Can English be used for good?

This week we published Patricia Friedrich’s new book English for Diplomatic Purposes which is the first of its kind to examine the use of English in diplomacy, combining theory and practice to offer a ground-breaking volume for all those working in this field.

English for Diplomatic PurposesCan English be used for good? This question is at the center of my academic practice and was also the driving force behind the invitations I made to colleagues around the world, asking them if they would like to contribute to this book we created, English for Diplomatic Purposes. The fact that these nine researchers/practitioners and I embarked on this creative journey means that we believe it can.

English is often linked to a dramatic colonial past, and to both imperialism and the demise of minority languages at present. While these dynamics cannot be ignored, there is another side to English: that of an important lingua franca, one that brings people together, but that also changes wherever it goes, given local cultures and needs.

This is the backdrop to the book we wrote. How do we reconcile these paradoxical aspects of English and emphasize the uplifting, empowering and life-affirming purposes of the language? First of all, we teach it from an inclusive, summative perspective, and not from a deficit one. This means adding to the students’ repertoire of languages, reaffirming that the languages and varieties that they already speak are valid, functional and representative of their identities and cultures. It also means communicating to native speakers that English is manifested in many different forms. That speaking a variety other than the standard, in contexts where those varieties are called for, is actually a sign of understanding of audience, and that given such fertile variation, linguistic meaning needs to be negotiated in context.

That brings us to the very topic of the book – negotiation and English in diplomatic contexts. While we were familiar with many great pedagogical works that focused on business communication, we believe that the specifics of diplomatic communication called for special pedagogical tools as well. Noticing that those were hard to come by, we decided to start the conversation by writing chapters ourselves. Diplomatic negotiation, dialogue and agreement are special because they go much beyond deal-making, trade exchanges and business alliances. While diplomatic communication is not always synonymous with peace-seeking, we would like to see that facet of diplomacy as the ultimate goal of these exchanges. This applies to the big picture – countries, regions, economic blocks – but also, to a surprising degree, to our own individual lives.

The contributors and I invite you take this journey into the English language’s potential to bring people together in diplomatic conversation and to add your own ideas to the conversation.

For further information about the book, please see our website.

Bringing together ELF and intercultural communication research

Earlier this month we published The Cultural and Intercultural Dimensions of English as a Lingua Franca edited by Prue Holmes and Fred Dervin. In this blog post, the editors explain how, until now, the fields of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and intercultural communication have remained quite separate but their book brings them together. 

The Cultural and Intercultural Dimensions of English as a Lingua FrancaThis book is the first of its kind. It brings together two very popular, yet separate, fields of research: ELF and intercultural communication. Although these two fields have been very productive and at the centre of scholarly and societal discussions in recent decades, their potential intersection has seldom been discussed in scholarly work. We started the project because we believed that ELF without interculturality—as much as interculturality without input from studies on lingua francas—is a little-investigated area and thus represents an opportunity to question orthodoxies and enrich research in both fields.

Our understanding of interculturality acknowledges the socially-constructed nature of intercultural communication, and the limitations of discourses of “cultural difference”, “respect for other cultures” and “tolerance” perpetuated by powerful institutions, the media, and even early scholarship in the field. Interculturalists are moving beyond these conceptualisations towards more politically-informed perspectives of intercultural encounters. What consequence does this move have for lingua franca research and pedagogy, and for ELF in particular?

In his foreword to the volume, Michael Byram notes that our book “may also turn out to be controversial … and all the better so.” Yet our main objective is not to create a polemic, or to nurture or perpetuate spurious disciplinary boundaries, but to open up fertile and interdisciplinary discussions of the cultural and intercultural in lingua franca communication. The introduction and nine chapters that compose the volume, as well as the stimulating commentary chapter by John O’Regan, all discuss how “culture” and “interculturality” can be understood, theorised, and operationalised in ELF, and the implications for pedagogy. The book will therefore appeal to researchers and teachers working in the fields of intercultural communication and language, in particular ELF, and on lingua francas other than English.

For more information about this book please see our website

English in Medical Education, ESP and ELF

We published English in Medical Education by Peih-ying Lu and John Corbett last week.  Here, John answers our questions on, among other topics, the inspiration for the book and its unusual cover.

By Peih-ying Lu and John CorbettWhat inspired you to research English in medical education for this book?

Peih-ying (‘Peggy’) teaches English to pre-clinical students at Kaohsiung Medical University (KMU). She and I are both interested in intercultural language education. Peggy organised a conference at KMU in late 2008 on teaching cross-cultural competences in medical education, a conference that involved a number of experts in medical education from the USA and the UK as well as Taiwan. John attended this conference and chaired one of the sessions, and he and Peggy were both struck by the parallel concerns of medical education and intercultural language education. Both disciplines address the daunting challenge of going beyond the development of subject knowledge and skills to the nurturing of insight and appropriate attitudes to communication and human relationships. And both were experimenting with similar solutions – experiential learning based on problems or tasks, and cultural exploration through disciplines like ethnography and the arts. We became very excited by the possibility of bringing these two fields together – a few educators have already done some brilliant cross-disciplinary work in this area, but there seems room for much more.

How is your book different from others on English for Specific Purposes?

ESP is founded on two pillars: first, identifying students’ needs, and secondly, describing and teaching the language that will meet those needs. It sounds simple and logical, but obviously the definition of human ‘needs’ and the prescription of the language that meets  those needs – and then the teaching of it – is all very complicated. An intercultural approach to medical ESP allows us to step back from a narrow definition of needs and genres, to address broader issues of professionalism, or ‘social needs’, if you like. What kind of doctors and nurses does society want to have? What is ‘a good listener’? How might patients from different backgrounds ‘perform’ their illnesses? How do specialists and non-specialists talk about illness? How does the rise of internet-based health advice change the way doctors negotiate treatments with patients? What does the internet do to a doctor’s authority? How do patients characterise their problems on online medical chat-rooms? The intercultural ESP classroom becomes not just a place to learn the genres associated with the specialist discourse community, it becomes an arena where identities, attitudes and professional beliefs can be explored.

Who in particular do you hope will find your book useful?

This is a book for teachers of English to medical students, and for medical educators with an interest in communication and the arts.  One thing we realised when writing this book is that few universities with medical faculties remain untouched by the issues we raise in the book: universities in Anglophone countries have a substantial proportion of students from non-Anglophone countries, and many universities in non-Anglophone countries, like KMU, are delivering medical curricula – or part of their curriculum – in English. Medical education is increasingly under pressure to address issues of identity and professionalism – we are arguing that the English classroom is a legitimate place to address these issues. In the book we give our reasons why, and suggest how. More broadly, we think the book might interest ESP teachers and curriculum designers who want to look beyond narrower definitions of needs and genre analyses. These aspects of ESP courses are obviously important, but intercultural approaches to ESP can usefully address broader professional concerns. I have recently been doing work with students and teachers of tourism in Kaohsiung, and was interested to see that some of the recent literature on tourism and hospitality is drawing on the debates around codes of professionalism in medicine. We can see these debates impacting on other areas like banking, where professional conduct has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

English is now a lingua franca for people of all nationalities and is one of the widest spoken in the world but do you ever think this will change?

Well, ‘lingua franca’ is a Latin expression, and look what happened to that language, over the centuries! Neither of us has a crystal ball, but it is difficult to see English being knocked off its pedestal as the default lingua franca any time soon – there is too much investment in English education globally, and global media – films, internet, games – reinforce its status. In a world of mass migration, too, healthcare workers are very likely to use English in their daily lives – an Italian doctor or a Filippino nurse might communicate with a Turkish patient, or the patient’s translator, through English. One of the general precepts of communication in English as a lingua franca, widely discussed in the literature, is the ‘let it pass’ principle, that is, if you don’t understand what someone is saying, you should simply let it pass and hope to get the gist of the meaning from the rest of conversation. This principle is of course problematical in medical contexts – healthcare providers can’t afford to let important details pass; they do have to work to understand their patients and to ensure that their own meanings are explicit and clear.

What is next for you in terms of research projects?

Peggy is heading for the USA in January 2013, and will be spending time at Harvard and Georgetown Universities on a Fulbright scholarship. She plans to make further observations of ways in which the medical humanities – particularly art and literature –are used in medical education programs there.  She is also working on ways of evaluating the interface between task-based language learning and By John Corbettproblem-based learning in medicine – how do the skills taught in the language classroom transfer to the medical classroom? In 2013, I am heading to Brazil for a spell, to Sao Paulo, and there I plan to begin working on a second edition of my 2003 book An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching. A lot has happened in the last decade, and I am looking forward to updating the volume.

Finally can you explain the relevance of the picture ‘A Loving Skin-graft’ which appears on the front cover?

That’s a great story, and we tell it in some detail in the book. Briefly, the painting portrays one of the first skin-graft operations to be conducted in Taiwan, in 1928. It was performed by a Scottish medical missionary, David Landsborough. A Chinese boy had presented at his hospital with a badly infected leg, apparently made worse by the application of Chinese folk remedies, and Landsborough decided to try the then-innovative procedure to save the leg. Landsborough’s wife, Marjorie, agreed to be the donor – she is faintly visible in the background of the painting. The first operation failed, but the boy recovered, and later, under Mrs Landsborough’s guidance, he became a Presbyterian minister. The story of the skin-graft operation later inspired Dr. Tsung-ming Tsu, the founder of the medical institution that eventually became KMU, to commission an artist, Shi Qiao Li, to commemorate the incident. For both of us, the painting is perfect for use in intercultural education: an Asian artist has adopted an impressionistic European style to portray an incident that has a strong didactic element. The painting embodies an ideological conflict between western science and Chinese folk medicine, and the missionary’s wife’s sacrifice has an allegorical religious significance. It was also commissioned specifically to inspire particular values in the students who viewed it. Today, we do try to deconstruct these elements in a more critical fashion when we use this painting in class. We treat it as a painting that is designed to disseminate values that can be contested. But, on a personal level, the painting also represents an intercultural encounter between Scotland and Taiwan, and, for obvious reasons, that resonates with us too!

English in Medical Education and An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching are both part of our Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education series.  Information on all of the titles can be found on our website here.