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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Mouton September 17, 2021

English as an Academic Lingua Franca: discourse hybridity and meaning multiplicity in an international Anglophone HE institution

Sami Alhasnawi

Sami Alhasnawi did his PhD at the University of Southampton, UK. He works as Assistant Professor at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Iraq. His research focuses on Sociolinguistics, ELF, EMI, Genre/Register-based studies, and Intercultural Communication.

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Factors of globalization have led to a constant rise of English as an academic lingua franca (ELFA). This is evidenced not only by the increasing use of English in scientific publications, but also in the attraction held by Anglophone countries as destinations of high-achieving international students and the rise of English-medium instruction (EMI) outside of Anglophone institutions. While ongoing research in ELF has shown that the native-only norms are being challenged through the changed realities of English use, little attention has so far been paid to how similarly or differently ELFA is conceptualized and practiced across academic disciplines within the same international Anglophone University. For this end, this work presents data on the English for Special Purposes/English for Academic Purposes and content teachers’ perceptions on English and how this, in turn, shapes their classroom discourse as a shared practice among members of the same academic discipline in a highly international UK-based university. Findings suggest that ELFA is characterized with its versatility and volatility as part of the dynamic nature of disciplinary norms for meaning-making and knowledge-construction practices.

1 Introduction: issues of terminology and beyond

In response to internationalising Higher Education (HE), English has generally become a default language for academic initiatives, including international publications, conference activities and teaching. It is recognized as “a standard practice” in HE across the world where heterogeneity and diversity are the main characteristics (Ball and Lindsay 2013: 59). This is represented in the recent increase in statistics on the number of English-medium instruction (EMI) programmes across European universities from approximately 700 in 2002 to 2,400 in 2007 and even beyond 8,000 in 2014 (Wächter and Maiworm 2014). With such a remarkable dominance of English in academia, issues related to its definition, nature, social hierarchy of its varieties, perceived threats to other languages and the impact of all this on learning and teaching have come to the fore (e.g. Dearden 2014; Jenkins 2014). As “an expanding phenomenon” (Kuteeva 2019: 1), EMI typically means the use of English to teach subjects in countries of which English is not the L1 (Macaro et al. 2018). Drawing on Humphreys (2017: 95–96), I would argue that Macaro et al.’s (2018) approach to EMI provides a traditional dichotomous approach to EMI in HE as Anglophone and non-Anglophone settings are distinguished on the basis of the expected “high” level of international students’ language proficiency and outcome, which is no longer a relevant reflection of the super-diverse nature of EMI universities. As in Baker and Hüttner (2019), international Anglophone universities are no longer different from non-Anglophone ones in terms of their diverse lingua-cultural backgrounds, issues of language proficiency and the impact of that on individuals’ learning and teaching practices. In comment on Macaro et al.’s (2018) definition of EMI, Baker and Hüttner (2019) further argue that having Anglophone universities excluded from EMI discussions participates in giving an “exceptional” position to such universities and promoting Standard English ideology with the potential to devalue international students’ L1s. To explain, this serves more the notion of “linguicentrism” in academia (Spolsky 2004: ix) and fails to fully take into account the manner in which diversity manifests itself in the globalization era, which in turn perpetuates the “hyper-central” role of English across the academic world (De Swaan 2001). As in Phillipson’s (1992: 65) “linguistic imperialism,” the global dominance of English institutionally sustains the political and economic power, hegemony and standards of “inequality” from the center to the periphery.

It has then become increasingly important to consider the dramatic change to the social structure of the international academic environments at the tertiary level and how this, in turn, impinges upon language practices (Dafouz and Smit 2014; Doiz et al. 2013; Jenkins 2014). As highlighted in Kuteeva et al., “[i]n the current sociolinguistic landscape of many European universities, national languages and English as an academic lingua franca are used alongside a plethora of other linguistic resources, including different codes and registers” (2020: 4), which increasingly includes Anglophone universities. From an ELF perspective, determining what “standard/native English” means has become a contentious and contested matter due to the diversified uses of English in international universities (Canagarajah 2013; Jenkins 2014). English in such settings cannot by any means be considered a “monolithic entity,” English in HE, from a linguistic ecology perspective (Haugen 1972), is alternatively “a [hybridized] form of patterned behavior arising from the needs of human sociality: communication, culture, and community” (Garner 2005: 91). It is adopted and adapted as “a shared communicative resource within which they [ELF speakers] have the freedom to accommodate to each other, code-switch, and create innovative forms that differ from the norms of native English and do not require sanctioning by native English speakers” (Jenkins 2011: 931). It is in this sense closer to being a linguistic repertoire shared between individuals with their disciplinary expertise and conventions (Dafouz and Smit 2014; Mauranen et al. 2010). From this perspective, English is hence considered as a hybridized and adaptable resource, diversified in practice to meet its HE users’ communicative needs for their meaning-making and knowledge-structure processes as members of a particular discipline within the same academic setting. In this sense, “real proficiency” more lies in the speakers’ ability to take ownership of English and appropriate it for their own ends rather than being assessed in relation to how close to or far it is from predetermined native norms (Widdowson 1994: 384).

Linked to ELFA, such a line of thought has further extended to include questioning the nature of English and how it could be diversely used to serve a particular academic end in EMI settings (e.g. Kuteeva et al. 2020). Drawing on Becker’s (1988) “linguistics of particularity,” there is a set of different rules, linguistic resources, discourse orders and ideologies co-constructed and mutually shared among EMI individuals across their different disciplines, which implicitly expresses who they are, what they do, when, how, and why they interact (Busch 2012; Nesi and Gardner 2012). From the social-constructionist perspective, ELFA across university disciplines works as a tool for self-presentation, self-identification and belonging to a particular community of practice via the development of academic discourse practices (Duff 2007; Heller and Morek 2015).

Linked to Lea and Street’s (1998) Academic Literacies model, ELFA-related norms and conventions across university disciplines must be understood as “social and context-dependent practices that are influenced by factors such as power relations, the epistemologies of specific disciplines and students’ identities” (Wingate and Tribble 2012: 482). In the view of Lea and Street, the Academic Literacies model is broad enough to avoid homogenizing academic culture and serves “to recognize the multiplicity of communities of practice within the academy” (Lea 2004: 741). It is transformative in the sense that it considers the locality of disciplinary conventions and the impact of this on individuals’ different voices, discourse hybridity and meaning multiplicity (Lillis and Scott 2007). As socially situated practices, (Heller and Morek 2015), ELFA disciplinary discourses diverge and converge to encompass individuals’ beliefs, attitudes and values about what is being practiced in their educational domains as members of a particular academic community. How intelligible, clear and meaningful individuals’ discourse is depends on how familiar those discourse practices are to other interlocutors. As in Bakhtin (1981), all ELFA practices are formed by centripetal and centrifugal drives, moving simultaneously towards specific-disciplinary language use trends and towards heteroglossic ELFA variations, which serves to ensure mutual disciplinary comprehension. Academia in this sense is a reflection of a particular type of discourse, both at the “macro-level (the schematic and rhetorical structure of academic genres) and the micro-level (lexicogrammatical features, formulaic language)” (Kuteeva and Airey 2013: 538) as inseparable dimensions of language. The linguistic features typical of academic language – in contrast to everyday language – are “not just another way of saying the same thing” (Halliday 1993: 84), but rather, they represent a special(ized) way of thinking about the world (Gee 2008).

Thus, academic success in ELFA settings is more related to developing relevant (often subject specific) skills in English along with associated literacy in academic discourse than it is to conforming to its conventionally established varieties (Kuteeva et al. 2020). This is where English for specific purposes (ESP) and English for academic purposes (EAP) programs come to play a key role, where ESP/EAP teachers need “to activate and expand their students’ existing terminology knowledge and help them identify patterns and structures in relevance to professional genres” (Schmidt-Unterberger 2018: 530), and further their students’ mastery of other academic skills like note-taking, giving presentations, critical reading, writing and discussing papers, a point that almost all university disciplines share. This is still, however, a critical issue, where linguistic features and conventions vary across academic disciplines regardless of how relatively close to or far from each other they are (Hyland 2009).

Based on the above, I would argue that it has become more important than ever to question academic conventions along with institutional policy, to address issues relating to identity and power, and to consider academic discourse as a social practice in international HE settings where diversity and heterogeneity are increasingly the norm (see e.g. Jenkins 2014; Lillis and Scott 2007). As in Leung, “more empirical investigation is needed to explore the question of what counts as academic language, and the case for considering a wider ‘academic communication’ perspective is strong” (Leung 2014: 140). Such an attempt helps to investigate and better understand how English practices converge and diverge to negotiate and share a common ground to establish meaning across academic disciplines (e.g. Hyland 2009; Wenger 1999).

For a better understanding of the nature of English in academia, it has become essential to depart from an essentialist view that meaningful, understandable and intelligible communication is merely restricted to individuals’ knowledge of what words mean and how they could be grammatically structured. This stems from the fact that meaning across academic disciplines is not a fixed phenomenon that can be approached or achieved via “mastering” certain linguistic units and structural rules, but rather it is multiple in terms of being intricately related to individuals’ shared knowledge, values, beliefs and attitudes (Gee 2008; Nelson 2012). As Janicki explains, “words do not have single correct definitions,” but rather “meaning is assigned to words by real people rather than found in words” (2011: 72). On this basis, words more likely come to have new meanings in response to the contexts of language use at certain points of time and place. It is all a matter of negotiation or social practice to share a common ground of understanding. Negotiations can be settled for the time, and meaning then becomes conventional and routine (Wenger 1999).

So, what we really need for a more in-depth description and understanding of ELFA in EMI programs is answering the question “why does a particular use of language [English] take the shape it does?” (Flowerdew 2013: 22). With its focus on language issues and intricacies, my project primarily aims to explore ESP/EAP and content teachers’ beliefs on English as LF and how this comes to be enacted in their classroom discourses across their academic disciplines, which in a way or another serves to answer a question like Flowerdew’s. As I explain below (see Figure 1), I found Dafouz and Smit’s (2014) ROAD-MAPPING framework a valuable approach to capture the multitude of EMI practices (cf. Baker and Hüttner 2016). This work thus contributes to addressing concerns over language ideologies that continue to promote “native” English varieties in international Anglophone university settings. It further helps to understand how similarly or differently English is conceptualized and practiced across disciplines within the same university, which serves to take literacy from its “traditional” sense, the ability to read and write, to that which critically encapsulates issues related to academic conventions, identity and power as part of institutional policy (Lillis and Scott 2007).

Figure 1: 
The ROAD-MAPPING framework (Dafouz and Smit 2014: 8).
Figure 1:

The ROAD-MAPPING framework (Dafouz and Smit 2014: 8).

2 Teacher beliefs on language in HE

In recent years there has been an increasing research trend towards investigating the impact of beliefs on teachers’ instructional strategies, styles and performance across different educational settings (e.g. Ajzen 2005; Doğruer et al. 2010; Williams and Burden 1997). In Borg, teacher beliefs are defined as the “tacit, personally held practical system of mental construct” (Borg 2006: 35) about teaching and learning processes, which dynamically participates in shaping the culture of teachers’ classrooms (Barcelos and Kalaja 2011; Cortazzi and Jin 1996). Teacher beliefs are classified into “core beliefs,” those which result from classroom experiences, and “peripheral beliefs,” which are established through training programmes as “ideal” practices and not translated into actions on the ground (Phipps and Borg 2009). Beliefs are of a paradoxical nature in virtue of being dynamic and stable, social and personal, situated and generalizable, dialectical and orienting, inter-related and embedded, non-linear, multifunctional and multidimensional (Mercer 2011: 343). They are emergent, and so a contextualized perspective that considers their “variability, contingency and inconsistency” (Kramsch 2003: 111) should be taken on board. The intricately dynamic relationship between teacher beliefs and classroom actions has been highlighted in different contexts by Borg (2006) and Barcelos and Kalaja (2011). In Phipps and Borg (2009), for example, classroom management tensions and students’ expectations have been identified as implicit contextual factors for the mismatch between teachers’ stated beliefs and their classroom practices in teaching grammar.

Linked to language ideologies, beliefs are defined as ideas about the nature of language, how certain linguistic codes are valued and given meanings to express teacher identity and stance in a particular context (De Costa 2011). What is important to highlight is that the analysis of language beliefs and values is a possible means to uncover the discourses surrounding the roles of languages and their positions in academia (Kuteeva et al. 2020). Due to the increasing popularity of EMI programmers in HE, teacher beliefs regarding English have become the core of research in Europe (e.g. Airey 2011; Nikula et al. 2016). With their focus on the intricate conceptualizations of the roles of English and other languages in multi-linguacultural universities in Asia, Continental Europe and the UK, Baker and Hüttner (2016) is a further example in which the authors identified a complex set of beliefs about the diverse roles of English and other languages across their multilingual research sites. With this in mind, I argue that it is important to approach ESP/EAP and content teachers across their academic disciplines within the same university using this same analytical ROAD-MAPPING framework as has been adopted in this project.

3 The ROAD-MAPPING framework for conceptualizing English in HE

This study adopts Dafouz and Smit’s (2014) ROAD-MAPPING framework to capture the diversity and multiplicity of EMI practices across the academic disciplines under study (cf. Baker and Hüttner 2016, 2019; Dafouz 2018). Dafouz and Smit’s (2014) ROAD-MAPPING is a holistic applied linguistic framework which acknowledges EMI-interrelated aspects with discourse as its center (see Figure 1). Following its acronyms, Roles of English (RO) refers to the broad range of functions English as LF has in comparison to other languages in international universities. Academic Disciplines (AD) denotes the different sets of discourse conventions and epistemological features associated with and characterizing each discipline, or disciplines, as communities of practice. (Language) Management (M) is related to language explicit and implicit policy statements (LP) and how this may, or may not, affect language practice in HE settings. Agents (A) refers to teachers, students and admin staff as social members of the same academic institution and the dynamic roles they have in accordance with their hierarchical positions in HE. Practices and Processes (PP) is more concerned with the agents’ classroom ways of thinking and doing as discursive practices for constructing and developing their own disciplinary knowledge and how this could be influenced by teacher beliefs on their learning and teaching practices to support their students. Finally, Internationalization and Globalization (ING) indicates the kind of decisions, procedures and guidelines universities need to respond to the global and local incentives behind internationalizing HE content and the sense of heterogeneity that characterizes our current world of knowledge.

This study implements the ROAD-MAPPING framework as both analytical and methodological tool because it is dynamic and holistic and thus well suited to understand the complexities associated with EMI across academic disciplines within the same international university under study. Agents (A) is chosen as an access point with its focus on the ESP/EAP and content teachers’ stated beliefs on English and its multiple RO in their meaning-making and knowledge-construction processes as part of their PP within their AD. Following a contextual approach to teacher beliefs as socially emergent constructs (Mercer 2011), in relation to the participating teachers’ PP across their AD, this work serves to know how similarly or differently participating teachers experience and conceptualize the intricate nature of EMI and how this could be enacted in their pedagogical (teaching and assessment) practices within the same international UK university.

4 Research questions and methodology

As this work mainly endeavors to explore language and content teachers’ beliefs about the roles of English as ELFA and how this can be enacted in their classroom practices across different academic disciplines within the same international Anglophone (UK) university context, the following two research questions have been formulated:


What are the stated beliefs of university ESP/EAP and content teachers with regard to ELFA?


In what way(s) are teachers’ stated beliefs enacted in their teaching and assessment practices?

To answer these questions, the researcher approached a number of ESP/EAP and content teachers of different academic units within the same international UK-university context. As an international university, the research setting in this work is characterized by a multi-linguacultural academic staff and student community. The choice of the university was mainly related to being a research-driven institution, a highly ranked international university in the UK and with staff and students from more than 125 countries other than the UK. English is the only medium of instruction and assessment, with the only exception being programs in modern foreign languages. For Jenkins, a university context like this “would seem to be perfect […] to explore the implications of ELF for their language policies and practices” (Jenkins 2011: 932). As McArthur (1998: 14) points out, English in international universities is more often than not in a constant process of hybridization where it “kills” and “displaces” other languages, but at the same time it is affected by those languages to develop a new shape. Metaphorically speaking, this is part of the “epiphytic” phenomenon that English demonstrates across academic disciplines. From a linguistic ecology perspective (Haugen 1972), ELFA in this sense is not a “monolithic” entity, but rather “a [hybridized] form of patterned behaviour arising from the needs of human sociality: communication, culture, and community” (Garner 2005: 91). Thus, addressing teachers’ beliefs and classroom practices across different academic disciplines, to a greater or less extent, helps understand the centripetal and centrifugal forces under which English operates in response to its users’ diverse lingua-cultural backgrounds, disciplinary interests and needs (Lyster 2017; Schmidt-Unterberger 2018).

In light of the above, the invitation for participation was mainly based on the level of academic expertise (teaching experience in undergraduate and postgraduate programmers and publication) announced on the teachers’ university profiles. It was also necessary for the researcher to consider how representative the academic disciplines to the university faculties were, as well as take into account the language background of the invited participants (English speaking and international staff members) in order to know how similarly or differently they perceive and experience EMI and to investigate the impact of this on their classroom practice across their teaching sites. Overall, 14 university teachers (3 ESP/EAP teachers and 11 content lecturers) volunteered to participate in this study, allowing access to their classrooms and agreeing to be interviewed. It came by coincidence that 50 % of the participants were native speakers of English (an ESP/EAP teacher and six content lecturers of different academic units) (Appendix C).

4.1 Data collection

This work is qualitative in nature with the use of both semi-structured interviews and classroom observation. In considering teacher beliefs as an analytical focus, this work provides an emic view to better understand how English is conceptualized and practiced as a social phenomenon (Cohen et al. 2007). As in Hüttner et al., focusing on “what is done, what should be done and what is believed to be done” (2013: 269) aids the researcher to understand EMI-related complexities.

Data were collected by the author as part of his PhD project and ethical clearance was sought and obtained. To be validated, the interview and classroom observation protocols were piloted by a Native English-speaking ESP/EAP teacher and a content lecturer. Suggestions related to avoiding linguistics-based terminology and other stylistic issues were taken on board by the researcher in the final stage of the research instruments. The datasets in this work consist of 14 recorded interviews and 21 classroom observations, undertaken with the use of written field notes in both undergraduate and postgraduate classes (Appendix C). The researcher further managed to be enrolled on the participants’ taught courses to know more about their teaching materials, learning objectives and assessment procedures.

The interview grid was based on Dafouz and Smit’s (2014) framework. It was flexible enough to address participants’ beliefs about English, roles in internationalizing HE content and how this may (or may not) be enacted in their practices and processes within their settings (Appendix A). The aim was to consider the situation as a whole via moving from what is so specific about English into what is more general about it at the university level. In conducting interviews, English was the only shared language between the researcher and participants. Time and place for interviews were flexibly decided in accordance with the participants’ professional commitment. They were all audio-recorded and 60–87 min was the average of each.

With classroom observation, the researcher was more enabled to go beyond “perception-based data” (Cohen et al. 2007: 396) to “a first-hand experience” of the researched setting (Cowie 2009: 168) to understand why the participants believe the way they do about English in their taught programmes. Using a flexibly designed observation grid (Appendix B), the participants’ context was considered as a whole with considerable attention to language specific issues and other unanticipated events which could emerge out of each observation event (Merriam and Tisdell 2015).

The researcher tried to have a flexible role to go beyond tracing cause-effect relationships and consider further the different meanings participants give to English in interviews and how this could be reflected in their practice (pedagogy and assessment) for accomplishing their own academic ends. Although generalizability is not an end in this work, where the same researched issue could be differently experienced, described and defined by different participants within the same or different research contexts, thus leading to different stories and conclusions regarding that issue (Lichtman 2013), this work valuably explores the multiple conceptualizations of English and its hybridized nature across university disciplines as part of its diverse academic roles.

4.2 Data analysis

The collected data was submitted to both qualitative content analysis (QCA) and discourse analysis (DA). While the former served to analyse what participants say about English across their teaching sites, the latter further provided an interpretive analysis of how English was practiced to shape their EMI membership (Schreier 2012). A top-down and a bottom-up development of codes were considered in constructing the study codebooks via NVivo 10 software package. The top-down codes were originally drawn from Dafouz and Smit’s (2014) ROAD-MAPPING framework, with bottom-up codes emerging from the data. An index of central (recurring) themes and subthemes within the transcribed interviews in relation to Dafouz and Smit’s RO, PP and AD dimensions was created.

As a retrieval process, codes were classified hierarchically where a mother code was devoted to all texts that signify similar ideas, phenomena or classroom activities related to the dimensions of the framework. It was repeatedly constructed where some of the codes were aggregated under other similar ones or used to form new codes as emergent data (Schreier 2012). Inter-coder reliability was established through coding two interviews and two observations, thankfully, by both an expert and two other junior researchers within the same field of study. Disagreements were resolved through modifying some of the codes and code-boundaries.

The interview study revealed the following two main themes in relation to the RO dimension in Dafouz and Smit’s (2014) ROAD-MAPPING framework:

  1. English only as the academic language

  2. Intelligible English as a disciplinary language

In observation, the theme “Words in Action” is used to provide evidence to the representation of the participants’ complex perception of English in their hybridized classroom discourses as members of the same academic community. The identification of the register of “research recounts”, “mathematical and chemical formulae”, and “geographical sites and maps” across academic units under study is an evident example of the fluidity and stability of their language practices. Teaching of “a common core English” in the Center for Language Study (CLS) under PP, which is inextricably linked to AD, is a further representation of the participants’ complex English-related practices.

4.3 Findings

Questions related to the role(s) of English, conceptualizations of the paradox in the use of ELFA wherein stability and flux go hand in hand across academic disciplines and the representation of this on ground as part of the agents’ academic discourses in international universities were important to consider (cf. Baker and Hüttner 2016; Dafouz and Smit 2014), a point that explains why the researcher chose to focus on teacher beliefs in relation to RO, PP and AD. In this context, participants’ beliefs about such questions and how these could be enacted in their pedagogical practices across their academic units are explained below.

4.3.1 RO: English only as the academic language

In comment on the roles and academic status of English in their different university disciplines, participants in this project shared the view that English is the “only”, “inevitable”, “common”, “right”, and “prominent” lingua franca. In their reported beliefs (examples below), this is, as in McArthur (1998), a de facto, and a de jure, status quo, and there is no “presumed threat” to its “current” and “future” roles across their academic units.

In CLS, Zofia, for example, states that

We have students can speak like 5 or 6 different languages […] but they are not really widely used in the academic context only English is used.

The dominance of English in academia for her colleague, Oliver, does not threaten individuals’ other languages where different L1s are still there. However, he did not mention where that “room” was, for what purposes these “other languages” were used and by whom (Extract [2]; see Appendix D for the transcription conventions).

I think there is […] a space for other languages (.) I do think English is dominant […] but not brutally dominant.

I further asked the participants whether they can imagine any other language now or in the future to replace English in academia at the tertiary level. This question pushed them to do a double take with raised eyebrows. For them, this is an “unexpected”, “unbelievable” and “unimaginable” scenario. In Oliver’s view, the world is now of English where “two hundred years’ time” is not enough to have a different language for academia. For content teachers like Emily in Education, it is even “unimaginable” to have a language other than English and that “an English university (.) has to be in English”. In Bram’s view, English is a “pivotal” and “common” means for the university “to reap the benefits of internationalisation”.

A similar view has been identified in Bioengineering where after a short time of silence, Liam said the following.

m: well I think that English is what people would be expecting to speak in the future [as] a common language […] English will remain the lingua franca I can’t imagine it is gonna be changed to French

A reference to the rising role of China and India and the potential threat of that to the current position of English has been identified as a point of divide between George and Zofia in their different academic units. That is, while the former in Transportation Engineering thinks that the role of English as “a kind of lingua franca” will not be replaced or displaced despite the remarkable role of China and India, the latter in CLS was uncertain about the threat of Chinese to English and delegated this question to the future.

In comment on the “historical” role Germany used to have compared to the current role of English in Chemistry, Santiago thinks that

years ago Germany was as powerful as English as the Chemistry language not any more […] in Chemistry all the journals are now in English. I don’t see that any language could replace English […] English is an international language.

In Bram’s view (Extract [5]), the reason why “English-only” scenario in academia, not any other language, can be attributed to the lack of a language candidate.

I don’t see any candidate […] English is the only one because curricula don’t really cater for other languages [and] if England for example and the Netherlands would put Spanish in their curriculum then may be after 50 years it might be good enough so that you could adopt this.

As in McArthur (1998: 39), such views express an explicit status given to English that seems to stem from the participants’ need to use it as the only unequivocal medium of academic activity. Participants were further invited to comment on the “English varieties” (“Standard/Non-Standard”, “Native/Non-native”) they think important for their meaning-making and knowledge-construction processes across their academic units. In their reply, “intelligible English” has been identified as the core of their views.

4.3.2 Intelligible English as a disciplinary language

In this context, “intelligible English” (regardless of which geographical region[s] its speakers are from) emerged as a shared theme among participants regarding the English they see as important for their academic practices. All participants shared a cluster of beliefs that teachers and students do not need to demonstrate their mastery of a “Native English”, “Standard English”, “BBC”, “Queen’s English” and “Southern English”, but that which is “intelligible”, “clear”, “understandable”, “interpretable” and “comprehensible” for their disciplinary membership as an academic community.

Jacob (Politics and International Relations), for example, shared the view that “Queen’s English”, “standard English” or whatever else used to refer to an “ideal” English variety is not and should not be thought of as the only right choice for mutual understanding on an international campus like his. For him, it is “boring” and even “unnatural” to train people, and if that is really possible, to exclusively speak a variety like “Queen’s English” which is not, in Bram’s view, “the silver bullet”.

In CLS, Zofia further said the following.

many students view English […] should be spoken like Received Pronunciation Queen’s English or BBC English or however we call it (.) they come here and expect people to use that kind of English as superior I like breaking those barriers because there’s no better accent there’s just different accents

In Management, Harry expressed a similar view that

from a student’s perspective […] there’s an expectation that they’re gonna come to the UK or an English university and everyone will speak Queen’s English and everyone will be completely clear you know this is just never gonna happen

Being proficient in a particular type of English does not, for George, mean individuals’ “automatic understanding of the course material” where students further need mathematical skills as another prerequisite in Engineering. It is the “technical language” that native and non-native speakers of English, Liam similarly thinks, need to demonstrate for engineering.

In comment on their own Englishes as teachers in an international university, both Agata in Archaeology and Joanna in CLS (Extracts [8] and [9], respectively) further come to express the hybrid nature of English as an international language.

I don’t have a British accent but I don’t have an American accent necessarily either when I go to US they think I have a British accent which is absolutely not true […] some British people think I have an American accent but I’ve never lived in US so it’s really a mixture of all kinds […]
I think I can’t really say my English is native-like or a typical Polish person’s English it’s like somewhere in-between

Such views challenge the “traditional dichotomy” related to “native speaker” and “non-speaker” where English as ELFA in this context puts all at stake. That is, English is no longer, if ever it was, the property of its “native” users as “birthright,” “but the property of any particular group or groups […] with any kind of stake in it” (McArthur 1998: 35). Linked to this, Bram’s view that teachers in Education need English that helps “to express a difficult theory in simple words so that’s more didactic or pedagogy” further reflects the change and challenge to ideas related to the centrality of “native speakers” of English as “norm-providers” for academics. A view like Bram’s in Education has an echo in CLS where Oliver thinks that “courses […] about academic writing skills and critical thinking skill [are] more important really than whether the teacher has a British kind of South accent”.

However, I have also been able to identify some of the participants’ counter language ideologies. This is to say that “Southern English”, for the NS and NNS participants, is considered as a point of reference to “understandable” and “perfect” English and that “Northern English” and “Scottish” are perceived as “problematic” or “worse” Englishes in other academic disciplines under study (Extracts [10] and [11] below).

any lecturer whether native or not needs to speak in a way that students can understand (.) so I would equally have problems with someone who is not a native speaker and speaks with an exceptionally heavy foreign accent as much as I would do with someone from Newcastle
(Agata, Archaeology)
it could be stupid that nowadays I am required [to] speak a perfect English […] English is a tool for communication […] if you take one English professor that is from Scotland or from the north international people have quite a lot of problems to understand […] if you go to the north English gets worse
(Santiago, Chemistry)

4.3.3 PP: words in action

Following Dafouz and Smit’s (2014) ROADMAPPING framework, I would argue that it is important to have access to the participants’ academic disciplines to better understand how their reported beliefs are enacted in their actual classroom discourses as part of their practices and processes (PP dimension). This serves to understand ELFA-related intricacies. In classroom observation, I managed to document registers of “methodology recounts,” “geographical sites and dates,” “mathematic formulae” and “chemical formulae” as paramount themes in shaping participants’ academic discourses. I am here using register to explore how my participants’ linguistic choices come to be similar or different from each other in their situational contexts for certain communicative purposes (e.g. Biber and Gray 2013). For Nesi and Gardner (2012: 31), linguistic features occur because they suit the context and the purpose of the register, and that “linguistic features are always functional when considered from a register perspective” (Biber and Conrad 2019: 6). What needs to be highlighted here is that ELFA has been identified as an adaptable tool characterized with stability and flux in parallel. That is, although classroom observation data provides evidence of participants’ “specific English(es)” within their academic units, thereby reflecting the “linguistics of particularity” in Becker’s (1988) sense, their classroom discourses also include shared linguistic features as local hybridized Englishes across different disciplines.

To explain, “methodology recounts” was found as the core of the participants’ classroom discourses in Education, Politics and International Relations, and Management. Participants in such disciplines were more prone to focus on developing students’ disciplinary knowledge and the ability to demonstrate that in approaching their research issues with a qualitative, quantitative or mixed research approach. Writing critical essays is more often than not used as a shared assessment strategy across the studied disciplines. Thus, individuals in Education, in Emily’s view, need an “evaluative” and “academically strong English […] to write fairly high-level assignments for assessment”. In Bram’s words, this is not “a Hemingway’s English”, but “a comprehensible English” that helps to prove understanding and appropriate use of their field knowledge. Jacob similarly thinks that “education at the university is about being researchers and […] students need to demonstrate that in their essays for assessment”. This explains Harry’s view that “it will be pretty hard to survive an MSc course for instance if your English was so poor […] to develop an argument [it] is all about critical thinking”.

Moving into Archaeology and History, Agata’s and Gabriel’s classroom discourses were characterized more by their recurrent reference to geo-political and history related events. Gabriel’s use of French documents was a point that expresses how History in this context is different from Archaeology. Gabriel and his students need to know French to debate issues related to archives in History for constructing a non-descriptive essay for assessment. In Archaeology, Agata’s classroom practice had a strong focus on students’ knowledge to effectively define, argue, analyse, compare, contrast, evaluate, discuss and summarize with evidence (e.g. geographical maps, sites, material culture and field references). This explains what “understanding” means and how it could be evaluated and assessed, which is part of the complexity of doing archaeology that Agata refers to in interview.

Math-based discourses were further identified as a hybridized classroom practice to represent and construct diverse sets of field knowledge across Transportation Engineering, Economics, Accounting and Finance. In a particular classroom episode, George’s students were required to construct a travel diary and discuss their choices via calculating cost, time, distance, benefits and public facility in relation to geographical information system (GIS) and the enterprise investment scheme (EIS) concepts, a point that explains George’s belief that proficiency in English does not automatically mean understanding and doing engineering. For him, “in assessment […] the things I concentrate on are making sure that meaning is clear and making sure that there are not any factual [engineering-related] errors”.

In Economics, Evelina’s teaching practice was more geared toward developing her students’ knowledge via using mathematical formulae to explain “production” as a main disciplinary concept and its embedded ones: “input and output”. Evelina’s students were evaluated and assessed on the basis of their ability to shape their academic discourse via the use of economy-related concepts, mathematical formulae and graphs (Figure 2). A finding like this explains what “a decent level of […] a working knowledge of English” means for Evelina.

Figure 2: 
Mathematical formulae in economics.
Figure 2:

Mathematical formulae in economics.

In Accounting, Damian’s classroom discourse focused more on the analysis of financial and managerial reports. In classroom, his students were asked to calculate “tax policy” in relation to “land evaluation”. This is how, for Damian, “anyone can be clear without a top rate English”. It is a hybridized English that shares mathematical processes and formulae with Evelina’s “working knowledge of English” in Economics.

Santiago’s classroom practice in Chemistry was more characterized by a different kind of formulae represented in sketches and symbols like, ±, ↶, ⇌ and ➙ to explain the given exercise (Figure 3), which was more related to explaining the processes of chemical interaction and the resultant changes in the composition of different chemical components. This is what Santiago’s students, with “a very basic English of no more than 50 words” need to do in organic chemistry.

Figure 3: 
Chemical sketches and formulae in organic chemistry.
Figure 3:

Chemical sketches and formulae in organic chemistry.

In Bioengineering, chemical formulae were also identified as part of Liam’s classroom discourse (Figure 4), which serves as a further example of how English is locally hybridized with Santiago’s in Chemistry for their multiple disciplinary meanings. Compared to Santiago’s classroom discourse, Liam’s was to help students understand how the liver works to reduce or increase glucose in relation to other hormone-mechanisms as part of the “technical English” that Liam thinks all native and non-native speakers of English, as members in Bioengineering, need to assess their field knowledge.

Figure 4: 
Chemical formulae in bioengineering.
Figure 4:

Chemical formulae in bioengineering.

Linked to Dafouz and Smit’s (2014) PP dimension, participants’ classroom discourses in this context are hybridized in nature to respond to the conventions of their different disciplines as “semiotic domains” of which the content of the taught subjects are dynamically changed and negotiated as part of their distinctive social practices. Academic discourses in this sense are broad enough to encapsulate both language literacies in a particular social context and the academically acceptable ways of thinking, valuing, and interacting as members within an academic discipline (Gee 2004). Having access to CLS where university students aiming for their different majors must be adequately prepared, I found that the participating language teachers’ classroom practices were more directed towards developing students’ “general English” with their focus on language accuracy in relation to general topics like, “Gang Crimes in London” and “Portable Guns”. Their focus on enhancing students’ ability to participate in seminars, opening discussions, and arguing with evidence was further documented. I also found no clear disciplinary distinction in terms of the language proficiency required on the part of the students for their different majors. In CLS, the participants’ teaching practices were geared more toward developing students’ general receptive (listening and reading) and productive (writing and speaking) skills. In addition, more value was given to students’ ability to write critical essays for assessment, but again on general topics. In comment on the lack of disciplinary distinction within the EAP/ESP programs in CLS, Zofia expressed the following view.

it is always difficult because (.) we have a group of 15 students they’re all going to studying completely different courses so it is […] one recipe for all

Oliver further said the following.

there isn’t an English standard but (.) a sort of general appreciating formal style and the kind of courses that we do here very much depends on what they do in their majors […] it’s possibly a fairly distorted type of language really

Oliver’s point here seems to be torn between “a general formal style”, i.e. the view of English for academic purposes (EAP) as relatively homogeneous and the differences in specific courses as “a fairly distorted type of language” where fluidity and stability are part of its shape in response to the conventions and norms of university disciplines.

A finding like this confirms the need for language teachers to move from their “one-size fits all” or “general English” approach into a discipline-specific approach that serves to consider the divergent and convergent uses of English for academics. As in Wingate (2012) and Kuteeva and Airey (2013), language (EAP/ESP) teachers need to depart from their “study skills-centered courses” and seriously adopt a more in-depth and relevant “curriculum-integrated academic literacy” instruction (see Wingate 2016). In Jacobs (2007), such a shift requires language and content teachers’ collaboration to have the “grammar” of the disciplines as “semiotic domains”, in Gee’s (2004) sense, established in context.

5 Discussion and conclusion

The beliefs expressed by participants in this study have come to confirm the significant role of English as ELFA across their university disciplines. In this context, English is monolingually conceptualized as the “only” “current” and “future” academic lingua franca. How their “English university” became a site of education for individuals of different linguacultural backgrounds was acknowledged, and having a lingua franca other than English for academia was even “unimaginable”. For native English-speaking participants like Emily, Liam and George, it was a question of “pride of place” (McArthur 1998: 92) where an Anglophone university should have English as the academic language and that the increasing number of international students was considered as an indication of its internationally recognized “prestigious status”. While the future of English and its global prominence as ELFA in comparison to other languages is still an uncertain question for Zofia as a language teacher, content teachers like Liam, Emily and George, strongly confirmed that no other language will replace or displace English. As in Saarinen and Nikula (2013), views like these implicitly work to strengthen the position of English in international degree programmes. That is, English is, and will continue to be, a gravity point around which individuals’ academic ambitions, initiatives and practices revolve for global dissemination and recognition.

Similar to Baker and Hüttner (2019), both intelligibility and content knowledge in this work have come to be more favored than mastering linguistic proficiency in any English “variety”. This, in turn, echoes ELF researchers’ perspectives where adaptable English is more required for different academic interests and enterprises than an Anglophone English in its traditionally perceived superior status (e.g. Jenkins 2014; Mauranen et al. 2010).

However, an “intelligible English” is recognized as a local practice where what might be intelligible for individuals in Chemistry might not be so for those in Bioengineering regardless of the hybridized nature of academic discourses between “neighbouring” disciplines. This is how ELFA individuals across their different academic disciplines create, experience, practice, learn and master their “discursive fluency” (Airey and Linder 2009: 10). In actual classroom practice, participants’ identified academic discourses come to confirm Hüttner’s point that “[…] there is a fundamental integration of language and content learning, and that these two constructs cannot be viewed as separate monoliths, but are best considered as a fused entity” (Hüttner 2019: 10). English has been identified as a tool that extends between their “common language knowledge for content teaching” to their “specialized language knowledge for content teaching” (Morton 2018: 275) as part of their academic membership. This requires all, whether native speakers or not, to learn how to situate their Englishes to respond to the centripetal and centrifugal forces (conventions) of the academic disciplines as communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). It is not only language at stake in academic programmes, but rather, further disciplinary-based language literacy is required to consider disciplinary differences in the agents’ meaning-making and knowledge-construction process and practices (Kuteeva and Airey 2013; Nesi and Gardner 2012). Thus, the “One English” as an identified objective in CLS does not respond to the hybridized nature of the academic, linguistic and cultural demands of the different PP across AD.

In addressing my research questions, participants’ stated beliefs and their actual classroom practices come to demonstrate that English is perceived as the only viable LF, but it is not and should not be conceived as a “single” or “monolithic entity” that fits all disciplinary practices in HE. This echoes Baker and Hüttner’s (2016, 2019) findings in the UK. That is, the view that demonstrating a linguistic capacity in “native/standard English” to achieve disciplinary intelligibility does not work in EMI settings since language practices are diversified and hybridized for multiple meanings and knowledge construction processes. Such a finding resonates with Widdowson’s (1994) point that speakers’ proficiency in English is not evaluated on the basis of their “mastery” of its native norms, but on their ability to critically bend it for certain academic purposes as part of their “functional literacy” (Hyland 2009: 48).

In conclusion, how ELFA diverges and converges in HE needs to be seriously taken on board in theory and practice. Thus, what agents (teachers and students) say and actually do to encounter their own local challenges in relation to ELFA across their academic disciplines should in practical terms form the baseline for language policy and curriculum design processes in international contexts of which heterogeneity is the main feature. As indicated in Section 4, it is not possible to generalize from the studied disciplines in this context to larger populations in the field; however, this study overlaps with theoretical underpinnings and empirical evidence for different scholars (e.g. Jacobs 2007; Wingate 2012, 2016). It suggests a more collaborative partnership between ESP/EAP and content teachers as two parties working for the same end is required. This helps to move from a “common core English” to more specific Englishes to address the hybridized nature of the PP across AD in HE. Further research on stakeholders’ (teachers, students and admin members) beliefs about English and how this could be enacted on ground in different international universities is still badly needed.

Corresponding author: Sami Alhasnawi, Department of English, College of Education, University of Al-Qadisiyah, P.O. Box 88, Al-Qadisiyah, Al-Diwaniyah, Iraq, E-mail:

About the author

Sami Alhasnawi

Sami Alhasnawi did his PhD at the University of Southampton, UK. He works as Assistant Professor at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Iraq. His research focuses on Sociolinguistics, ELF, EMI, Genre/Register-based studies, and Intercultural Communication.


I wish to show my immense gratitude for Prof. Dr. Julia Hüttner who helped me formulate and finalize this paper. Special thanks are also due to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHESR) in Iraq for funding this research and Hacettepe University in Ankara (Turkey) for hosting me whilst completing my project. Last but not least, I would further express my appreciation to the anonymous reviewers and the Editor for their generous and invaluable comments.

Appendix A: Interview grid

  1. Self-introduction

    1. Personal Dimension

      1. Nationality?

      2. Language(s)?

      3. Education background: Do you remember any positive or negative experience(s) related to your learning of the English in terms of the approaches, methods used or language analysis.

    2. Professional Dimension

      1. Can you define the English you use?

        1. Do you accept any other accents? What are they?

        2. Which kind of mistakes do you tolerate or not?

      2. What does internationalization at university mean to you?

        1. What is the role of English in this process?

      3. What do you expect in terms of English usage from your students?

      4. What does your university expect in terms of English usage from the lecturers?

      5. Do you think that the teacher/lecturer should be competent in a particular English variety to be more intelligible for or accepted by the students?

      6. What are your career goals and teaching goals as a teacher/lecturer in an international university?

      7. How important is English language proficiency for lecturers in international universities?

        1. Do you think this will change in the future? If so, how?

      8. What roles do other languages and culture play in your teaching environment?

      9. How do you view this multilingual and multicultural nature of university teaching?

      10. How do you position yourself in this?

    3. Teaching dimension

      1. How do you describe your experience of teaching a “typical” class of international students?

      2. What (if any) do you do differently when teaching a group of international students than when teaching home student?

        1. Can you describe the main needs of international students in terms of English in your context?

        2. How do you know about these needs?

      3. To what extent is your students’ knowledge of English sufficient to progress in their degree?

      4. What are your students’ main challenges with regard to their studies?

        1. What is the role of English in these challenges?

      5. Do you change your teaching practice to cater for international students?

        1. If so, how?

        2. if not, why not?

      6. Do you find yourself under pressure to address international students’ particular demands?

        1. If yes, how do you deal with this?

      7. When giving feedback to students on their written texts, what do you focus on mostly?

      8. What do you like about teaching international students?

      9. Any advice to new members?

      10. Any other comments or questions you like to say?

Thank you for your participation. I do highly appreciate!

Appendix B: Classroom observation grid

  1. Setting

Date: Time:
Program: Module:
Discipline: Topic:
  1. Focus on Instruction

    1. What kind of teaching practice is going on?

      Teacher-centered lecture, direct Q&A discussion, presentation, lecture, providing practice opportunities, testing, others like …

    2. What is the language teacher’s/lecturer’s response to students’ language and cultural differences in terms of the language use? Speech speed, repetition, paraphrasing, examples, others like…

    3. What kind of feedback language teachers and lecturers provide to their students’ classroom performances?

    4. Is the language teacher’s/lecturer’s attention directed to a particular group of students or all?

  2. Focus on Instructional Material

    1. Textbook, Published resources, Worksheets, Websites, Videos, Oral activities

    2. Others like …

  3. Focus on Students

    1. Number?

    2. Student grouping format identification: Who is sitting next to/working with them during the class time? Is it a whole group, small group, paired or individual?

    3. What they do to show evidence of their engagement?

    4. What kind of questions or complaints they (may) raise during the lecture?

    5. What kind of language use are they using to communicate with each other?

  4. Critical Incidents

  5. The Researcher’s and Participants’ Comments

Appendix C: Participants’ information

Participant (pseudonym) Lang. background (Native/Non-Native) Context
George NS Transportation Engineering
Evelina NNS Economics
Joanna NNS Center for language study (CLS)
Liam NS Bio-engineering
Santiago NNS Chemistry
Zofia NNS Centre for language study (CLS)
Damian NS Accounting & finance
Jacob NS Politics & International relations
Oliver NS Centre for language study (CLS)
Emily NS Education
Agata NNS Archaeology
Harry NS Management
Gabriel NNS History
Bram NNS Education

Appendix D: Transcription conventions


Containing the transcriber’s comment or description


Showing a micropause


Lengthening of the preceding sound


Omitting part of the speech


Text modified


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Published Online: 2021-09-17
Published in Print: 2021-03-26

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