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The ELF on the (language classroom) shelf

I’ve taken advantage of my spare time during lockdown to uncover and (try to) better understand certain aspects of ELT which, usually due to my lack of time and energy, I had always put aside. Little did I know that delving into the world of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) equalled opening the proverbial ‘can of worms’*, and by writing this I’m perhaps ‘biting off more than I can chew’*. However, as the number of English language users increases across the globe, I feel that it’s time to ask (many) questions and find (some) answers about this often misunderstood topic - like *’Is it ok to use idioms in ELF?’ By no means will I ever be able to cover all the aspects and ramifications of teaching/learning ELF and its impact on Applied Linguistics and other professional and language sectors. This is a mere attempt to shed light and clarify some key points to make the concept of English as a Lingua Franca more accessible to teachers and learners, starting from the basics. What is Lingua Franca? Nowadays, the phrase ‘lingua franca’ denotes a common (or bridge) language used by speakers who do not share the same native tongue (L1). With this in mind, the follow up question should be…


What exactly is ELF?

English is the lingua franca of any kind of international business, aviation, technology, the internet and media, among others. More specifically, “ELF is a contact language between persons who share neither a common native tongue nor a common culture, and for whom English is the chosen foreign language of communication.“ (Firth, 1996) 


It is believed that you can’t truly master a language unless you learn about the culture of the country in which it is spoken. Well, perhaps the most striking feature of ELF is its lack of any cultural connotation. For this very reason, I believe that ELF cannot be passed off as another English variety, such as Indian English, Ugandan English, Philippine English etc., as some might suggest.  


But there’s more. As EFL is expected to be spoken mainly among countries in the expanding circle, the goal of its user is to achieve ‘intelligibility’ which, simply put, is the state of understanding (or being understood) without the help of context or external clues. To achieve this, EFL has a limited range of vocabulary and expressions, grammatical structures, and pronunciation features. It couldn’t be otherwise, as its purpose is to provide the tools to bridge cultural and linguistic differences between interlocutors. 


Who are the ELF users?

In a nutshell, an ELF speaker could either be a ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ individual, who uses English in multicultural settings and is likely to be bi- or multi- lingual/dialectal. Because of this, the ELF user is expected to have good communicative and comprehension strategies. (Ur, 2009)


Why is there a need for ELF?

There are billions of people who communicate in English worldwide, and the majority of the English language users are non-native (NNS). For a better understanding of the development and expansion of the English language as a bridge language, I believe the following classification could be helpful.


The inner circle is allocated to England and the former colonies it had settled (e.g. Scotland, the USA, New Zealand etc.). The outer circle includes colonial dependencies, which were administered by Britain, but their inhabitants didn’t originate from the British Isles. The expanding circle comprises countries in which English is rarely spoken and it is taught as a school subject. 


This classification might have been accurate at the time, but it is perhaps too simplistic, nowadays. It assumes that the English speakers in the inner circle countries are exclusively native speakers. In actual fact, we can also find indigenous native speakers of other languages, migrants from outer and expanding circle countries, and speakers of other colonial languages. Another assumption suggests that in expanding circle countries the English language is hardly ever used and considers its users as learners. Once again, this assumption is contrasted by the fact that in Scandinavian countries, for example, the vast majority of the population uses English on a regular basis in a fluent and effective manner. 


As the socio-economic-political boundaries decrease and the number of English users rises, the need for a language (English, in this case) that allows clear and smooth communication (Lingua Franca) among a wide variety of users is necessary. As a consequence, I feel that the future of English Language Teaching (ELT) might be inevitably affected by the gradual  introduction of English as a Lingua Franca in the language schools.


What English model(s) is currently taught in most ELT settings?

  • Standard English (SE): It can be described as the variety of English believed to be the ‘correct’ version of the language, by not showing any of the features which are considered grammatically incorrect or non-standard.
  • Received Pronunciation (RP): Widely used in the media and by public figures, RP is traditionally considered the ‘standard’ British accent, without any geographical correlation. 
  • General American English (GA): It mainly refers to the accent used by the majority of Americans, who perceive it as lacking clear influences of regional, socio-economic and ethnic features.


What are the main differences between ELF pronunciation and RP or GA?

It is often believed that accents, especially strong regional or foreign accents, can have a negative impact on intelligibility. However, in her research, Jenkins (2000)  demonstrates that you don’t need RP, GA, or even a ‘native-like’ pronunciation, to be intelligible, which, as communicators, should be our main goal. In her Lingua Franca Core, Jenkins suggests: 


  • All consonant sounds, if mispronounced, can negatively affect intelligibility, except:
    • The sounds /θ/ and /ð/, which can be replaced by /f/, /t/ or /s/ and /v/, /d/ or /z/ without causing misunderstanding.
    • The rhotic /r/, as pronounced in General American, appears less confusing than the British, non-rhotic /r/, pronounced as /ə/ in ‘computer’, for example.
    • The sound /t/ becomes problematic if replaced by a glottal stop /Ɂ/, like ‘water’  in some London accents; or if produced resembling a /d/, like ‘beautiful’  in General American pronunciation. 
    • Although consonant clusters (e.g. ‘spl’) should not be simplified, by removing one of the consonants, for example, inserting a short and weak vowel (think of a swift /ə/ between /b/ and /l/ in the word /blue/) is considered acceptable.
  • Pronouncing vowel length is key to intelligibility, eg. ‘sheep’ vs ‘ship’
  • Although vowel quality isn’t important, it is necessary to:
    • Preserve the sound /ɜː/, as in ‘bird
    • Be consistent: don’t switch randomly between GA and RP in words such as ‘bath’ or ‘class’, for example. 
  • The nuclear stress, also known as ‘tonic stress’, should be placed appropriately. A typical example would be the word ‘VEgetable’.

What are the main lexico-grammatical differences between SE and ELF?

A very limited vocabulary, together with a lack of communicative strategies, such as paraphrasing, are among the main causes of communication issues. In addition, it appears that an excessive use of idioms can result in communication breakdown, although this has been argued.


However, Seidlhofer (2004) identified several lexico-grammatical features present in Standard English that don’t seem to have any impact on intelligibility, such as:

  • Omitting ‘third person S’, e.g. She look very happy, He go to school every day...
  • Omitting and/or switching definite/indefinite articles before nouns, e.g. Finally teacher has arrived!
  • The use of universal tag questions, such as ‘isn’t it?’ and ‘no?
  • Replacing ‘who’ with ‘which’ (and vice versa) in relative clauses.
  • Using ‘that’-clauses instead of infinitive structures, e.g. I want that we leave.
  • Redundant explicitness, e.g. How long time…?
  • Using uncountable nouns as countable, e.g. advices, informations etc. 

What are the arguments against ELF?

Granted that ELF isn’t for everyone and it should be taught/learnt for specific reasons, these are some of the arguments against English as a Lingua Franca:

  • Fear that the accommodations implemented to make ELF possible, will turn the English language into a simplified and less respectable version of itself.
  • Attachment to the ‘monomodel’ provided by the English spoken in the inner circle countries.
  • Belief that the English language belongs exclusively to the ‘native’ speakers. Therefore, the non-native speakers should try to use it at its purest form without applying any significant changes.
  • Reluctance on projecting own local identity by using a language perceived as ‘less-than-perfect’ or ‘non-standard’.

Where did I find so much information about ELF?

First and foremost, I’d like to mention a great (free) course that truly inspired me and improved my understanding of this topic and some useful presentation slides that guided me while writing this.


Then, I’d like to tempt you with a little quiz on English as a Lingua Franca.


You could have a look at some points in more detail:

Last, but not least, here’s the bibliography:

Firth, A. (1996). The discursive accomplishment of normality: On 'lingua franca' English and conversation analysis. Journal of Pragmatics, 26(2), 237-259.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an International Language: New models, new norms, new goals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kachru, B. B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the outer circle. In R. Quirk and H. G. Widdowson (eds), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Seidlhofer, B. (2001). ‘Closing a conceptual gap: the case for a description of English as a Lingua Franca.’ International Journal of Applied Linguistics, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 133-158.