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English as a lingua franca

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English as a lingua franca

How do people communicate when they don't share the same first language? The answer to this question is often: 'in English.'

English is now considered the world's global lingua franca. This means that when people with different first languages meet, they will likely communicate in English.

So, what exactly is a lingua franca? And why is English the most prominent one? This article will introduce the concept of a lingua franca and examine the uses, features, criticisms, and history of English as a lingua franca (ELF). It will also highlight some key features of ELF, look at how we can teach English as a lingua franca, and discuss some of the current debates and criticisms surrounding ELF.

English as a Lingua Franca, three simple people around a simple globe, StudySmarterEnglish is spoken as a foreign language all over the world, Pixabay

Definition of Lingua Franca

A lingua franca is the chosen shared language spoken between individuals with different first languages. Lingua francas are sometimes referred to as 'common languages' or 'link languages'.

Lingua francas are usually pre-existing languages with a colonial history (such as English or French), which are learned by non-native speakers as a foreign language and then used as a way to communicate with other non-native speakers. Compared to other language varieties, such as regional dialects, lingua francas are used much further afield from their country of origin. For example, English is used as a lingua franca across Europe, Asia, and Africa.

As you're reading this, you may be thinking lingua francas sound similar to pidgins. You're right - they are quite similar; however, there are some differences. A pidgin is a simplified form of one or more languages used as a communication tool for people who don't speak any of the same languages. Pidgins are new language varieties that form over time due to the influence of their speakers. In comparison, a lingua franca is a pre-existing language spoken by both parties. Some pidgins can be used as lingua francas.

Lingua francas are typically considered functional languages used as a tool for communication, meaning they are usually independent of linguistic history and culture. However, the extent to which English is used as a lingua franca means this isn't entirely true anymore - we will explore this idea later on!

English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)

The term English as a lingua franca (ELF) describes the use of English as a shared language for speakers of different native languages.

The use of English as a lingua franca is not new. English has been used as a common language across British colonies since the late 16th century. However, the reach and extent of ELF have grown rapidly in more recent years, and it is now used all around the world. As a result, there is currently an increasing amount of interest from linguists and language teachers in the use and features of ELF.

ELF is typically considered a tool for communication and is used at a local, national, regional, and international level. This means a large amount of variation is present within ELF, and there is no standardised version. There is an ongoing debate as to whether ELF should be considered a variety of English or not. Some prescriptivists (those who believe there is a right and a wrong way to speak a language) view ELF simply as 'foreigner speak' or 'bad simple English'. However, many linguists suggest we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss ELF. Barbara Seidlhofer, a key theorist in the field of World Englishes, stated that:

ELF, just like any other natural language, will turn out to vary and change over time. It doesn't make sense, therefore, to talk about a monolithic variety as such.

(Seidlhofer, 2006)¹

Siedlhofer's observation suggests that it's best not to think of ELF as a single variety of English. ELF is much like any other language, and the variation process never stops.

Kirkpatrick, another key theorist in World Englishes, found that the amount of variation present in ELF depends on how localised its use is. He suggests that this is because users of ELF in a local setting (i.e., two Southeast Asian people communicating in a Southeast Asian country) are more likely to code-switch and use nativised norms. This means they are more likely to share slang, local vocabulary, or localised grammar and syntax.

Code-switching - alternating between two or more languages or language varieties.

As previously mentioned, English has been used as a lingua franca in ex-British colonies for years. This use of the language helped create the many varieties of English we know today, such as Indian Englishes and African Englishes. Currently, we are seeing more and more people from the expanding circle countries (following Kachru's three concentric circles of English model, these are the countries with no colonial ties to English, such as China, Vietnam, and many European countries) using English as a lingua franca. These individuals adapt and modify English to suit their needs on a local and global scale, and, in the process, are paving the way for new varieties of English, such as Vinglish (Vietnamese English) and Chinglish (Chinese English).

English as a lingua franca Image of speakers around the world StudySmarter

People who don't share a common language may use English as a Lingua Franca, StudySmarter Original.

English as the global Lingua Franca

Even though both Mandarin Chinese and Spanish have more native speakers than English, English is the world's lingua franca (despite the fact that it is not a particularly easy language to learn!). Let's take a look at why this is.

The linguist David Crystal stated:

A language has traditionally become an international language for one chief reason: the power of its people.

(English as a Global Language, 1997)

English initially gained its power due to British colonialism and the expansion of the British Empire. Colonialism brought English to Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific Islands. Later, the industrial revolution, the emergence of the USA as a political and economic superpower, the internet, and popular culture helped increase English's prominence and influence.

Due to globalisation, there has become an increasing need for a global 'common' language. Today, English is considered the international language of business, diplomacy, medicine, science, and more. English is recognised as an official language in over 67 different countries and is currently the working language of several international organisations, such as the United Nations, The European Union, and The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Features of English as a Lingua Franca

For the past 20 or so years, linguists have been examining the norms and features of ELF. Although there is much variety in ELF communication, some shared features, particularly in terms of word choice, grammar, and pronunciation, often appear (although not always!).

According to the University of Southampton, some of these features include:

  • Dropping the 'S' when using the third person singular, e.g., 'she run' instead of 'she runs.

  • Using the relative pronouns 'who' and 'which' interchangeably.

  • Omitting articles, e.g., 'a' and 'the'.

  • Using the tag questions 'isn't it?' or 'no?'.

  • Using extra prepositions, e.g., 'we have to study about...'

  • Using that-clauses instead of infinitive constructions, e.g., 'I want that we go to the cinema' instead of 'I want to go to the cinema.'

  • Explicitness, e.g., saying 'red colour' rather than 'red'.

The study of English as a lingua franca is still relatively new, and there isn’t a huge amount of data to work from. Research of ELF features typically involves analysing documented ELF dialogue in the VOICE corpus (Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English) and the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) created by Jennifer Jenkins in 2000.²

What is the Lingua Franca Core? The lingua franca core is a list of pronunciation features deemed crucial to pronounce accurately in order to be understood on a global scale. Outside of the 'core' are pronunciation features that can be taught, but are deemed unnecessary for intelligibility.

English as a lingua franca examples

As we previously mentioned, there is a lot of variety within English as a lingua franca so providing examples isn't such an easy task. However, we will provide some example sentences that use common features within ELF.

'I have red colour bag.'

'She like to visit Spain.'

'We will go together, isn't it?'

'I see moon.'

Learning English as a Lingua Franca

When teaching English as a second language, it is important to consider the needs of the students. You may be surprised to know that speakers of English as a second language are more likely to use English to communicate with other non-native English speakers than with native English speakers. This means that being understood is more important than sounding like a native English speaker.

However, there are some aspects of pronunciation that are key to ensuring students will be able to speak English and be understood in an ELF setting. We can use Jenkins' lingua franca core to determine the most important aspects of pronunciation when it comes to maintaining intelligibility (the ability to be understood).

Let's take a look at some of those key aspects now:

  • Most consonant sounds - the correct pronunciation of consonant sounds is important in intelligibility.

  • Vowel length distinctions - this typically refers to the difference between short vowels and long vowels, e.g., the vowel length in 'hot' and 'hoot' change the meaning of the word.

  • Nuclear stress - the teaching of word stress can be very important and is often overlooked, e.g., in the words 'record' and 'record', the first word is a noun (a document or a music disc), whereas the second word is a verb (to record sound). The word stress helps us to understand which word the speaker means.

It is also important to raise students' awareness of ELF and expose them to a wide variety of different accents, not just native English speakers' accents. This can be achieved by using real-life teaching materials (realia) where English is either being used as a lingua franca or is being spoken by a non-native speaker. Examples of this could include: news reports read in English, interviews with famous non-native English speaking figures, and international newspapers in English (or English language newspapers from the student's native country).

Criticisms of English as a lingua franca

Although the use of English as a lingua has received much attention from theorists, linguists, and educators, its establishment as a language variety has been met with criticism. Some theorists argue that the features of ELF are nothing more than mistakes that have no pattern and, therefore, aren't worth studying.

There is an ongoing debate on whether or not ELF should be taught within classrooms. Some theorists suggest that ELF should replace Standard English as the default language taught globally, while others question how this would be possible as there is no standardised version of ELF. Replacing Standard English with ELF may also mean that students have a disadvantage when taking global English efficiency tests, such as IELTS (International English Language Testing System).

English as a Lingua Franca, fingerprint with a world map in it, StudySmarterMany view ELF as a hindrance to cultural identity, Pixabay

Finally, some theorists state that ELF is nothing more than a communication tool and cannot be a carrier of culture or a marker for identity. However, others argue that ELF should be viewed just like any other language and is, therefore, directly linked to culture and identity. With English being used increasingly as a lingua franca, especially across the expanding circle countries, its users are developing their own norms, slang, and lexicon, which can be used as a way of expressing their identity as non-native English speakers. Studies by the Vietnamese theorist Phan Le Ha found that users of ELF felt proud of their use of English as non-native speakers, and enjoy making the language their own and sharing it with other users of ELF.

What do you think? Do you believe the features of ELF are simply mistakes or do you think ELF is a language variety complete with its own culture and identity?

English as a Lingua Franca - Key takeaways

  • A lingua franca is the chosen common language spoken between individuals with different first languages.
  • The term English as a lingua franca (ELF) describes the use of English as a common language for speakers of different native languages.
  • There are several contributing factors to why English is the world's lingua franca, including British colonialism and imperialism, the USA's prominence as a political and economical superpower, the internet, and increasing globalisation.
  • Some common features of ELF include omitting articles, dropping the 'S' at the end of words, the use of tag questions, such as 'isn't it?' and explicitness.
  • Some theorists believe ELF should be taught globally within language education classrooms, whereas others believe ELF should not be considered a language variety at all.

References

  1. B. Seidlhofer. English as a lingua franca in the expanding circle: What it isn't. English in the world: Global rules, global roles, 2006.
  2. J. Jenkins. The phonology of English as an international language, 2000

Frequently Asked Questions about English as a lingua franca

A lingua franca is a common language spoken between people who do not share the same first language. 

There are several contributing factors to why English is the world's lingua franca.

  • British colonialism and imperialism spread English around the world from the 16th to 20th century. 

  • America's prominence as a political and economical superpower.

  • The internet.

  • Increasing globalisation.

English as a lingua franca (ELF) is used all around the world. The use of ELF is particularly prominent in former British colonies, such as India and Nigeria.

Final English as a lingua franca Quiz

Question

What is a lingua franca?

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Answer

A lingua franca is a common language used by speakers who do not share the same first langauge.

Show question

Question

List three reasons why English is the world’s lingua franca.

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Answer

Any three from these:

  • British colonialism and imperialism
  • America’s prominence as a political and economical superpower
  • The internet
  • Increasing globalisation


Show question

Question

Who created the lingua franca core (LFC)?


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Answer

Jennifer Jenkins

Show question

Question

Who created the lingua franca core (LFC)?


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Answer

Jennifer Jenkins.

Show question

Question

Are speakers of English as a second language more likely to use English to communicate with native or non-native English speakers?


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Answer

Non-native English speakers.

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Question

For users of ELF what is more important, sounding like a native English speaker or being intelligible?


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Answer

Being intelligible

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Question

According to the lingua franca core, which pronunciation aspect is considered important for intelligibility?


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Answer

Vowel length.

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Question

How can teachers expose students to ELF in the classroom?


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Answer

By using real-life teaching aids, such as news reports and interviews with individuals using ELF.

Show question

Question

True or false: there is a standardised single variety of ELF?


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Answer

False. There is a lot of variation within ELF.

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Question

True or false: users of ELF are more likely to be explicit with their language and say things such as ‘black colour’ rather than just ‘black’?


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Answer

True

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Question

What is the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English?


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Answer

A database of recorded ELF communication

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Question

What is code-switching?

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Answer

Code-switching is the act of alternating between two or more languages or language varieties in a single exchange. 

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Question

What are two additional terms for lingua francas?

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Answer

Common languages and link languages

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Question

True or false, lingua francas usually have a colonial history.

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Answer

True

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Question

What is a pidgin?

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Answer

A pidgin is a simplified form of one or more languages used as a communication tool for people who don't speak any of the same languages. 

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Question

True or false, English is used as a lingua franca at local, national, regional, and international levels.

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Answer

True

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Question

What is a presciptivist?

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Answer

A prescriptivist is someone who believes that there is a right and wrong way to use language or that some forms of language are superior to others. 

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Question

'ELF, just like any other natural language, will turn out to vary and change over time. It doesn't make sense, therefore, to talk about a monolithic variety as such. '


Which theorist said this?

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Answer

Barbara Seidlhofer 

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Question

According to the University of Southampton, which of these is not a feature of English as a lingua franca?

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Answer

vagueness when describing things

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Question

What is the Lingua Franca Core?

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Answer

The lingua franca core is a list of pronunciation features deemed crucial to pronounce accurately in order to be understood on a global scale. 

Show question

Question

Which of these speech examples is an example of ELF?

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Answer

I eat fish when I went to the restaurant.

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Question

True or false, the correct pronunciation of consonants is an important factor in intelligibility.

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Answer

True

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Question

What does IELTS stand for?

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Answer

International English Language Testing System

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Question

Which theorist found that ELF speakers were proud of their use of English and made it their own.

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Answer

Phan Le Ha

Show question

Question

Nuclear stress can help us to distinguish between two or more words with the same spelling. True or false?

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Answer

True

Show question

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