Barbara Seidlhofer ELF
Barbara Seidlhofer (middle) advocates a division between English as a mother tongue and as a lingua franca. With her team she is broaching a new path. Team from left: Stefan Majewski, Marie-Luise Pitzl, Angelika Jezek-Breiteneder and Ruth Osmik-Teasdale © Seidlhofer

Everyone is familiar with this phenomenon: When learning a foreign language, one’s foremost aim is to be able to speak the language as authentically as possible and to emulate native speakers. Barbara Seidlhofer also had these aspirations. During her study of the English language and literature at the University of Vienna, she spends a year in London. There she teaches German at two grammar schools. During her stay she is able to get an appointment to interview Lord Randolph Quirk, Professor at the University College of London. “I was very excited,” says the professor of the English language and literature while recalling the memorable anecdote. After all the honorable Professor is regarded as the Pope of English grammar. “I dressed well and rehearsed our conversation in my mind. Professor Quirk was sitting in the rear of a large room. As I approach him, we already start to talk to each other. And the Professor asks me – in great surprise – why I have such a German-sounding name. In fact, for a few moments he thought I was a native speaker! That was my biggest triumph at the time!”

The native speaker as “instructor”

The highest purpose has, in a certain sense, been achieved. But the native Viennese gained the experience she needed for her career and development while teaching German. All of sudden she had to explain things she had never thought about herself. And gets to know here, for the first time, the subject that is going to accompany her for the rest of her life and trigger an entirely new line of research: discrepancies that one perceives on the one hand as a speaker of one’s own mother tongue and on the other hand as a teacher of a foreign language. “As a teacher,” says the scientist, “one is always an ‘informer’ and ‘instructor’ in one. As an informer one conveys information about the language, as an instructor one can prepare the curriculum in a way that it becomes easy to learn. “Teachers who had to learn the language themselves are more valuable in this regard. Native speakers are usually good informers, which can be interesting for higher classes or for very young learners. However, many of them are unable to explain anything,” says Seidlhofer.

Cooking and smiling for Austria

She experiences this discrepancy again a few years later, when she returns to the English capital – this time as a “diplomat’s wife” with her husband at the time, a physicist turned diplomat. With her marked sense of humor the scientist summarizes this period of time: “I cooked and smiled for Austria.” However, she also wants to start her dissertation. And like many other trained English teachers with whom she communicates in London, she experiences the same thing repeatedly: you may know a great deal about a language, but you always hear the statement, “We employ native speakers only.”

In the lion’s den

Finally the “discriminated” persons form a group and hold a discussion on “Whose language is it anyway?” at a symposium in New York. “Thus we directly entered the lion’s den. No one appears to have thought about it. It was firmly entrenched in the minds of one and all. The legitimate speaker is the native speaker.” To doubt the statement at all is incomprehensible to many. “English-speaking teachers who earn their living by teaching. Linguists who are accustomed to do research about their native speakers, and also non-native speakers who invest a lot of effort all their lives to learn the language they teach as best as they can – sometimes by making a lot of sacrifices and endangering their perception of their own identity to a point of self-abandonment. And then someone like me comes along and says, ‘You don’t need to do that at all.’ ” That’s how she explains the “lion’s den.” The challenge is also accepted by her scientist colleagues. Publications start to appear on the subject: a key experience for the young scientist. She produces a few articles and lectures on English as Lingua Franca (ELF). From the mid 1990-ies the subject becomes a “hot topic”.

What is my language?

“At the latest from the early 1990‘s,” explains the Anglicist, “one could no longer work without a corpus when describing the language. No one listened if one had not researched the subject on a corpus.” The corpus refers to the documentation of authentic speech data, which serve as raw material for linguistic research. Seidlhofer is also interested in this new method. However, she does not wish to do research in English as a mother tongue. “So many have done that before me – I didn’t just want to be one of many,” she says. Therefore she asked herself the question, “What is my language? What is the language I wish to do research in as an Austrian Anglicist?” She had a very new idea on the subject: she linked the much discussed process of globalization with linguistics. The linguistic

“In the course of globalization we have to question the concept of a community that has existed until now.” Barbara Seidlhofer

consequences of global dissemination of the English language had been hardly researched until this time. The starting point of her considerations was the fact that the largest number of users of the English language in the world are persons with various mother tongues who use English as a common means of communication between them. They use English as a lingua franca. Seidlhofer intends to study this lingua franca with the aid of a corpus to be established. How do these numerous non-native speakers – who constitute the majority – speak? How do people deal with a language which they have agreed to speak, but is not their mother tongue? How do they communicate? What does their successful communication depend upon?

Corpus for English as a lingua franca

At a large conference of European Anglicists in Helsinki in 2000, she presents her notion of creating a corpus for English as a lingua franca. The reactions ranged from enthusiasm to horror. From “Fantastic, that’s exactly what we need,” to “That’s incredible! How does one create a corpus of something that is no language in the first place!” She explains it precisely: “In the course of globalization we have to question the concept of a community that has existed until now. Traditional linguistics is based on the use of language in face-to-face contact. Thus the term community is a local one. In the meantime, however, virtual communities are dominant. We communicate through email, skype or mobile phones.”

“VOICE” – the scientific breakthrough

Seidlhofer submits a translational research project to FWF in 2004 and is “overjoyed” about its approval, because she can start her work on the corpus in 2005 with this support. “The FWF’s support enabled me to achieve a scientific breakthrough,” says Seidlhofer. From the very beginning Seidlhofer has been pursuing an open access policy, making the corpus accessible through the Internet. All persons interested in English as a lingua franca can log in free of cost, enter search terms, download the corpus, and may access the entire documentation. Spontaneous verbal ELF interaction in the private and public sector were transcribed exactly. These include conversations, group discussions and interviews: in all 150 speech events, 1300 speakers on 120 hours of audio recording. To prepare this type of data one needed a special method of processing and presenting ELF data. Besides, special software had to be developed to prepare this type of data. The resulting corpus is known as VOICE (Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English“) and consists of one million words. “Th” is of no consequence for communication If one were to integrate the results of this research into teaching the English language, one would have to reform the curricula and reconsider priorities. “Several forms of speech are not important for successfully communication. It would be more important to teach communication strategies. How do I realize whether others understand me or not? How do I give feedback and how do I paraphrase? That is much more difficult to teach,” says Seidlhofer, and continues “Studies have shown that 80 % of communication problems in the international scene are caused by pronunciation, but not all elements are equally important.” According

“The ‘th’ or the third person ‘s’ are usually of no consequence at all in international communication.” Barbara Seidlhofer

to the professor of the English language, the least important things are those which are usually mentioned first in textbooks. “The ‘th’ or the third person ‘s’ are usually of no consequence at all in international communication,” she says. Generations of English students recall several hours of practicing the pronunciation of “th” in front of the mirror. And many future generations will follow, if one were to go by Seidlhofer’s experience: “We let graduates enter teaching practice who, with their university education, could set points of focus as thinking individuals. There they encounter the ‘old school’ and are ‘cut down to size’. The point of priority here is still the production of the right forms,” she explains in a vivid manner. Predictively, she says change will occur in the next generation. Seidlhofer believes we’ll have to take “a long breather” in the meantime. That is exactly why she considers it very important for teachers to receive University-based training. “Because it’s all about critical reconsideration and not about issuing prescriptions as to how people should do the job.” Global English is like a driver’s license The fact that English is treated the same way in the EU as other foreign languages, she feels, is an anachronism. She hopes the global language will be removed from this hierarchy. “It’s still very predominant in people’s minds: a language is either one’s mother tongue or it’s a foreign language. But we also have English as

“Vienna could be the first starting point in the world, as regards research in English as a lingua franca. ” Barbara Seidlhofer

a lingua franca – a soft skill for many, like a driver’s license or knowledge of computers.” She advocates a division between English as a mother tongue and a lingua franca. The purpose is not to teach students poor English; she merely has “evidence” of the fact that other approaches also work in the international context. “We don’t wish to replace one with the other; we’re simply broaching a new path,” she explains.

“I’m a shortage manager”

In ELF research Barbara Seidlhofer is not only one of the founders but – aside from the Universities of Southampton and Helsinki – a global leader. “Vienna could be the first starting point in the world in this field,” she says, and adds bitterly, “If we had the time and didn’t have to deal with shortages most of the time.” As chairman of an institute she has a lot of experience in this regard. “The University of Vienna is the poorest of all Austrian Universities. I am largely occupied with the elimination of shortages: frozen budgets despite increasing numbers of students, lack of personnel, structural problems.” She has time for research only on weekends. It is entirely unrealistic to think of integrating research, teaching and administration into one’s daily routine at the University.” They are still one of the best institutes for English literature throughout the world, she says. But at some stage it will start to crumble. “In ten or fifteen years one will see all the substance that is being destroyed right now,” warns Seidlhofer, and longs for creative solutions. “We can combat the situation. We have to really confront the subject,” she says confidently.

Barbara Seidlhofer is a professor of the English language and Chairman of the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Vienna. She studied English literature, Romance philology and Slavic studies in Vienna, and spent several years studying and teaching in Great Britain. Seidlhofer founded the research facility known as English as Lingua Franca (ELF) at the University of Vienna, which is a global leader along with the universities of Southampton and Helsinki. In two translational research projects supported by FWF, she established the corpus known as VOICE (the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English) from 2005 to 2013, which can be accessed from all over the world at


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