English as Lingua Franca, 1

Do you know the term “lingua franca“?  Ginna Allison, a current student, reflects here on the subject of her teaching degree, English, and its prevalence in the world.  Undoubtedly, she will apply this learning during her teaching internship.  Note that she had one intention, but in the process of writing discovered her learning needed to shift direction.

While her statement was originally written for an academic purpose, her topic and admirable depth of research and reflection have applicability to all of us who use English as our everyday medium of communication.  This post is the first of two parts.

It has often been said that language is inextricably linked with culture. But what can one say about a single language — in this case, English — spoken natively or secondarily by people from scores of different cultures? In such a situation, there is no one culture that embodies the expression of the language. With so many cultures speaking English as a lingua franca, the idea of culture as an integral part of language becomes convoluted.

For example, the norms and discourse rules of the British are different than those of Americans, Irish different than Australian, and so on from the core of the “inner circle” to its “outer circles.” (See Kachru’s model, below.) While there may be a great deal of cultural overlap, each group of native English speakers is also unlike one another. These differences are reflected in how English is used on every level, from grammatical to pragmatic.

The initial intent of this research paper was to discover what happens to the cultural context of English when it becomes a lingua franca in one of various settings. That is, does it develop a global cultural identity of its own? Does it borrow from and combine aspects of the cultures from which it springs? Or does it lose singular cultural meaning, instead expressing the culture of the native speaker? Or is it context-specific, representing the social climate in which it is spoken: academic, business or social?

Answers never fully revealed themselves in any of the sources explored. So, with the professor’s approval, this paper has morphed into a roadmap of the journey in search of the elusive Holy Grail.

English Near and Far

“The English tung is of small reach, stretching no further than this island of ours, nay not there over all.” —Roger Mulcaster, 1582 (as cited by Fishman, Cooper, & Conrad, 1975)

English has “the distinction of having spread further and been indigenized more frequently than any other lingua franca…” (Fishman, 1983)

Kachru's Three-Circle Model

As of 2003, English was spoken as a first or official second language in approximately 75 territories (Jenkins, 2003). There are many reasons for the broadening use of English throughout the world. It is a language of power — perhaps, at the moment, the language of power. That is, it is the primary tongue of people who control vast resources and maintain a strong grip on the global economy. It is used internationally in government, law, education and business. It has not always been this way, nor will it necessary remain so. But into the foreseeable future, English is the world’s lingua franca. One scholar (Fishman, 1983) postulates that a reason for its spread is functional:

“English is less loved but more used [than French. It is ]“richer, more precise, more logical, more sophisticated, and more competence related… The real ‘powerhouse’ is still English.”

While that perspective is interesting to consider, it is likely that political reasons related to power remain at the forefront of the global use of English.

English Only, or English Not at All?

The “English-Only” movement in the US (and at least one other English-native country) advocated for the adoption of English as the singular official language. Needless to say, in the US many citizens were deeply offended by the proposal as an expression of arrogance and exclusivity. The controversy about Ebonics (now called African American Vernacular English, or AAVE) had similar roots. Robin Tolmach Lakoff (2000), exploring the Ebonics controversy, wrote, “The majority community is struggling to maintain its right to control language… Since the powerful have always had the right to make their form of language — the standard — the only publicly valid form, the converse must also hold true: if you can maintain your form of language as the only one that is valid, right, logical, and good, then you will legitimately continue to hold  power.”

That succinctly explains why some people assert their right to retain their own language and culture while learning English. Furthermore, because of the association of English with colonization and abuse of power, it is no surprise that some people have little motivation to learn it, even when it is a required as a lingua franca in their country.

Beyond these associations, recent history plays a part. In some countries, speakers of English are disparaged: sometimes because of what we have done in their countries (like invade Iraq). The result may be generalized negative stereotyping. “[T]he spread of English as a lingua franca is not always viewed with unmitigated pleasure” (Fishman, 1983) may be an understatement.

The “average” American has been immersed in a culture that favors monolingualism (beyond a few years of high school language study). Culturally we tend to be insular and independent. Countries with broader global interests are baffled by our cultural blindness to what happens in the world beyond our boundaries. While we were glued to TVs watching the OJ Simpson trial, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were being slaughtered in Rwanda. Our limited comprehension of world events and other cultures put us at a disadvantage. In turn, that affects how potential English-learners view the prospect of learning our language, and getting to know us.

“In an increasingly interacting world, the acceptance of English may be increasingly related to the acceptance of others by native speakers of English. Unfortunately, we know far more about how to help the world learn English (little though that may be) than we do about how to help native speakers of English learn about the world.” (Fishman, 1983) That hopeful statement suggests that many Americans would do well to learn to expand our worldviews beyond our national borders. That could go a long way toward teaching us to be accepting of cultural traits different than our own, and to expanding our dialogues inclusively with people from other lands.

There are other reasons that the idea of learning of English is resisted by some. “English is seen as a language of opportunity and yet it also creates significant inequalities.” (Hall & Eggington, 2000) And of course, many scholars point to English as being a “killer of endangered languages,” (Graddoll, 1996, as cited by Tollefson, 2000) — not unlike the manner in which powerful, rich Walmart subsumes small, local businesses.

One Language, or Many?

When so many people, from Japan to Tanzania, speak English as a lingua franca, is it still a single language? Often linguistic aspects of the language evolve depending on where and in what context the language is spoken. Are these variant forms on the verge of departing the realm of lingua franca and transforming into another language, as an interlanguage might edge toward pidgin and then creole? With so many forms of English, how can one distinguish between a dialect and a separate language? Lakoff’s (2000) answer is straightforward: If a language meets “the criterion of mutual intelligibility,” then it is still a language. Thus, the nearly countless varieties of English remain one language, but each with unique characteristics.

The fiction is the notion of ‘a language’… In the case of the language called English, the sheer numbers of those whose individual performances (and competences) are encompassed within the fiction, their worldwide geographical distribution, the great range of social needs and purposes they serve, and the resulting myriad of [sic] identifiably different versions of English all combine to produce a paradox; as English becomes ever more widely used, so it becomes ever more difficult to characterize in ways that support the fiction of a simple, single language.” (Strevens, 1975)

Strevens argues that the term “localized forms of English” (LFEs) is more apt than “language.” An LFE is identifiably English, with common linguistic features, but it exists within the context of a specific community of English speakers. He points to two variables within LFEs: Their context (e.g. education, industry, government) and their distinguishing features (e.g. accents and discourse rules).

Eyamba G. Bokamba (1975) writes about forms of Africanized English. While there is no formal language called “African English,” it is unmistakable when one encounters it. There are internally consistent variations in phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. These differences are irrespective of the African speaker’s education. One source of the difference is fossilized L1 interference, not just individually but among many speakers. Bokamba heard the following sentence from a speaker, typical of what he considers “African English.” It had obviously been translated verbatim from its African counterpart: “Politics is forced out tears by intense anger. One can not remember any time both in dream and normal life that poorself stood among honourable ones…”

That is not standard English, of course, but it is English. Such speaking patterns are widely encountered in countries that have adopted English as a lingua franca. They transcend individual usage and become a characteristic of the particular breed of English used in that part of the world. Distinct from this quotation, African English may often be more grammatically traditional than standardized American usage. Just as a language evolves over time, so do lingua francas.

Beyond the mechanics of the language, there are cultural colorations brought to English by its speakers. When educators teach English as a second language, they know also teach pragmatics: how to use the language appropriately in a particular social context. The fine points of pragmatics and discourse may vary depending on the origin of the speaker, his/her socioeconomic background, and other factors, but broad norms hold true across these boundaries.

But when English becomes a lingua franca, spoken in a variety of settings around the world, what happens to cultural pragmatics?

In fact, there are as many cultures associated with English as there are communities that speak it. Thus, it is oxymoronic to consider the possibility of a common set of cultural norms for a lingua franca. What distinguishes one version from another ranges from phonology to discourse. By definition a lingua franca is comprised of dozens of (or more) cultures, each of which brings its own social rules and communication mores. If one considers the wide variety of forms of English —  Mexican (Spanglish), Nigerian, Caribbean, Japanese, Puerto Rican (Pringlish), Chinese, Indian and many others — it becomes apparent that a unified culture for a lingua franca is an impossibility. But with pragmatics being so important, how do people manage to communicate across these differences without offending one another? Can there be a unified usage of English as a lingua franca? What role does culture play in that?

There are as many forms of English as there are nations that adopt it, and there is no way (nor necessarily imperative) to unify them. The cultures of English lingua franca nations will interweave their form of the language with their own expressions of culture and pragmatics. It seems impossible for there to be a single standard. The truth may be that one can’t avoid the possibility of offending one another. Miscommunication is rampant. There will be mistakes. All one can hope is that, with open minds, people will learn from one another.

A delightfully ironic quotation from Cheng Shoong Tat (The Sunday Times, 3 February 1991, as cited by Alistair Pennycook, 1994) reinforces the unlikelihood of a universal pragmatic system: “Presumably, the output of such a melting pot will be ethnically neutral, speaking only the common language of English, celebrating the international festival of Christmas, watching the Cosby Show and embracing ‘global pop culture.’”


Images are placed by Marshall Brewer and are not the responsibility of Ginna Allison.


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4 Responses to “English as Lingua Franca, 1”

  1. Setya A Sis Says:

    Greetings from Indonesia.
    Very inspiring article. I have taught English too but bit halted now.
    Our lingua franca in my country is Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia). It is felt that the lingua franca is used onely because of the “need” instead of preference or pleasure (enjoy using Indonesian). The same applies to English. English is sometimes “abhorred by” or scary to many needy users because it is very foreign.
    I’ll give you an example why English is ‘very foreign’. Indonesia is divided into scores of provinces and provinces are divided into ‘kabupaten’s (regencies). People in one province may speak several different dialects (and linguistically they are even separate languages because the difference in vocabs use and grammar).
    North Sulawesi (Celebes) for example, speaks 3 or 4 local dialects/languages and they use Bahasa Minahasa as their province lingua franca. Further, they have to use Indonesian as the lingua franca to interact with other Indonesian ethnic groups. (I think ‘one language’ proposition is very insulting to those groups of people)

    These facts are similar in many provinces in Indonesia — and I believe — in many other parts of the world– so that The “English-Only” movement looks stupid and is felt like “Nazi uber alles” less violence.

    Using English as the lingua franca is favorable although there are alternatives of shifting to any other languages. I myself studied Arabic (much of which has been forgotten), Spanish (exactly at the SIT in 1989 when I took a fall course in NGO management) taught by a Bolivian MAT lady (I miss her). Of course we, Indonesian and Malay group of people will propose Indonesian as the alternative lingua franca because of its simplicity. Compared to English, Indonesian learning will take less time, less effort and … less stress.

    Spaniards may propose theirs, but when I learned theirs … it’s more difficult than the English … in grammar. Our pronunciations are very very similar, if an English speaking person (and speakers of other languages) can use Spanish, they can use Indonesian a lot easier. Thousands of users have proven this (Foreign People speaking Indonesian). I guess, Indonesian (and Malay or bahasa Melayu) is the easiest (simplest) language in the world. Why not use this?

    I love to make contacts with people from the place where I have been to before… so please notify me if you respond this.


    • matadmissions Says:

      Hello, Setya.

      Thank you for this detailed and thoughtful comment. Bahasa Indonesia is a good example of a lingua franca used by a nation. It unites Indonesia’s citizens, doesn’t it? It creates a kind of Indonesian identity, I should think. Without Bahasa Indonesia, there would only be citizenship in common, but no sense of shared identity. Without the ability of all of a nation’s citizens to discuss their experiences with each other, the nation can become fragmented. I wonder if this is what happened in Yugoslavia — that there was no shared identity? Not speaking the language of the dominant national group has the potential of isolating people. I think of limited English-speakers in the US, about 10 percent of the population. (In some locations, this is 60 – 80%.)

      I appreciate your cautions about exclusionary language. “English-only” hasn’t ever made much sense to me, either.

      With best wishes from Brattleboro,

      Marshall Brewer
      Admissions Counselor
      SIT Graduate Institute

  2. Ginna Allison Says:

    Dear Setya,

    I’m in Mexico on my internship and just read your fascinating comment. What a linguistically rich region you live in.

    I, too, am disturbed by “English-only” movements, which I believe stem in part from hubris, short-sightedness, and fear of cultural diversity.

    In Chiapas where I am now, there is a high indigenous population (as in other areas of Mexico and Central America) that speaks a number of distinct languages. So here, Spanish is the lingua franca. From my outsider’s perspective it seems that many Mexicans recognize the importance of these languages and there are efforts to honor them, while of course there are other people who wouldn’t grieve if they vanished. I hope that’s nowhere on the horizon.


  3. English as Lingua Franca, 2 « MAT Admissions Says:

    […] as Lingua Franca, 2 By matadmissions In the first part of this series, student Ginna Allison reflects on the prevalence of English in the world.  In this second part, […]

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