What Is a Contact Language?

Group Of Business People Having A Conference About International Relation

Rawpixel / Getty Images

A contact language is a marginal language (a type of lingua franca) used for purposes of basic communication by people with no common language.

English as lingua franca (ELF), says Alan Firth, is a "contact language between persons who share neither a common native tongue nor a common (national) culture, and for whom English is the chosen foreign language of communication" (1996).

Examples and Observations

  • "Ancient Greek around the Mediterranean basin, or later Latin throughout the Roman Empire, were both contact languages. They tend to vary in use in different local contexts, and there is often a great deal of local language interference. Latin, for example, later developed many local forms which eventually became French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and so on. The contact language usually dominates in situations in which the speakers of that language have military or economic power over other language users. . . .
    "When the contact between groups of people is prolonged, a hybrid language can develop known as a pidgin. These tend to occur in situations where one language dominates, and there are two or more other languages at hand." (Peter Stockwell, Sociolinguistics: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge, 2002)
  • "The most often cited example of a (bilingual) mixed system is Michif, a contact language that developed in Canada between French-speaking fur traders and their Cree-speaking wives." (Naomi Baron, Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved. Routledge, 2001)

English (or ELF) as a Contact Language

  • "English as a Lingua Franca (henceforth ELF) refers, in a nutshell, to the world's most extensive contemporary use of English, in essence, English when it is used as a contact language between people from different first languages (including native English speakers)." (Jennifer Jenkins, English as a Lingua Franca in the International University: The Politics of Academic English Language Policy. Routledge, 2013)
  • "ELF [English as a Lingua Franca] provides a kind of 'global currency' for people from a great variety of backgrounds who come into contact with one another and use the English language as a default means of communication. ELF as a contact language is often used in short contact situations, such that fleeting English norms are in operation, with variation being one of the hallmarks of ELF (Firth, 2009). Thus ELF does not function as a territorialized and institutionalized 'second language,' nor can it be described as a variety with its own literary or cultural products, as is the case with the English language used for instance in Singapore, Nigeria, Malaysia, or India, where WE [World Englishes] have emerged in different ways from much longer contact situations." (Juliane House, "Teaching Oral Skills in English as a Lingua Franca." Principles and Practices for Teaching English as an International Language, ed. by Lubna Alsagoff et al. Routledge, 2012)


  • "A very naive view of language contact would probably hold that speakers take bundles of formal and functional properties, semiotic signs so to speak, from the relevant contact language and insert them into their own language. . . . A probably more realistic view held in language contact research is that whatever kind of material is transferred in a situation of language contact, this material necessarily experiences some sort of modification through contact." (Peter Siemund, "Language Contact" in Language Contact and Contact Languages, ed. by P. Siemund and N. Kintana. John Benjamins, 2008)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Contact Language?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/contact-language-linguistics-1689917. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Is a Contact Language? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/contact-language-linguistics-1689917 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Contact Language?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/contact-language-linguistics-1689917 (accessed March 24, 2023).