What is Outer Circle English?

Outer Circle of English
According to linguist David Crystal, the total number of English speakers in the outer circle is between 300 and 500 million ( English as a Global Language, 2003). John Lamb / Getty Images

The outer circle is made up of post-colonial countries in which English, though not the mother tongue, has for a significant period of time played an important role in education, governance, and popular culture.

Countries in the outer circle include India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and more than 50 other nations.

Low Ee Ling and Adam Brown describe the outer circle as "those countries in the earlier phases of the spread of English in non-native settings[,] .

. . where English has become institutionalised or has become part of the country's chief institutions" (English in Singapore, 2005). 

The outer circle is one of the three concentric circles of World English described by linguist Braj Kachru in "Standards, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle" (1985).  (For a simple graphic of Kachru's circle model of World Englishes, visit page eight of the slideshow World Englishes: Approaches, Issues, and Resources.)

The labels inner, outer, and expanding circles represent the type of spread, the patterns of acquisition, and the functional allocation of the English language in diverse cultural contexts. As discussed below, these labels remain controversial.

Explanations of Outer Circle English

  • "In the Inner Circle, English spread largely because of a migration of English speakers. In time each settlement developed its own national variety. On the other hand, the spread of English in the Outer Circle has occurred largely as a result of colonization by English-speaking nations. Here, two major types of linguistic development occurred. In some countries like Nigeria and India, where under colonial powers it developed as an elite second language, only a minority of the society acquired English. However, in other countries like Barbados and Jamaica, the slave trade had a significant impact on the variety of English spoken, resulting in the development of English-based pidgins and creoles."
    (Sandra Lee McKay, Teaching English as an International Language: Rethinking Goals and Approaches. Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • "The Outer Circle may be thought of as country contexts where English was first introduced as a colonial language for administrative purposes. . . . English is used in these countries for intra-country purposes. In addition to 'Outer Circle,' terms frequently used to describe the manner in which English has evolved in these settings include 'institutionalized' and 'nativized.' In these countries, a variety of English has evolved which possesses the common core characteristics of Inner Circle varieties of English, but in addition can be distinguished from them by particular lexical, phonological, pragmatic, and morphosyntactic innovations."
    (Kimberly Brown, "World Englishes: To Teach or Not to Teach." World Englishes, ed. by  Kingsley Bolton and Braj B. Kachru. Routledge, 2006)

    Problems With the World Englishes Model

    • "Considering the history of the 'emancipation' of various Englishes around the globe, it is obvious that the groundbreaking work emanated from and has been essentially focused on the Outer Circle. But it has been an uphill struggle. Even today, what is often termed 'international' by Inner Circle scholars, publishers, etc. is often simply interpreted as the international spread of native-speaker Standard English (a minority variety in itself) rather than the way English has changed to meet international needs."
      (Barbara Seidlhofer, "World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca: Two Frameworks or One?" World Englishes--Problems, Properties and Prospects, ed. by Thomas Hoffmann and Lucia Siebers. John Benjamins, 2009)
    • "As a large number speakers from the Outer-Circle and Expanding-Circle countries now live in the Inner-Circle countries, even native speakers of English are increasingly exposed to World Englishes. This means revising the notion of 'proficiency' even for the English of native speakers. Canagarajah (2006: 233) maintains that, 'in a context where we have to constantly shuffle between different varieties [of English] and communities, proficiency becomes complex . . . one needs the capacity to negotiate diverse varieties to facilitate communication.'"
      (Farzad Sharifian, "English as an International Language: An Overview." English as an International Language: Perspectives and Pedagogical Issues, ed. by F. Sharifian. Multilingual Matters, 2009)


      Also Known As: extended circle

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      Nordquist, Richard. "What is Outer Circle English?" ThoughtCo, May. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/outer-circle-english-language-1691363. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, May 1). What is Outer Circle English? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/outer-circle-english-language-1691363 Nordquist, Richard. "What is Outer Circle English?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/outer-circle-english-language-1691363 (accessed January 20, 2018).