Peter Medgyes brought to TESOL Spain a quirky plenary which somehow managed to be poetic, theatrical and intellectual at the same time. The performance amused and enchanted the audience, myself included – I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it left some puzzled as to what it was about. As one teacher commented to me, ‘What is ELF, and why is it important?’. I think the problem was one of timeliness. Peter seems to be shutting the gate after the horse has already bolted.
It’s not that ELF (the English-as-a-Lingua-Franca movement associated with the work of Jennifer Jenkins) no longer exists, it’s that the wavefront has already passed. Part of it has already been absorbed into ELT common sense – it is fairly widely understood that English has taken on an international role and that the majority of its speakers are not natives of the US, UK, Canada, Australia etc. Part of the ELF movement has morphed into advocacy for the rights of these non-natives, as discussed in Silvana Richardson’s plenary. Another part of the ELF movement has been somewhat superseded by another wave – a change to a less static, more dynamic approach to language learning goals. In the early ELF work, Jennifer Jenkins went to great lengths to identify a ‘core’ of essential pronunciation features which were essential to international intelligibility. This core would then become the learning goal. In later work, however, the emphasis moved toward the more dynamic goal of accent adaptability: that rather than aim for one specific model, learners should develop the ability to ‘accommodate’ to a wide variety of interlocutors. This emphasis on adaptability was no longer recognisably ‘ELF’ as the ELT world had come to know it, but something else.
So what was it that Peter Medgyes was speaking out against? For me, I think the main message was against dogma – theoretical positions which allow no dissent. He said that theorists ought to welcome criticism, never strike out against it. Intolerance of dissent amounts to a rather Trumpian “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” – a very polarizing attitude. Peter is right - when ELF, or any other theoretical position, becomes dogmatic, it deserves rebuke. And there have been times when Jennifer Jenkins has appeared very dogmatic, not least of which was in an acrimonious exchange in IATEFL Voices between herself and... well, Peter Medgyes, in fact.