Dismantling the Native-speakerarchy Post 2: “The role of vowel quality in ELF misunderstandings”

(This is the second post in the series “Dismantling the Native-speakerarchy.” Check out the first post here.)

It’s time to pull another Jenga block out of the Native-speakerarchy tower. That block is vowel quality in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) interactions brought to you by the Asian Corpus of English.  


English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is often defined in juxtaposition to English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Yes, yes, the acronyms are irritatingly similar. Don’t shoot the messenger.

ELF refers to English used by speakers of other languages for intercultural communication. Think a French girl and Thai boy falling in love with English as their medium of communication. Or a Korean businesswoman negotiating with a Chinese board of directors in English. ELF prioritizes intelligibility and acknowledges that users will have variations (dropping articles, using relative pronouns like who and which interchangeably, etc.) that deviate from ‘native-speaker’ norms. The variations are a feature not a bug. A natural occurrence in language patterns, not a deficit.

Whereas, English as a Foreign Language is designed to prepare users for communicating with a ‘native-speaker,’ and implied is an attempt to conform to inner-circle (U.S., U.K. etc.) standards. Think a Japanese student studying English to matriculate in a Canadian university. Deviations from the standard are errors. English language instruction in an EFL model seeks to raise students’ accuracy levels to be accepted in academic and professional settings dominated by ‘native-speakers.’ Individual teachers of EFL might not have that philosophy, but mass market coursebooks, curriculum, assessments, and hiring practices demonstrate the pervasive nature of the ‘native-speaker’ norms.

Back to my bae, ELF. English as a Lingua Franca is a threat to the status of ‘native-speaker’ teachers as the gatekeepers of English AND I AM HERE FOR IT. ELF speakers bring the richness of their accents to English, and they don’t have time for all of English’s quirks. Third person singular ‘s,’ I am lookin’ at you.

The Paper

David Deterding and Nur Raihan Mohamed (2016) used the Asian Corpus of English (ACE) to investigate the impact of vowel quality on intelligibility. ACE is a collection of “naturally occurring, spoken, interactive ELF in Asia.” A veritable playground for ELF fanatics.

The OG ELF fangirl Jennifer Jenkins wrote the literal book on it and identified the Lingua Franca Core: a list of pronunciation features that are necessary to comprehensibility in English. Spoiler alert: it’s a short list. It includes “all the consonants of English apart from the dental fricatives,the distinction between long and short vowels, initial and medial consonant clusters, and the placement of intonational nucleus.” (Deterding and Mohamed, 2016, p. 293).  

Lemme ‘splain.

  • Most consonant sounds are necessary for intelligibility. However, the pesky sounds /θ/ as in thot and /ð/ as in that hoe over there are not necessary because substitutions like /f/, /v/, /d/ typically suffice.
  • Short v. long vowels. You know, your sheets v. shits, and your beachs v. bitches, etc. Mastering vowel length is considered important for intelligibility according to Jenkins’ research.
  • Initial and medial consonant clusters. Sounds like  /str/, /mp/, /xtr/, /pl/ /scr/, and so on at the beginning of words, and to a lesser extent, in the middle of words, need to be kept intact for the speaker to be comprehensible.
  • Placement of intonational nucleus: This is stress on a syllable in an intonational unit (group of words), and the wrong stress can throw off the listener, so Jenkins includes it in the Lingua Franca Core.

All other pronunciation features are deemed fair game in ELF by Jenkins, including vowel quality, which is what this paper focuses on. Vowel quality refers to what makes vowels sound different from each other: “I must leave the pep rally early to get a pap smear. Pip pip!”

Vowel quality is why JT’s delivery in “It’s Gonna Be Me” spawned this meme: 

From ACE, Deterding created the Corpus of Misunderstandings (incidentally, the name of my emo band) with data from exclusively outer and expanding circle English speakers.

This paper is building on Deterding’s earlier 2013 work that determined 86% of misunderstandings in CMACE involved pronunciation. He and Mohamed dig into vowel quality specifically because it was left off the Lingua Franca Core by Jenkins.  

Of the 183 tokens of misunderstanding in the corpus, 98 involved vowel quality. In many of those tokens vowel length and quality was an issue, but as vowel length is part of the Lingua Franca Core, they were not included in the analysis, leaving 22 tokens of short vowels misheard for other short vowels. Half of these tokens included /æ/ and /ɛ/, referred to as the TRAP and DRESS vowels in the literature, but what we will call the SASS and FEMME vowels.

When they analyzed each of the 22 tokens in context, they found other pronunciation features that probably caused the misunderstanding, and that vowel quality was indeed a minor factor. For example, “In Token 5, wrapping was misunderstood as ‘weapon’, but the key factor here was the occurrence of /w/ instead of /r/ at the start of the word” (p.229). Recall that consonant sounds are in the Lingua Franca Core and play a big role in intelligibility.


David Deterding and Nur Raihan Mohamed’s research supports Jenkins’ contention that conforming to ‘native-speaker’ standards in vowel quality is unnecessary for English users to successfully communicate. Let me put on my extrapolation cap because you know how I do. ‘Native-speaker’ English teachers don’t have a pronunciation edge over ‘non native-speaker’ teacher colleagues when it comes to vowel quality. It literally does not matter if someone pronounces it, “Thet’s eccentism, you esshet!”

Check out this article if you are a research bish that wants to see the kind of work that can be done with corpus linguistics. And if you’re a EFL bish or an ELF kween. And if you’re a NNEST.

ACE. 2014. The Asian Corpus of English. Director: Andy Kirkpatrick; Researchers: Wang Lixun, John Patkin, Sophiann Subhan. http://corpus.ied.edu.hk/ace/ (May 26, 2018)

Deterding, D. & Mohamed, N. R. (2016). The role of vowel quality in ELF misunderstandings. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 5(3). 291-307.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English and an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Dismantling the Native-speakerarchy Post 1: “Interlanguage Talk: What can breadth of knowledge features tell us about input and output differences?”


A movement has been brewing in the English language teaching field to raise awareness about the discrimination against ‘non-native speaker teachers’ and the privilege of ‘native speaker teachers.’ (The labels themselves are problematic, and, as the incredible advocates at TEFL Equity have argued, can perpetuate the hierarchy.)

Apart from the very compelling reasons of fighting against the inequality, racism, linguistic imperialism, etc. of the native-speakerarchy, there is a lack of evidence in linguistics research that ‘native speakers’ are superior language teachers.

As someone who got my start in ELT through the privilege of my ‘native speaker’ status and a silver spoon passport, I feel the urgency to use whatever influence I have to advocate for equal status of all English language teachers. SO consider this the inaugural post in a series that digs into research showing the emperor has no clothes. ‘Native speaker’ teachers have no magical teaching abilities bestowed upon them by the fairy godmother of English.


Scott A. Crossley and Danielle S. McNamara (2010) set out to determine if ‘non-native speaker’ lexical production (that just means words, kiddos) changes whether their interlocutor is a ‘native speaker’ or not.

DISCLAIMER: Crossley and McNamara do not pass the Holliday Test. Adrian Holliday has had it up to here with ‘native speaker’ bullshit. He’s decided not to review any research that uses the labels ‘native speaker’ or ‘non-native speaker’ without a critical discussion of such. This work was published 8 years ago and does not reflect the latest thinking on the use of those terms. I am giving them the benny of a doubt, but I do wish they had called their subjects ‘language learners’ or SOMETHING less incendiary.


The researchers recruited ‘native speakers’ (NS) and ‘non-native speakers’ (NNS) from an American university, and collected a corpora of spoken language between a boatload of NNS-NS and NNS-NNS dyads. They analyzed the interactions with a computational tool, Coh-Metrix, focusing on lexical diversity and frequency.

I MUST DISCLAIM AGAIN: There is no mention of how these groups were deemed ‘native’ or ‘non-native speakers,’ or what that even means, so take it all with a grain salt. Re-read what Adrian Holliday has to say on the issue, and proceed with caution.

They hypothesized that NS-NNS interactions would provide more comprehensible input to the language learner. Comprehensible input is the language that learners are exposed to via listening or reading that is modified for their level of proficiency. It is generally acknowledged to be critical to language acquisition. Crossley and McNamara suggest that because ‘native speakers’ alter how they speak when communicating with someone they perceive as ‘non-native’ their speech will be extra comprehensible.

A second hypothesis was that NNSs would “produce more varied and more infrequent vocabulary” with NS interaction. This is the aforementioned lexical diversity and frequency. Lexical diversity is calculated by dividing the number of different words by the total number of words in a given (in this case spoken) text. The idea is that higher diversity equals a wider vocabulary, a signal of higher command of a language. Lexical frequency refers to how common a particular word is in corpora. Therefore, “more infrequent vocabulary” just means less common words, again signalling a wider vocabulary.

Allow me to paraphrase this ménage à deux of hypotheticals: ‘Native speakers’ will have a positive effect on language learners’ lexical input and output.

And so…?

What they found regarding output was NNSs produced more lexical diversity when speaking with other NNSs, which is to say they used a wider range of vocabulary. They also found that NNSs used more frequent vocabulary when speaking to other NNSs. The explanation being they likely simplify their speech to be comprehensible to lower proficiency speakers, much in the same way NSs do.

Furthermore, “the study demonstrates that NNSs receive no specific lexical benefits related to lexical diversity and frequency from interacting with NSs.” The input from NNSs and NSs was equally comprehensible vis a vis lexical features.

There you have it, folks. A study which a) employed problematic terms, and b) hypothesized NS interlocutors would come with lexical benefits actually provided evidence to file in our ‘NATIVE SPEAKERS’ ARE NOT HASHTAG BLESSED WITH LANGUAGE ACQUISITION GIFT-GIVING-POWERS FILING CABINET.

Indeed, it shows that NNS interlocutors are fine and good and great. Can I extrapolate that ‘non-native speaker’ teachers are fine and good and great? Try and stop me. Crossley and McNamara conclude that their findings have implications on the use of pairwork and groupwork in EFL classrooms, but I think we can also point to this study to show that ‘non-native speaker’ English teachers are not at a disadvantage when it comes to lexical features of input and output.

Recommended reading for all language teacher bishes and bishes who wish to arm themselves against the native-speakerarchy. BONUS: It’s pretty short and not behind a paywall.

Crossley, S. A., & McNamara, D. S. (2010). Interlanguage talk: What can breadth of knowledge features tell us about input and output differences? Proceedings of the 23rd International Florida Artificial Intelligence Research Society.


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