Sunday, 3 July 2016

English as a lingua franca or ELF

English as a lingua franca or ELF can be defined as “an additionally acquired language system which serves as a common means of communication for speakers of different first languages”. ELF is also “defined functionally by its use in intercultural communication rather than formally by its reference to native-speaker norms” whereas English as a foreign language aims at meeting native speaker norms and gives prominence to native speaker cultural aspects. While lingua francas have been used for centuries, what makes ELF a novel phenomenon is the extent to which it is used – both functionally and geographically. A typical ELF conversation may involve an Italian and a Dane chatting at a coffee break of an international conference held in Brussels, a Spanish tourist asking a local for the way in Berlin, and many other similar situations.



The way English is used as a lingua franca is heavily dependent on the specific situation of use. Generally speaking, ELF interactions concentrate on function rather than form. In other words, communicative efficiency (i.e. getting the message across) is more important than correctness. As a consequence, ELF interactions are very often hybrid. Speakers accommodate to each other's cultural backgrounds and may also use code-switching into other languages that they know. Based on the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE) and additional research, the following features of ELF lexicogrammar have been identified:

  • use of 3rd person singular zero, as in you look very sad and he look very sad
  • shift in the use of articles (including some preference for zero articles) as in our countries have signed agreement about this
  • invariant question tags as in you’re very busy today, isn’t it? (and use of other similar universal forms)
  • treating ‘who’ and ‘which’ as interchangeable relative pronouns, as in the picture who or a person which
  • shift of patterns of preposition use, for example we have to study about
  • preference for bare and/or full infinitive over the use of gerunds, as in I look forward to see you tomorrow
  • extension to the collocational field of words with high semantic generality, for example take an operation
  • increased explicitness, for example how long time instead of how long
  • exploited redundancy, such as ellipsis of objects/complements of transitive verbs as in I wanted to go with, you can borrow
However, these features are by no means invariant or “obligatory”. Rather, these forms do not seem to compromise effective communication within an ELF setting when they do occur.

"Neutrality" of ELF

While some researchers hold that English as a lingua franca is a neutral and culture-free tool, others hold that it carries the culture and language of its speakers. Recent linguistic discussions by ELF experts treat the interact ants’ cultural and linguistic background as a factor influencing language performance. For Hülmbauer, for instance, “it seems likely that the ELF users develop their own markers of identity (be they a common 'European' or 'international' nature or more individual ones which are created online, depending on the community of practice they are emerging).” In this view, ELF is multicultural rather than culture-free.

ELF and the native speaker

ELF is used most often between non-native speakers of English but this fact does not mean that native speakers are excluded from ELF communication. However, very often they form a minority of the interlocutors. In ELF interactions, the importance lies on communication strategies other than nativeness, which can lead to communicative situations where those English native speakers who are not familiar with ELF and/or intercultural communication are at a disadvantage because they do not know how to use English appropriately in these situations.
An important issue when discussing ELF is the notion of speakers of ELF being active language users in their own right, who do not need to adhere to native speaker norms but use ELF to meet their communicative needs. Proponents of ELF thus reject the notion that it is a form of ‘deficient’ English and describe ELF speakers as users of English, not as learners.

Attitude and Motivation

Several attitude studies on the topic of ELF have already been conducted. One overarching factor seems to be a discrepancy between perceptions on the role of ELF in everyday interactions all over the globe on the one hand and the dominance of as well as reliance on native speaker norms on the other hand. Breiteneder argues that learners of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) often have an integrative motivation for learning and using English since they wish to identify with the culture and values of English native speakers. Thus, native speaker norms occupy a central place if English is studied as a English as a foreign language. In contrast, English as Lingua Franca users tend to focus on effective communication with speakers of other linguistic backgrounds. In ELF interactions, intelligibility is key, which may not necessitate an advantage for native speakers (see above).


Some linguists claim that variation in ELF is completely haphazard and devoid of any patterns, and therefore not worth studying. Most importantly, proponents of this view reject the idea that emerging insights into how English is used as a lingua franca can provide useful input with regard to the aims and methods of English language teaching.
Another line of criticism argues that concepts such as ELF provide a useful (terminological) veneer for continued (linguistic) domination by English-speaking countries through their political, educational, and cultural institutions. This concept of linguistic imperialism has been developed and heavily used by Robert Phillipson. Contrastingly, Davies criticises the concept and argues that it is “inhabited” by two cultures: one is a culture of guilt ("colonies should never have happened") the other is that of romantic despair ("we shouldn’t be doing what we are doing").

Related Terminology

Additionally to ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, other terms with slightly different meanings have been used in the debate and research on the global spread of English, including ‘English as an International Language’ (EIL), ‘Global English’, ‘Global Englishes’, International English, ‘World English’ and World Englishes as well as, most recently, Globish. One of the advantages of ELF terminology is that ELF does not imply a standardized version of any English variety.

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