lingua franca

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

lingua franca
"English," says Nicholas Ostler, "is a textbook example of a language with a large mother tongue community that is also widely used as a lingua franca" (The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, 2010). (Boris Lyubner/Getty Images)


A lingua franca is a language or mixture of languages used as a medium of communication by people whose native languages are different. Also known as a trade language, contact language, international language, and global language.

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

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Italian, "language" + "Frankish"

Examples and Observations

  • "Where a language is widely used over a relatively large geographical area as a language of wider communication, it is known as a lingua franca--a common language but one which is native only to some of its speakers. The term 'lingua franca' itself is an extension of the use of the name of the original 'Lingua Franca,' a Medieval trading pidgin used in the Mediterranean region."
    (M. Sebba, Contact Languages: Pidgins and Creoles. Palgrave, 1997)
  • English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)
    - "The status of English is such that it has been adopted as the world's lingua franca for communication in Olympic sport, international trade, and air-traffic control. Unlike any other language, past or present, English has spread to all five continents and has become a truly global language."
    (G. Nelson and B. Aarts, "Investigating English Around the World," The Workings of Language, ed. by R. S. Wheeler. Greenwood, 1999)

    - "Even though everybody around the world speaks English--sort of--in their dealings with American media and business, politics, and culture, the English that is spoken is a lingua franca, a Bodysnatched English to be carefully scrutinized as to its meanings when it is used by a foreign culture."
    (Karin Dovring, English as Lingua Franca: Double Talk in Global Persuasion. Praeger, 1997)

    - "But what do we mean by the term English as a lingua franca? The term lingua franca is usually taken to mean 'any lingual medium of communication between people of different mother tongues, for whom it is a second language' (Samarin, 1987, p. 371). In this definition, then, a lingua franca has no native speakers, and this notion is carried over into definitions of English as a lingua franca, such as in the following example: '[ELF] 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' (Firth, 1996, p. 240).

    "Clearly, the role of English as the chosen foreign language of communication in Europe is an extremely important one, and one that is on the increase. . . . It is important to note that this means that both in Europe as well as in the world as a whole, English is now a language that is mainly used by bi- and multilinguals, and that its (often monolingual) native speakers are a minority."
    (Barbara Seidlhofer, "Common Property: English as a Lingua Franca in Europe." International Handbook of English Language Teaching, ed. by Jim Cummins and Chris Davison. Springer, 2007)
  • Globish as a Lingua Franca
    "I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can't help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish--a simplified version of English that's used around the world--will be there as long as it is needed, but since it's not being picked up as a mother tongue, it's not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language."
    (Nicholas Ostler quoted by Robert McCrum in "My Bright Idea: English Is On the Up but One Day Will Die Out." The Observer, October 31, 2010)
  • Cyberspace English
    "Because the cyberspace community, at least at the moment, is overwhelmingly English speaking, it is appropriate to say that English is its unofficial language. . . .

    "The colonial past, imperialistic stealth, and the emergence of other language blocs in cyberspace as it grows will minimize in due time the preeminence of English as the de facto language of cyberspace. . . .

    "[Jukka] Korpela sees another alternative to cyberspace English and a constructed language. He predicts the development of better language machine translation algorithms. Such algorithms will result in efficient and sufficient quality language translators, and there will be no need for a lingua franca."
    (J. M. Kizza, Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age. Springer, 2007)

Pronunciation: LING-wa FRAN-ka