What does (an) ELF look like?

This post is essentially part two of my beginner’s guide to ELF. The beginner referred to here may be someone with a newly minted interest in the field, but also refers to me as someone just dipping their toes into the cool pond of ELF. If you’re in a position of expertise, please feel free to correct me on any of my half-baked ideas.

In the previous post I talked of the difficulty of defining ELF as a concept. Any degree of conceptualization requires a commensurate degree of reduction, and it is this reduction that robs ELF of the plurality, variation and contextuality that characterizes it in practice. Cogo & Dewey (2006) make a claim for the E of ELF to be interpreted as Englishes, rather than just English (and you thought the title was an elf joke, shame on you). Nevertheless, in this post  I’m going to try to define what an ELF, or some elves (OK that was an elf joke, with a hat tip to @languagebubble), might look like in the areas of phonology, pragmatics and lexico-grammar.


The earliest serious attempt at identifying and codifying features of ELF communication was Jenkins’s (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. A self-confessedly prescriptive document, it attempted to outline the most important phonological features of English for intelligibility in international contexts, and recommended that these be taught first. It’s my feeling that it is misreadings of this book contribute to the “plot” view of ELF that I talked about last time. In fact, Jenkins only recommended that these features should be taught first, rather than exclusively, in order to make a more efficient use of limited time. However, given the boldness of her claims, including that the /θ/ & /ð/ (th) sounds made no difference to intelligibility, it’s not surprising that they drew some criticism. Jenkins’ other recommendations included not teaching allophones of /l/, fully aspirating fortis (unvoiced) consonants all the time, and where necessary even adding consonant sounds where confusion may arise. All of these are quite radical alterations to a NS model.

While she considered “teachability” of features in the core, most of Jenkins’ empirical data came from intelligibility studies, and her suggestions are based on  making speakers maximally intelligible to other L2 speakers of English. Perhaps the key theory in her work is that of accommodation, and she found that students would vary their pronunciation towards NS norms in order to aid intelligibility of their speech to a speaker of a different L1. In a dyad with a speaker of the same or similar L1, less variation of this kind was observed. This then is the defining feature of ELF – instead of orienting to norms, it orients to people. Therefore rather than examining the phonemes that speakers produce in terms of whether it meets an externally imposed standard, ELF research examines them in terms of the contribution they make to situational meaning making.


Accommodation, in terms of aligning oneself with one’s interlocutor, also features heavily in the study of ELF pragmatics.  In general speakers will orient towards each other’s language, in a type of accommodation often known as convergence.  Studies such as Cogo & Dewey (2006) show one way in which this happens is through repetition. Chunks of language will be repeated, along with their variations. One Chinese speaker who generally uses a third person ‘s’ repeats a chunk including a third person ‘0’, seemingly in order to positively align her speech with her interlocutor’s.

ELF conversations seem to contain a high degree of mutual co-operation, using other pragmatic strategies such as utterance completions and latching (one utterance following directly on from another). While these are demonstrably features of ELF communication, what this study fails to do is demonstrate that this is significantly different to what NSs do. It reminds me of studies of gender differences in styles of talk, in which women were shown to be far more co-operative communicators, as evidenced by the same kinds of features mentioned above (see Coates 1993: 135-139 for a review of these).

Where ELF does certainly does differ is in it’s greater acceptance of pluralingualism and pluraculturalism. Again, this is shown in Cogo and Dewey’s study, where speakers of different L1s shared idioms from their own first languages when they found the English adjective “cheesy” didn’t communicate the exact meaning that they required. Idiom works differently in ELF seemingly, as it is unbound from culture. This allows for a much greater use of invention and adaptation in use of idiom, as well as the use of L1 culturally bound idioms in English.  I suspect, however, that this kind of communication happens more between European ELF speakers whose L1s are more similar than ELF speakers in Asia, as the L1 terms in the example above were “fleur bleue” from French and “kitchig” from German. Both of these are intelligible to me as an English speaker with little knowledge of French or German.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exchange described above, is the way that “fleur bleue” is introduced into the conversation. The speaker alerts his audience to the fact that there is a potential for misunderstanding approaching by saying “We say….”. This again shows the interlocutor orientation of ELF and may also lead to the fact that most studies find very little evidence of misunderstanding in ELF (eg Mauranen 2006).


The final area that ELF research tends to look at is that of lexico-grammar. Cogo and Dewey (yep, them again) make the point that this is still strongly linked to pragmatics and accommodation, as in the example above where a variation such as using a zero article is repeated by a speaker who would ordinarily use an article. Nevertheless, there would seem to be some fairly systematic features common to most ELFs. The classic hypothesis of ELF variants was proposed by Seidlhofer (2004):

  • Use of 3rd person zero form (not adding an s)
  • Use of which as a relative pronoun to describe people.
  • Article deletion or insertion
  • Fixed or “ungrammatical” (by NS standards) question tags
  • Innovative verb-pronoun collocation
  • Higher frequency of semantically general verbs (take, have)
  • Preference for the infinitive over the gerund form
  • Explicitness (“black colour” as opposed to just “black”)

These tend to be the areas in which research is concentrated. However, it’s important to note that the above is in no way a grammatical core for ELF. Firstly, while the above all feature, they usually feature alongside the NS standard variant (see Breiteneder 2009). Secondly, the focus of ELF study tends to be more about how ELF communicators make use of the linguistic resources available to them in the process of building a discourse. For instance, Jenkins (2011:21) points to the greater use of progressive forms in ELF as a way of drawing attention to a past point in time, possibly to make the structure of the discourse clearer. In other words, it’s not so much the feature themselves that are of interest, but the reasons for using them. In this way lexico-grammatical studies in ELF are often really pragmatic studies anyway.

The great question then is whether the features and variants mentioned above are really part of a linguistic system or whether they are “errors”. Given ELF’s critical stance towards NS models of English, but the lack of an ELF model in its stead, it’s hard to label anything as an error with reference to any standard. Nevertheless, there is little doubt in my mind that sometimes variations stem from a lack of language control; performance problems if you will, and these should not be counted in ELF data. Dewey (2007) suggest four criteria for ELF variants:

  • They must be systematic (according to corpus studies)
  • Occur frequently and with speakers of different linguacultural backgrounds.
  • They are communicatively effective (perhaps more so than an equivalent NS from)
  • Considered a variant, not an error, when contrasted with an ENL form (but no mention of who is doing the considering).

If non-standard forms meet these standards, rather than being seen as errors, or deficient, they become what Cogo & Dewey would see as “innovative forms”.


While the variations above are in some ways systematic, they are often bound by geographical context and different speakers. The call for plurality in ELF is no doubt driven by the fact that research in ELF is very much concentrated in two different fields: Europe and Asia, and evidence suggests that  the kinds of English used in these areas are quite distinct. I believe this makes it unlikely that an ELF core could ever be produced; I also think that such a core would go somewhat against the kind of principles that ELF research tends to espouse.

This comes back to the point I made in my previous piece, that in dealing with a phenomenon as unprecedented as ELF, traditional frameworks and nomenclature may not be sufficient for the needs of ELF researchers or English teachers. What the above should show though, is that there is a collection of somethings that we can refer to as ELF communication, and that it may be a good idea to prepare our students for this kind of communication. In next week’s post, I will try to examine some of the ways that we as teachers can do this.




Breiteneder, A. (2009). English as a lingua franca in Europe: An empirical perspective. World Englishes, 28.2, 256–269.

Coates, J. (1993). Women, men, and language: A sociolinguistic account of gender differences in language.

Cogo, A., & Dewey, M. (2006). Efficiency in ELF communication: from pragmatic motives to lexico-grammatical innovation. Nordic Journal of English Studies5.2, 59-93.

Dewey, M. (2007). English as a lingua franca: An empirical study of innovation in lexis and grammar. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, King’s College London.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J., Cogo, A., & Dewey, M. (2011). Review of Developments in Research into English as a Lingua Franca. Language Teaching44.3, 281-315.

Mauranen, A. (2006). Signalling and preventingmisunderstanding in ELF communication. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 177, 123–150.

Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209–239.

12 responses to “What does (an) ELF look like?

  1. Thanks for another great post. I had never really thought seriously about ELF, so am vey much a beginner, but after reading your work my curiosity has been aroused. At the recent TESOL Greece conference I attended a plenary by Julianne House, who gave an introduction to the topic, which was interesting, but left me with morequestions than answers. I shall be dipping into the articles you refernce to find out more.

    • Hi David,

      I was a beginner about three weeks ago too. The readings on my first post Jenkins (2011) and Cogo (2012) make a nice introduction to it all. It’s still a relatively small field so even with a limited amount of reading I’m getting a good sense of the field.

      I think that “more questions than answers” is still where the field is at as a whole at the moment, but maybe that goes for a lot of things in ELT and the wider world. It certainly seems that way to me.

      Thanks, as ever, for reading and for sharing. I seem to get a lot of traffic from Spain these days, mostly down to you I’m sure.



  2. You have started an interesting and timely debate, Kevin! In ELT we quite urgently need to come to grips with the pedagogical implications of English as a lingua franca. I wish to emphasize right from the start, however, that I don’t think the “ELF as a variety” view has much to offer in this respect. It seems to me all about ELF communication and what/how learners must learn to become able to cope with the challenges out there. My own pedagogical preference is for an approach that tries to combine a Standard English orientation with a pedagogical space for ELF development in the English classroom. This stance is not motivated by a naive acceptance of SE; it is rather based on a social constructivist conceptualization of foreign/second language learning. According to this view, the kind of English I use in ELF communication can only be “my English”, which I have acquired in a process of social constructivist creation – in my mind, my heart and my behavior. “My English” is shaped by a number of factors including my native language, my learning orientation (in my case SE), my motivation and the effort I invest, and last but not least by the requirements of ELF communication for accommodation, meaning negotiation or let it pass. A SE orientation, not in high favor in some ELF circles, is not at all in conflict with the endonormative (in a constructivist sense) “my English” view of ELF and ELF development. On the contrary, an ELF “reform” of ELT will only be possible if ELF (with its emphasis on ELF speakers’ resourceful and strategic exploitation of English) and ELT (with its orientation towards SE) manage to join forces as brothers in arms. From a social constructivist perspective, ELF-informed ELT pedagogy accepts learners of English as SPEAKERS of English and tries to help them improve their “speaker satisfaction” and sense of ownership. Implementing a pedagogical space for ELF in the English classroom is all about enabling learners to explore and live their own ELF-specific creativity within an overall SE orientation. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development should be considered in this connection as well as the emancipatory potential of CLIL and web 2 enhanced e-learning.
    Kohn, K. (2014). A pedagogical space for ELF in the English classroom. In: Y. Bayyurt & S. Akcan (eds.). Current perspectives on pedagogy for ELF. De Gruyter Mouton (draft).
    Kohn, K. (2011). ELF and the Standard English misunderstanding. In A. De Houwer & A. Wilton (eds.). English in Europe Today, Benjamins, 72-94.
    Both papers at http://www.sprachlernmedien.de [> Documentation > Publications]; also see my talk at TESOL 2012: http://youtu.be/yCfpD49YhSg

    • This is an appoach to the issue that makes complete sense to me, from al sides. Thanks, Kurt (and Alex!)

    • Hi Kurt,

      Thanks for responding to my call for people who understand this stuff 🙂 I’m really glad you took the time to comment.

      You have actually anticipated a lot of the third post in this series that I am currently writing. Like you, I don’t see much value in ELF as variety. I doubt that an ELF core will ever be able to be established, at least not one that makes sense from a pedagogical point of view. That said, I think the term “Standard English” as a variety is laced with almost as many problems as ELF as a variety.

      I am a big fan of your concept of “my English” as something contained within the individual (is that a bit too cognitivist?). That, really, is what I’m working with in the classroom. Not models which are all abstractions anyway. I’ve been trying to think how I would actually define ELF over the past few days, and I’ve come to the conclusion that rather than being a different system, it’s just a different way of deploying the same system – “my English” if you like, in dealing with a different kind of interlocutor. Within this system there’s potential for variation, and the more proficient (by SE standards I guess) the student, the more potential for varying how the system is deployed.

      As you say, this is something we should be exploring in the classroom – again Iike your concept of “space” for it. I’m not sure that we should even be “teaching” ELF, just subtly orienting our classrooms towards it and making students aware of the possibilities. This could provide the “sense of ownership” that you talked about, which would be huge for students here in Korea.

      I have more to say, but I’m going to put that in the next post (hopefully on Tuesday). Thanks very much for the chance to engage. I’d love to hear more about how you think Vygotsky fits into this, and I’m off to look at your papers now.



  3. Sorry, ALEX – I got confused with who is who:)

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