Jennifer Jenkins. The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2000. 258 pp.

Reviewed by David Deterding

English as an International Language (EIL) now plays a vital role in the lives of hundreds of millions of speakers who are not fully proficient in the language, enabling them to communicate with other non-proficient users in a wide range of different fields such as business, science, and official negotiations. The central theme of this book is that, as these speakers, whom Jenkins terms Non Bilingual English Speakers (NBES), now outnumber native speakers of English, their needs must be paramount when we determine the nature of EIL it is no longer acceptable to establish the structure of EIL from the perspective of the traditional native-speaker populations of places such as Britain, America, and Australia. Consequently, Jenkins suggests that we need to evaluate which parts of English pronunciation are essential for interaction between NBESs and which can be regarded as peripheral. She proposes that we need to develop a Lingua Franca Core (LFC) for English, comprising just those phonological features that are necessary for successful communication, and in future our teaching should be based on this LFC.

While the suggestion that some areas of pronunciation are more important than others is not new (e.g. Brown, 1988), Jenkins goes much further by suggesting that the model itself should actually exclude the non-core elements. However, even though many people may welcome such an attempt to simplify the phonological model that we teach, they may find that the actual selection of features to constitute the LFC is highly controversial. For example, Jenkins suggests that, as the dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ are not only rare in languages around the world but also rather difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce, these sounds can be classified as "unteachable" and should thus be excluded from the LFC.

However, there is a problem here: if the dental fricatives are to be replaced in the pronunciation core, what should they be replaced with? Should we choose /f/ and /v/ on the basis that some native speakers, such as Cockneys, already use these sounds (Wells, 1982:328)? Or maybe with /t/ and /d/, as these would be quite close to the pronunciation of many people in Ireland (Wells, 1982:428) and also of some speakers of New Englishes in places such as Singapore (Shanti and Deterding, 2000)? Or perhaps /s/ and /z/, as these sounds are used by many NBESs across Europe? The problem here is that if we encourage replacement of the dental fricatives, then speakers who use /t/ and /d/ in their place could actually become less understandable when they travel through Europe where /s/ and /z/ are commonly found, so we may actually end up exacerbating the problems of miscommunication between NBESs.

Likely to be even more controversial are Jenkins' claims that word stress and intonation, apart from the placement of the nuclear stress, do not cause problems of misunderstanding between NBESs and so should not constitute part of the LFC. I well remember being totally bewildered by an otherwise clear presentation when the speaker seemed to be discussing a seagull, and it was only after a while that I realised he was referring to a cigar, and this misunderstanding which arose out of shifted word stress occurred even though the topic of the discussion, Clinton's problems with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, should have helped. But notice two things about this subjective observation: first it is entirely anecdotal, and it is possible that this has resulted in my selective attention to certain features while others have been overlooked; and secondly, as I am a native speaker of English, it is not an instance of miscommunication between two NBESs. In contrast, Jenkins bases her claims on a wealth of meticulous research concerning communication between NBESs, such as recordings of attempts by Japanese learners of English to convey the contents of a picture to Swiss-German classmates, and so she has substantial empirical evidence for her claims about what is important for EIL and what is not. Consequently, if she claims that certain features can be excluded from the core language for EIL, then in the absence of other research on miscommunication between NBESs, we must take her claims seriously. It is undoubtedly true that up till now there has been a glaring lack of research about how NBESs communicate with each other, and so the contribution of this book is huge.

Jenkins suggests that native speakers of English are now largely irrelevant, and non-native speakers should actually provide the new model for EIL, and she proposes that native speakers need to undergo retraining so that they themselves use the modified pronunciation of the LFC. Furthermore, she suggests that since non-native speakers have undergone the painful process of learning English, they are more attuned to the needs of other learners, and so they are actually the best teachers. These suggestions are certain to be highly unpopular with a large number of teachers of English throughout the world, a fact that Jenkins acknowledges and discusses at some length. But even though many people may not agree with everything she says, everyone involved in the teaching of English should find this book exceptionally valuable, as it is clearly written with cogent arguments based on substantial empirical evidence. Even those who fundamentally disagree with her findings will find the material thoroughly thought-provoking and well worth studying carefully.

References

Brown, A (1988). Vowel Differences between Received Pronunciation and the English of Malaysia and Singapore: Which Ones Really Matter? In New Englishes: The Case of Singapore (J. Foley, editor), Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp129-145.

Shanti M M and Deterding D (2000). Tree or Three? Dental fricatives in the speech of educated Singaporeans. In Brown A, Deterding D, & Low E L (eds.) The English Language in Singapore: Research on Pronunciation. Singapore: Singapore Association for Applied Linguistics, 76-83..

Wells, J C (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(Speak Out! Issue 27, February 2001, pp.38-39)