform. His main research interests include the study of Virtual English as a Lingua Franca communication within multicultural hybrid communities and the longitudinal development of shared communication strategies within these.
- Bosso, Rino. Forthcoming. Exploring Virtual Communication in English as a Lingua Franca. Vienna: University of Vienna. Doctoral thesis.
- Bosso, Rino. 2021b. “‘Seriously?! Do we really have such pigs here?!’: exploring complaints in virtual English as a lingua franca exchanges”. In Rosca, Andreea; Sevilla-Pavón, Ana (eds.). Building up telecollaborative networks for intercultural learning in the digital age. Albolote: Comares, 13-26.
- Bosso, Rino. 2021a. “Exploring the pragmatics of computer-mediated English as a lingua franca communication: multimodal and multilingual practices”. In Mauranen, Anna; Vetchinnikova, Svetlana (eds.). Language change: the impact of English as a lingua franca. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 291-310.
- Bosso, Rino. 2018. “First steps in exploring computer-mediated English as a lingua franca”. In Martin-Rubió, Xavier (ed.). Contextualising English as a lingua franca: from data to insights. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 10-35.
- Cambridge University Press; Cambridge Assessment English. 2019. Reasons to Use Translation in ELT. Available at https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/Images/525579-reasons-to-use-translation-in-elt.pdf (last accessed 28 Feb 2021)
- National Research Council. 2011. Assessing 21st century skills: summary of a workshop. Washington, D.C.: National Academic Press.
- Pölzl, Ulrike; Seidlhofer, Barbara. 2006. “In and on their own terms: the ‘habitat factor’ in English as a lingua franca interactions”. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 177, 151-176.
- Widdowson, Henry. 2020. On the Subject of English: The linguistics of language use and learning. Berlin: De Gruyter.