English as Lingua Franca

English as Lingua Franca

It has been a long way for me to become an English teacher. Well, to whom it may concern… 

I have to admit that I was not very enthusiastic about English at school. Not at all to be fair. At the tender age of 11, I had already failed terribly at learning a foreign language, which probably was due to the fact that it was rather difficult to apply the newly acquired Latin skills outside the classroom. „Why learn all this vocabulary only to translate wry texts about slaves and wars?“ I asked myself and stopped doing it. My marks became very bad and I assumed a lack of aptitude for languages.

We started with English in grade 7 and I remember using a smelly textbook with faded pages. It focussed on the lives of an average British family from an average town in the U.K., so average I cannot remember which one. The content was dominated by British culture, history, and arts and lessons mainly consisted of fill-in-the-gap activities of all forms. We became very excited seeing the teacher roll in the giant media cupboard once a month to do a listening activity with some bits of the Queen’s English with us. No, learning English wasn’t an enjoyable affair in central Germany in the early 90s, at least not for me.

More or less by chance, I started studying cultural studies and had to choose one modern philology. For practical reasons, I chose English. This experience has been much more pleasurable since some staff members were truly mad. One even looked like Michael Palin’s lost twin brother and he had by far the most „received pronunciation“ of all German professors. Needless to say that almost every other English studies course dealt with cultural products from the U.K., the motherland. The study of English as a lingua franca (short ELF, as a language used by speakers of different first languages to communicate)was still relatively new at that time and mentioned only a few times.

Then I began working as a tourist guide and met hundreds of travelers from all around the planet. And in every group there is someone who, through a little story told in between two sights, takes you on a journey to the places they call home. Apart from teaching English, I can’t think of any better way to earn your money. All these marvelous encounters with amazing humans from across the globe wouldn’t have been possible without the knowledge of English, without the use of ELF. 

Me on a tour with ASEAN ambassadors

I recall a guest from the Australian Outbacks who wanted to ask a question and I didn’t understand a single word he said. He tried several times but it was as if he was speaking Chinese! Even the other travelers had a hard time understanding him and did their best to act as translators. He as a monolingual was simply not able to adjust his „English“ down to an ELF we both could understand. According to Professor Jennifer Jenkins, „godmother“ of ELF and leading expert, being able to adjust your English to the one of your communication partner is one important feature of the multilingual phenomena ELF. My monolingual guest never needed another language nor any kind of awareness about different languages. As Jenkins says: „You can be multilingual without using English, but it is difficult to use ELF effectively without being multilingual“.

But why does English happen to be the lingua franca of the moment? Why not Mandarin, French, or even German? In fact, French used to be the language of diplomacy from the 17th to the 20th century and German was popular as a scientific language. By the end of the world wars and two of the predominant nations being anglophone, even two with long traditions in colonization, English eventually became the language of diplomacy along with the foundation of the united nations. As David Crystal puts it in the BBC’s podcast „The Battle for English“:

„A language becomes an international language and possibly a global language for one reason only and that is the power of the people who speak it.“

Power not only narrowed down to political power, but also economic, scientific, technological, social, and cultural power. Fueled by and as a consequence of globalization and the age of tech, English today is used as lingua franca in all of the areas mentioned above. Millions of People learn English at school. In fact, for every L1 speaker of English come five whose first language is another. By the way, I don’t believe that Brexit will have any effect on the current rise of ELF in the foreseeable future.

And although the numbers and findings of a growing body of research upon the phenomena speak for themselves, ELF still does not get the attention in teaching practice then it should be. In fact, only last week I spoke to a colleague who just graduated from formal governmental English teacher training in Germany. She said global English did not play any role. How strange is that? There are still textbooks published based on the „native speakerism“ concept, in which the ideal learner of English is the one who mimics native speakers best. Completely ignoring the fact that our learners are (most probably) rarely talking to native speakers.

„Monoligualism is the world’s exception, Multilingualism is the world’s norm.“

Professor Jennifer Jenkins

What does all that mean for us English teachers? Which skills are needed today? What matters most is that we must stop mimicking native speakers and set the focus on intelligibility. Being flexible to adjust „my“ ELF to the language of my counterpart is more important than the knowledge of rarely used phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions. Jenkins also claims that we must „train our ears to be able to understand people who speak English in a way you don’t speak“ meaning we need to use original resources of L2 English speech.

We must see English lessons as chances to teach intercultural skills, intercultural awareness, and true understanding of others. Our globalized, digitalized, and individualized world needs citizens who are  not only able to deal with, but to embrace cultural differences as expressions of human diversity and celebrate the fact that we are able to share our stories, get inspired, and learn from each other with the help of a shared language.



Bhatia, T. K., & Ritchie, W. C. (2012). Bilingualism/Multilingualism and Second-Language Acquisition. In Y. Goto Butler (Ed.), The Handbook of Bilingualism and Multilingualism (2nd ed., pp. 109–136). Wiley-Blackwell.

Dent, S. (2020, March 23). The Battle for English – BBC Sounds. Bbc. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000gkv4

Jenkins, J. (2016). An introduction to English as a Lingua Franca: ELFpron speaks to Professor Jennifer Jenkins. (2016, December 20). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvWCqvxK9Hg

Jenkins, J. (2009). English as a lingua franca: Interpretations and attitudes. World Englishes, 28(2), 200-207.

Kiczkowiak, M. (2020, October 1). Teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) vs Teaching English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiGg0JXYhXg&feature=youtu.be

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