A beginner (me)’s guide to English as a lingua franca

August 16th. This date is heavily circled with red ink on my desktop calendar. It’s probably not far from having “FREEDOM!” scribbled on the days that come after it either. Regular readers may have guessed that this is the date by which I must submit my MA dissertation. Suddenly it seems very close indeed – in less than 5 months I have to electronically plonk 15-20,000 words of research into our course administrator’s inbox. The problem is I’m still not totally sure what I’m going to write about.

However, it seems increasingly likely that I’m going to be writing on something at least involving English as a lingua franca, or ELF if you’re acronymically inclined. This post is my first attempt to get to grips with the concept of ELF based on the pathetic amount of reading I’ve done so far. My hope is that some of the ELF brainiacs out there can put me right on any misconceptions I have, and that it might provide a useful resource for other people in my situation.

What is ELF?

 A bit like a weasel with a jetpack, ELF is a hard one to pin down. Not just for me, but for the people who research it for a living. Jennifer Jenkins, who pretty much is ELF, describes defining ELF as a “thorny issue” (2011:1). Given that even the pros are having trouble figuring out exactly what it is, let’s start with what it isn’t, viewed through the lens of some people’s misconceptions.

One of the most common misconceptions seems to be that ELF is a variety of English. People either see it as a simplified or reduced English, shorn of idiom and unnecessary features such as the third person “s” (Sowden 2012:3), or some kind of monolithic world English which is the same no matter where you go. The inference that follows from this is that there is some kind of plot by bed-wetting lefty language liberals to impose these models on everyone in the world, “The ELF Project” (Sowden 2012:3 again!). While it’s true that where English is used for communication in an international setting (and presumably in an exchange involving at least one non-native speaker) the third person “s” is often omitted, ELF prescriptivists don’t froth at the mouth if it isn’t.

This brings us neatly to the next thing that ELF isn’t, and one thing that it and I have in common. It’s not a model (there’s a reason I keep photos off this blog). There is no ELF canon of literature or Swan’s guide to Practical ELF Usage. It’s also not a norm, against which nervous utterances will be deemed either “ELF!” or “NOT ELF!” by expert ELF speakers, because there isn’t really any such thing. In fact, ELF research in general tends to take a critical perspective on any kind of prescriptivism. This makes it wary of the concept of interlanguage, suggesting something unfinished, and more accommodating to theories of evolution and contact (Jenkins 2011: 5). This might be an extreme view, but at times it can seem that there are no mistakes in ELF, only misunderstandings.

The final thing that ELF is not is tied to a particular geography, culture, identity or setting. It’s also, as previously mentioned, not a uniform world language. In my view one of the biggest problems in describing ELF is the lack of lexical and conceptual apparatus within Applied Linguistics to describe such a new phenomenon (the field is barely 15 years old). If it’s not a language variety or a speech community, what is it? “Community of practice” seems to be the preferred term (Jenkins 2011:18), but to my mind this term is much more of a discourse analysis term which groups people by what they are doing with language. For the range of possible uses for ELF, this term seems inadequate, as communities using ELF are constructed and disbanded continuously. Although there have been lingua francas before, there has never been one such as English, and perhaps some new terms in the sociolinguistic lexicon are required.

Having hacked off great chunks of what ELF could possibly be, it’s time to see what’s left. Not much, it would seem. ELF, despite the name, is neither a language, nor a language variety, nor anything that has really been seen before. The terms that get thrown about a lot are “contact language” and “natural language”. Of these I prefer the first – it captures some of the fluidity, and more importantly the fleetingness, or ELF. It’s what to me makes it an interesting study, it lasts only as long as the conversation or community does, then it may very well disappear. ELF, to me, seems to be the attempt to map the shoreline by taking thousands of photos of the waves breaking. It’s quite romantic if you think about it, but also rather difficult to get a good idea of the big picture.

Who speaks ELF?

As far as English goes, ELF is Woodstock. Everyone’s invited and free to do what they want to do, with no interference from “The Man”, man. At least that’s how I see it. According to Jenkins (2011:4) a small number of researchers would deny that a native speaker can speak ELF, but for most ELF is open to anyone who can speak English with any kind of communicative success (though it seems that most research is conducted with speakers who are at least at an intermediate kind of proficiency by ENL (English as a native language) standards). You’ll notice that I use the term speaker repeatedly in this paragraph, as ELF speakers are not necessarily English learners. They may be satisfied with the English they speak and have no desire to conform to a native speaker model. ELF is fine with this. The only people excluded would appear to be those who speak no English, or whose proficiency is low enough to preclude communication. Free love for almost everyone, I think you’d agree.

In this world of tolerance and (occasional mis-) understanding, we presume that ELF could even be used between two native speakers of English (NSEs). I suspect that this may well take place at ELF conferences, though Sewell (2013) disputes this claim. No free love for him. This presumption is based on the definition on the VOICE corpus website which tells us that ELF is an “additionally acquired language system…”. I’m conveniently ignoring the second part that says “…which serves as a common means of communication for speakers of different first languages”*. Presumably, if it’s acquirable, it’s acquirable by an NSE or an non-NSE, and thus could conceivably be used between two NSEs. Were the situation to be one in which many non-NSEs were present, such as a panel discussion, I’d imagine this would be quite helpful. I could of course have this horribly wrong, so I’d be really interested to hear people’s opinions on whether this is possible.

A con cl/f usion

There would however, seem to be a paradoxical element in the definition above, no doubt caused by what a pain defining ELF is. Nevertheless, it’s illuminative of the kind of problems that ELF research looks to solve. The paradox is in the claim the ELF is acquired. This is problematic because it suggests that one must have experience of speaking ELF to be able to speak ELF. However, I’d suggest that someone speaking English with another NNSE for the very first time is using English as a lingua franca.  This seems to be a bit of a chicken/egg affair. We saw above that ELF is a natural language, which springs up from a communicative need, and if this is the case, what’s the need to acquire it, and where would one acquire it from? Is there such a thing as a proficient ELF speaker?

Perhaps two different things are happening here: the communicative event, and the kind of communicative features that one might find within that event. These features will come about naturally through communicative necessity, but may also be picked up in other communicative events. Both events and features currently fall under a single ELF acronym, but perhaps would be more helpfully labelled ELF communication and ELF strategies. I suspect that other, quicker people may already have made this distinction. Nevertheless, this approach would make clear that ELF is more about studying how people use English to communicate when there is little other choice, and how to help them to do it better. It may held to deflect some of the ire that is, I believe, unfairly directed at ELF.

*This was quoted in Jenkins (2011) but may now have been removed from the VOICE site.


The following articles informed the view of ELF given in this article, and come highly recommended as a starting point in the field.

Cogo, A. (2012) ‘English as a Lingua Franca: concepts, use and implications’. ELT Journal 66/1 97-105

Jenkins, J. (2011) ‘Review of developments in research into English as a lingua franca’. Language Teaching 44/3 281-315

Sewell, A. (2013) ‘English as a lingua franca: ontology and ideology’ ELT Journal 67/1 3-10

Sowden, C. (2012) ‘ELF on a mushroom: the overnight growth in English as a Lingua Franca’ ELT Journal 66/1 89-96


24 responses to “A beginner (me)’s guide to English as a lingua franca

  1. Nick Ratcliffe

    Interesting. I love the idea that 2 NSEs can speak ELF without an audience. It’s a Sartrian sort of “Tree falls in the woods” conundrum. Here’s a fun one. I (an NSE) get into a lift where two Indian women are speaking Hindi. They switch into English so I can eavesdrop. Nobody gains anything from this, emasculating it somewhat as a lingua franca. However, as a courtesy (they assumed, quite accurately, that I speak English and not Hindi) it was effective in ensuring that everyone in the lift was included in the conversation , whether they wanted to be or not.

    • Hey Nick,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing a fascinating sociolinguistic anecdote. I’m sure the critical theorists would have a field day with that one. I’d guess that they switched to English so that you could be sure that they weren’t talking about you, but there are all kinds of other possibilities. Any thoughts on why they did it?

  2. Hey Alex,

    Really enjoyed this. It’s a subject I’ve had on my mind quite a lot in the last six months or so. Walshy and my pres at the weekend deals with it a bit, you may find it interesting were you to find yourself in the area.

    Great stuff and really fun to read. Thanks,


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  4. This is a discussion worthy of a few beers, and I’d love to join — I’ll be working on the same campus until 5:30. The topic’s been burning up our hallways here for a couple of years, first emanating through ICC doors, then wafting into methodology spaces…. Alex, this comment got way too long, so I am about to finish it now on my blog. It’ll be at http://tomtesol.com/blog/2013/03/an-elfish-resp…to-alex-grevet/ very soon.

  5. Thanks Alex – an entertaining introduction 🙂 So…silly question maybe but is ‘English as an international language’ essentially the same thing as ELF? Just getting my acronyms in a twist.

    • Sophia — just put my ‘comment’ up at the link above, and I’ve assumed it’s the same, and while I’m not too well-read either, I’ve always understood it to be the same. Curious how Alex answers you.

    • Hi Sophia & Tom,

      Thanks for the kind words, and Tom I’ll look forward to that discussion on Saturday. Do you have Kakao talk by any chance? Sophia, you are of course invited as well 🙂

      You’re actually not getting your acronyms in a twist. They’re pretty much spot on. The two terms seemed to exist side by side in the early stages of ELF research, and Jenkins called her book “The Phonology of English as a Lingua Franca”. The other influential work at that time was Seidlhofer’s “Closing a conceptual gap: The case for a description of English as a Lingua Franca” in the International Journal of Applied Linguistics. The terms seemed to be in pretty much “free variation” after that, but eventually ELF seemed to stick. There’s not much in the literature to say why this should be so though. If I find out I’ll post it here.


  6. “This might be an extreme view, but at times it can seem that there are no mistakes in ELF, only misunderstandings.”

    The concept is ELF is getting even more confusing for me 🙂

    • ELF is certainly a tricky one to get a handle on, and as I was saying to Tom on his blog, it’s precisely the lack of anything centering that makes it such a pain to define, teach or talk about in any meaningful way. Because it rejects the native speaker model, and the concept of “error” and “interlanguage” as being in some way deficient, success seems to be generally defined in terms of ineligibility, variation and mutual understanding. In other words, something is only “correct” in terms of it’s contribution to meaning-making I’d say.

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  10. Hi Alex,
    Such an interesting read, though it really did seem rather heavy for my mind (i read it more than once to try to get it to sink in). Yet, Alex, I am still very grey as to what ELF exactly is. ….

  11. Hi Ratna,

    Apologies for the heaviness. These posts are kind of a first draft for my dissertation, so it’s necessarily on the academic side. Anyhow, ELF seems to be a grey area, especially when it comes to the classroom (I’m still not sure that it is, actually, a pedagogical thing). Anyway, I set myself a challenge of definig ELF in five points, to try to clear it up a little for both of us. So, ELF is:

    1. usually spoken between “non-native speakers” of English.
    2. not defined by “Standard English” norms or models.
    3. not a model for teaching, nor a variety (at least in the World Englishes sense)
    4. focused on intelligibility, not on correctness.
    5. not linked to any specific linguaculture.

    I don’t know if that helps. I really appreciate your comment though – little exercises like this really help me to shape my thinking.



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