English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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The term English as a lingua franca (ELF) refers to the teaching, learning, and use of English as a common means of communication (or contact language) for speakers of different native languages.

British linguist Jennifer Jenkins points out that ELF is not a new phenomenon. English, she says, "has served as a lingua franca in the past, and continues to do so nowadays, in many of the countries that were colonized by the British from the late sixteenth century on (often known collectively as the Outer Circle following Kachru 1985), such as India and Singapore. ... What is new about ELF, however, is the extent of its reach," (Jenkins 2013). 

ELF in Politics and Other Global Matters

ELF is used globally in many ways, and this includes important matters of politics and diplomacy. "As well as being used—often in a very simple form—by tourists, ELF is prominent in international politics and diplomacy, international law, business, the media, and in tertiary education and scientific research—which Yamuna Kachru and Larry Smith (2008: 3) call ELF's 'mathetic function'—so it is clearly not a reduced lingua franca in the term's original (Frankish) sense," notes Ian Mackenzie before going on to elaborate on the ways in which this application of English differs from native English.

"... [ELF] usually differs from English as a native language (ENL), the language used by NESs [native English speakers]. Spoken ELF contains a huge amount of linguistic variation and non-standard forms (although formal written ELF tends to resemble ENL to a much greater extent)," (Mackenzie 2014).

ELF in Local and International Settings

ELF is also used on a much smaller scale. "English operates as a lingua franca at a number of different levels, including local, national, regional and international. Apparently paradoxically, the more localised the use of English as a lingua franca, the more variation it is likely to display. This can be explained by reference . . . to the 'identity--communication continuum.' When used in a local setting, ELF will display identity markers. Thus code-switching and the explicit [use] of nativised norms can be expected. When used for international communication, on the other hand, speakers will consciously avoid the use of local and nativised norms and expressions," (Kirkpatrick 2007).

Is ELF a Variety of English?

Although most contemporary linguists regard English as a lingua franca (ELF) as a valuable means of international communication and worthwhile object of study, some have challenged its value and the idea that ELF is a distinct variety of English at all. Prescriptivists (generally non-linguists) tend to dismiss ELF as a kind of foreigner talk or what has been disparagingly called BSE—"bad simple English." But Barbara Seidlhofer makes the point that there's probably no reason to debate whether ELF is its own variety of English without more information about how it's used by different speakers in the first place.

"Whether ELF should be called a variety of English at all is an open question, and one which cannot be answered as long as we do not have any good descriptions of it. It is well known that divisions between languages are arbitrary, and therefore those between varieties of a language have to be as well. Once descriptions are available of how speakers from different linguacultural backgrounds use ELF, this will make it possible to consider whether it would make sense to think of English as it is spoken by its non-native speakers as falling into different varieties, just as is the English spoken by its native speakers. ... It is likely that ELF, like any other natural language, will turn out to vary, and to change over time. It does not make much sense, therefore, to talk about a monolithic variety as such: a variety can be treated as if it were a monolith, but this is a convenient fiction, for the process of variation itself never stops," (Seidlhofer 2006).

Who Is English a Lingua Franca For?

As far as Marko Modiano is concerned, there are two ways to approach deciding who English is a lingua franca for. Is it a lingua franca or common language only for non-native speakers that speak it as a foreign language or for those that use it in multicultural settings? "Seeing as the movement to bring forth the conceptualization of English as a lingua franca is gaining momentum worldwide, and more specifically for Europe, it is imperative that an analysis is made of the implications of the two differing approaches. ... One is the (traditional) idea that English is a lingua franca for a non-native speaker constituency which should pursue knowledge of the language as if it were a foreign language.

The other, upheld by those who have bought into the world Englishes paradigm, is to see English as a lingua franca for interlocutors who use it with others in multicultural settings (and thus see English in its diversity as opposed to viewing English as a prescriptive entity defined by idealized inner-circle speakers). It should be made clear, moreover, that my own position here is that a lingua franca must be inclusive as opposed to exclusive. That is to say, it is imperative that our understanding of how English is used in Europe is integrated with a vision of a communicatively viable use of the language internationally," (Modiano 2009).


  • Jenkins, Jennifer. English as a Lingua Franca in the International University: The Politics of Academic English Language Policy. 1st ed., Routledge, 2013.
  • Kirkpatrick, Andy. World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Mackenzie, Ian. English as a Lingua Franca: Theorizing and Teaching English. Routledge, 2014.
  • Modiano, Marko. "EIL, Native-Speakerism and the Failure of European ELT." English as an International Language: Perspectives and Pedagogical Issues. Multilingual Matters, 2009.
  • Seidlhofer, Barbara. "English as a Lingua Franca in the Expanding Circle: What It Isn't." English in the World: Global Rules, Global Roles. Continuum, 2006.
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Nordquist, Richard. "English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/english-as-a-lingua-franca-elf-1690578. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/english-as-a-lingua-franca-elf-1690578 Nordquist, Richard. "English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/english-as-a-lingua-franca-elf-1690578 (accessed June 2, 2023).