Robert Baird, Will Baker and Mariko Kitazawa The complexity of elf abstract

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Robert Baird, Will Baker and Mariko Kitazawa

The complexity of ELF


This paper sets out theoretical approaches to language that guide the authors’ research in the field, but which have been under-represented in literature. As the English as a lingua franca field of enquiry grows, this article provides needed dialogue, consideration and reflection over how we conceptualise our subject matter, our roles and our rhetorical stances. This paper proposes the usefulness of considering the complexity of language, not as something that gets in the way of empiricism or clarity, but as something that makes ELF researchers perfectly positioned to investigate and contribute to wider understandings of language. Complexity theory is drawn upon as a conceptual tool that can be useful in guiding our thinking about the dynamic nature of language, which, in turn, is considered in relation to the reasons why language is complex, namely its roles in relation to practices and contextualisation. Having established our approaches to the complexity of the language in ELF scenarios, we propose implications for ELF researchers’ treatment of speakers, language and ideology.

Keywords: English as a lingua franca, complexity, performance, practice, emergence, applied linguistics, ontologies of language.




1. Introduction

As the field of English as a lingua franca has grown, researchers have met a great number of challenges in terms of theorisation, description, and representation. Debates over whether ELF is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ have largely subsided into considerations over how ELF, and the language observed, can be conceptualised without being reductive and acontextual. This article aims to bring to the fore considerations that underpin conceptualisations of language and the propositions with which researchers engage when observing it. Whilst descriptions and criticisms of ELF as simply a corpus based, variationist endeavour are over simplistic (Cf. Canagarajah 2013; Pennycook 2010), it is important for ELF scholars to acknowledge the necessity of continual theorisation and reflection, particularly regarding the complexity of the subject matter. Only by engaging with wider theory and considering the subject matter of the field can we adequately account for ‘ELF’ as a field of enquiry, a phenomenon and/or a use of language, while at the same time appreciating the complexity and variability of language and its integrated roles in human communication more generally.

ELF research has the potential to go beyond the ‘what’ of language, which is fraught with difficulties as a single focus due to the inherent unknown-but-constitutive elements of language production. Instead, ELF is well-positioned to appreciate the ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘who’ that are embodied within the language forms produced. The ideas presented here allow us to illustrate how ELF as a field opens up great potential for approaching ‘the English language’ as interwoven into various contextualised practices, constructs, and performances, rather than as a code among other codes. We therefore argue that open engagement with complexity serves to foreground challenging questions that, in turn, help to develop a more comprehensive and integrated theoretical framework. ELF research seems ideally placed to embody the complexities of language and thereby contribute to our growing understanding of language and communication in a more holistic way.

Debate is beginning to emerge over ontologies of language among ELF researchers (Firth 2009; Hülmbauer 2013; Mauranen 2012; Mortensen 2013; Seidlhofer 2011) and the underlying epistemological questions that such debate entails. Here our aim is to contribute to these discussions by considering language for the ELF field of enquiry, first by exploring the notions of practice and performance, then examining the value and potential applications of complexity theory and emergence within the field, and finally highlighting how such ideas are related to the value, remit and future of ELF research. However, it is important to state, from the beginning, that we do not see the complexities inherent in the English used as a lingua franca as the main justification for the discussion of these perspectives here. Rather, by examining such considerations of language we see the ELF field of enquiry as a vehicle for a more grounded and holistic treatment of language more generally, which can engage with and inform wider areas of linguistics.

2. Language: The elusive object of study

The reason that consensus on the relevance, focus and purpose of ELF has been hitherto elusive centres around the dynamic and complex nature of human communication and the role of language in this. Agreement over what language is, what language does and at what point language becomes or ceases to be language is seldom reached or even required among scholars in most fields of enquiry that deal with language. It is important, therefore, not to single out ELF as a problematic field that needs to benefit from the ideas presented below, but, rather, to appreciate that such considerations are needed across language research because these fields are closely linked by subject matters and social practices that travel beyond their constructed borders and frameworks. The framework offered here might, therefore, be of equal interest to those engaged with research into language education, literacy, second language acquisition and formal linguistics itself. We make the case that ELF is not unique as either a field or a phenomenon, and, as a consequence, should not be treated as such. Having established that, work within the field needs to reflect the potential value of an ELF research focus, while avoiding misrepresentations of its main object of study: language.

Ways in which language could, and should, be an object of study seems an obvious starting point for any field that has language as a part of its central focus. Such debates have entered discourses around English as a lingua franca, but engagement with the central themes has been slow among researchers for the most part, and it is often hampered by inner- and outer-group positioning, especially in accounts that involve criticism and defence of ‘ELF’. While these debates have been taking place, many researchers are looking at how to incorporate wider theories of communication and language into accounts of ELF, including in our own work (e.g. Baird 2012; Baker 2011, 2013, forthcoming; Kitazawa 2012). These ideas already incorporate aspects of Friedrich and Matsuda’s (2010) call for a performance-based distinction between ELF and EIL, elements of Park and Wee’s (2011) call for a practice-based approach to ELF, and alignment with Pennycook’s (2010) call for greater care and conceptual depth in the general treatment and characterisation of language and its users, a call echoed by Canagarajah (2013). It is our hope, therefore, that ideas of language can be engaged with in the pursuit of understanding, rather than in the establishment of conceptual ground through ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments.

The most fundamental aspect to consider when approaching language is its nature. This paper outlines such considerations for ELF and beyond, but a salient starting point is to trace the roots of linguistic misunderstandings that influence discourses on language. Part of these misunderstandings can be traced to academic practices, and the tendency to seek the legitimisation of research and rhetoric by engaging with discourses of hard-science, which require reliability and delimitation in order to produce ‘empirically valid’ and generalizable results. Seargeant gives a stark warning about the dangers of allowing the influence of certain scientific discourses to permeate our treatment of linguistic phenomena:

To become an object of scientific investigation it is necessary that that object be delimited and have boundaries imposed upon it, but with such regulation comes the danger of partialism, of ignoring the holistic picture (albeit out of practical necessity) in favour of something more manageable. (Seargeant 2010: 1)

This point about the danger of partialism and restriction relates to all stages of research and academic enquiry, from conception and data gathering to interpretations and recommendations. His words echo the sentiment of Foucault, who warned that not only do critical analysts seek to uncover how solutions to a problem are constructed, “but also how these different solutions result from a specific form of problematization” (Foucault 1997: 118-9). We seek to reconsider the extent to which the ELF field can restrict its focus, ground its problematisations and account for the way that human language is formed, constituted and changed by its communicative nature. These points advocate a holistic, reflective and critical approach to phenomena, method and context, in terms of the research field, the researcher and the researched. Such holism needs to be justified, of course, and it is the task of researchers who adopt such orientations to establish and continually reflect upon what, exactly, ought to be included in this holistic account of language.

With these issues in mind, our focus turns to useful conceptual notions of language for ELF and wider fields. The aim in the following sections is to offer aspects of a conceptual framework that can be useful in approaching linguistic phenomena, and placing ELF research in relation to wider fields that can both inform and be informed by our work, as we feel that much of the work being undertaken in the field of ELF has valuable implications for the way language will be considered, treated and applied in future, i.e. as grounded in contextualised communication and discourses.

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