English as a Lingua (ELF)

There are about three times as many people who speak English as a second or foreign language as there are native speakers. Many people use English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) to communicate with others with whom they don’t share a common language. When they do so, the English they use isn’t necessarily the same as the English used by native speakers. ELF tends to have a more restricted vocabulary, a simplified grammar and pronunciation, and fewer idioms than native English.

According to an article in the Financial Times I came across today, via this blog, ELF users tend to find it easier to communicate with one another if no native speakers of English are present. Native speakers who don’t adjust their language for non-natives tend to be difficult to understand. The article mentions a student conference in Amsterdam where everyone spoke English and where the sole British participant was asked to be “less English” so that the others could understand her.

I first heard the term English as a Lingua Franca a few years ago on a radio programme in which the linguist Jean Atchinson discussed the phenomenon. She suggested that native speakers of English should become familiar with ELF in order to communicate effectively with non-native speakers. I sure this isn’t too much of a problem for those who communicate regularly with non-native speakers, but probably can cause difficulties for others.

In another article about ELF, the author mentions research from Sweden and the Netherlands on the widespread use of English as a medium of instruction in higher education. The research found that “Test results were about ten percent lower on average in English taught courses than in courses taught in the mother tongue.”

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7 Responses to English as a Lingua (ELF)

  1. jdotjdot89 says:

    It’s interesting what you say particularly about ELF and what the second article mentions about the the group of German scientists holding conventions in English rather than in German. I highly recommend that everyone read the second article.

    The second article, in particular what I just mentioned, reminds me of the late and post-medieval ages when for any scientific, literary, or political work to be taken seriously, it had to be written in Latin. It’s fascinating to see the comparison with these German scientists who feel that despite German’s historical reputation as an enlightened language and a language of science, for them to be taken seriously, the conference would have to be held in English. This held true for Copernicus, for Galileo, even for Newton, all of whom wrote in Latin. Works written in the vernacular were generally dismissed although more easily understood, similarly to how today laypeople both are more engaged by and dismiss articles that are written in language they can understand, figuring that the only articles that really are enlightening would be filled with complex language to complicated for them to understand (and many often are, though their value is debatable).

    Even more interesting is the idea of English as a Lingua Franca as a separate language of sorts entirely from Modern English itself. It’s the idea of English for the world, instead of English for Anglophones, meaning that English-speakers would have to learn ELF and be able to “translate” to and from it as well. It would, in fact, require such a process–simplifying language is not as easy as it sounds for a native speaker. I’d expect ELF to develop its own set of rules, grammar, and idioms, many somewhat different than Standard English. This in particular reminds me of Fleet Common, for those who have read Orson Scott Card. Common became the common language of the entire world, but he makes it clear that while it was based on English, it most definitely WASN’T English. This seems to be the direction in which ELF is going.

    On a totally separate note, I LOVE hearing non-English speakers talk to each other in English because they have no other choice. I’ve heard conversations between English-poor Israelis and Mexicans, and also between equally English-deficient Taiwanese and Venezuelans, and it is really… really funny. As much as native speakers sometimes have trouble understanding foreigners’ grammatical mistakes or accents, its doubly as hard for non-native speakers to understand other non-native speakers from different parts of the world. Native English speakers aren’t really used to this, as generally when we learn another language, we only expect to be speaking it to people who speak that language natively, since English IS the world lingua franca for now.

  2. Joe says:

    None of this surprises me; I speak French as a secondary language, and the same goes true for me… when I’m speaking in French with people who are also using it for purposes of a lingua franca, we have no problems understanding each other. Conversing with native speakers, however, is another thing altogether. That’s because any language as it’s spoken by its native population is going to be richer and full of more synonyms and idioms than when it’s taught as a second language. It’s rare for someone who learned a language to match a native speaker in the richness and variety, particularly in English, which has an incredibly vast pool of vocabulary to pull from.

    It’s interesting when Romance language natives speak English, for example, because they often will use big words which we have in English thanks to Latin (or them entering English from Latin via French) but that native speakers never would choose to use.

    I’ve found myself, when surrounded by only non-native speakers, start to alter my own speaking patterns, so that really is a great observation.

    I can’t say that I agree with this move to let everyone settle on some pidgin English as a standard. If the langauge is taught and people just butcher it, that’s inevitable since people learn English to communiate with others so as long as they can, that’s what makes them happy. It’s not their native tongue so they don’t have much of a personal investment in it… but to lower standards or expect natives to suddenly learn some form of International English… I’ve yet to meet a Francophone who dumbs down his French for me, same with Portuguese or Italian or any other language I speak. I do understand that learning English as a foreign language is hard, and very few will ever approach the level of near-native (and it’s not necessary to do so) but I think that thinking any butchered up form is acceptable would be a mistake. It would be incredibly confusing for all non-natives, since some people would continue to adhere to certain grammar points and others would make mistakes (Phone to someone, for example) and it could be a vicious cycle.

    I have to say, being a native speaker of a world lingua franca isn’t as wonderful as people would think… you lose a bit of your collective uniqueness and identity when everyone speaks your language. Because English is so widespread it truly doesn’t belong to anyone anymore. The French never lost possession of their language, even if it did become a lingua franca. So it’s a bit sad. I therefore understand people who push for a neutral lingua franca, but I really don’t find myself enthusiastic for that idea because it’s never going to happen. So, until some other language comes along and unseats English, we’ll just have to deal with the current situation.

    The second article, by the way, was really good and brings up great questions. I, for one, couldn’t imagine how hard it has to be to be forced to undertake all my higher level study in a foreign language. No matter how good my French is, for example, it’s always easier for me to learn and read in my native tongue. The current trend of forcing students to learn in a tongue other than their own is like a complete reversal of the vernacularization movement, and is like a return back to the times where Latin was the only language used in science and other forms of learning. I can’t see how it *couldn’t* be harmful for a langauge to lose its place in academia, especially in its own country. The language will fail to evolve and keep up with modern developments, then suddenly English terms are imported left and right because nobody invented anything in their own tongue to describe new things.

    Basically, I think that although there are certainly benefits to having a set lingua franca for academic fields, there are also many negative side effects which are becoming clearer as time progresses. But then, I wonder if the use of English as a lingua franca makes people prouder and more attached to their own languages, since they realize that it makes them special in an ever globalized world…

  3. Geoff says:

    Joe’s point about what Romance language speakers do with English is well taken. I don’t see ELF getting standardized because even if they try, they’re likely to wind up with as many dialects as there are speech communities.

    Working in a language school, you get to know which parts of the language are going to be butchered the worst by different non-native speakers. The nice thing about ELF, though, is that English holds up pretty well under the strain. If you want to speak proper English among the most refined, English is a devil of a language to learn. But I think it is among the easiest to learn to speak badly, not least because so many natives speak it badly too, so a non-native is in good company. English lends itself to sentences like “Yesterday I go to park” or “I was really good time” in a way that more structured languages might not.

    It’s true that English is getting a bit watered down, and that some idioms are going by the wayside. But English is, and always has been, a work in progress. I think it quite nice that our language adapts to fit the needs of the people who speak it instead of the people being asked to adapt to follow the prejudices of those who would guard or codify it. It may be that it’s not merely the commercial might of the Anglosphere, but the flexibility of the English language as well, that is giving rise to ELF. There have been other colonizers in the past, and other linguae francae (?), and only time will tell whether English joins them in falling by the wayside. But if it doesn’t, or hangs on longer than most, this will owe in some measure to it being much less mentally taxing to hang on to enough English for functional communication versus French or German, never mind Russian or Turkish or Arabic, for example.

  4. russ says:

    Joe: I have met plenty of people who speak more simply and slowly for me in their native language, or at least who try to help me by attempting to do so. Avoiding complex constructions and vocabulary, and speaking more slowly with clearer careful pronunciation, is not the same as butchering your language or dumbing it down! I wouldn’t advocate teaching people to say “I hungry yesterday” or whatever, but there is nothing wrong with teaching simple clear (yet grammatically correct) English (or any other language) like “I was hungry yesterday” instead of “Miserable was I upon the preceding day, due to a dreadful dearth of nutritious sustenance!”, however beautifully poetic one might judge the latter. :)

    Alas, many non-English speakers have less experience doing this, so I also meet a lot of (e.g.) Polish people to whom I can say “I don’t understand Polish well, please slow down” and they want to speak so that I understand, but then they just repeat the same fast complex sentence which I don’t understand. It is simultaneously frustrating and funny.

    Since there are so many non-native English speakers, most English speakers have the experience of speaking at an appropriate level for a learner, but speakers of many less widespread languages often have little or no experience speaking their language with learners. Being able to assess the appropriate level to speak at seems to be a useful (and polite!) skill that one learns with experience.

  5. Colm says:

    I feel that policies such as they have in the Netherlands where it is more common to take courses in English rather than in the vernacular are ridiculous, as students should have the right to study in their native language.

    Another disappointing thing about language learning in schools and universities today is that foreign language learning is turning into English language learning. Where before German, French, Spanish and Russian would have been common languages to study on the European Continent it is much less the case today. For example Czechs on the German border and Germans on the French border are more likely to learn English than the language of their neighbours. And what about smaller languages such as Estonian and Danish, not to mention minority and endangered languages on the continent? What place have they in our education system? At the moment, very little place at all.

    As a native English speaker I feel that having English as a lingua franca is indeed both a curse and a blessing. It is a blessing for those Anglophones who do not speak another language apart from English, be it because they have no interest and hadn’t much opportunity. They can travel easily with English, at least in the more international parts of the world. For me as a lover of languages I do not like the supremacy of English as it reduces my chances of using and practising the languages I speak. Even in university in France the French students were keener to speak English rather than French to me. I had to demand to speak French so I could practise.

    I do believe having the language as a lingua franca dumbs it down because in my experience speaking with many speakers of English as a foreign language I pick up their mistakes so much so that when I return home my English is extremely sloppy and littered with simplifications, grammatical and syntactic nonsense. I then have to make a conscious effort to improve my English. Even I as an English teacher find myself slipping into a simpler more tasteless international English when I talk with non-English speakers. My speech looses the colour and flavour of my own dialect at home. When I use any of my L2 languages I get corrected when I make mistakes. Both the native speakers and I find this normal. But I have found it extremely rare for non-native speakers of English to be corrected and when they are they are often taken aback and treat it like a personal attack and get all defensive. They have the best of both worlds. They can speak English as a sloppy second language (which is easy to learn by travelling, off the TV and from films) and maintain their rich home language. English speakers are quickly loosing their cultural identity and they are expected to speak a dull international English.

    I think English speakers are now starting to realise the negative effects of English as a lingua franca both on the level of language learning in English speaking countries and on the quality of the language itself. English is a rich and beautiful language full of wonderful turns of phrase and linguistic gems. Just like any other language. People who say that English has no grammar, no flavour, no complexity either haven’t reached a level of competence in the language to have encountered such richness or are just idiots. One shouldn’t confuse this international form of English with the richness of the native English dialects, but sadly it happens all too often by non-native English speakers. They think they speak English but rather they speak International.

    It is rare that I write a post standing up for English. My feelings towards the language are complicated due to my deep love and interest for minority languages, especially my Irish. But I’m tired of Anglophones taking flack from the rest of the world. English speakers are no less willing or intelligent to learn other languages. It’s just that others are in such a race to learn and speak English it’s hard for Anglophones to get a chance to ‘Deutsch sprechen’, ‘parler français’ or ‘rääkida eesti keelt’ before non-natives automatically commence International.

  6. Rick Miller says:

    The biggest problem with any version of “ELF” is that native speakers of English don’t think they need to learn ELF as a new language.

    As soon as an ELF-speaker says “Hello” to a native English speaker, they have given a false impression that they will comprehend genuine English and native English speakers don’t automatically know how to simplify. The ELF’ers get treated like idiots while the native English speakers ignorantly spout obscure words and expressions which the ELF’ers won’t understand.

    This is a big problem in international air traffic control. People are DYING because of this misunderstanding.

  7. Joe says:

    I agree with everything Colm said. I can understand the benefit for having a language be a lingua franca. We do need a lingua franca, of course. Being a native speaker of the language that the world has currently chosen to be its LF gives me mixed emotions. Were the LF a language I didn’t natively speak, like French, I’d probably be a lot more for it, because I’m just a language nut and I really hate the fact that now, as Colm said, you go abroad and as a native English speaker everyone uses you as their practice partner and it can be quite a problem to practice whatever language you intend to speak.

    Some of the languages I speak are easier to actually speak than others. For example, I use Portuguese and Spanish all the time. The Italians and French that I encounter, however, are usually quick to speak to me in English, so it takes more of a persistence on my part so I can benefit from the exchange as well.

    On my first trip to a non-Anglophone country, which was Italy (where the vast majority of my ancestors originated and where I still have family) my very first time I was using my newly acquired Italian, in a very touristy section of Rome, was met with an automatic derision from the barista, who derided me in English. Apparently it was easier for him to ignore my attempts to speak his language (hey in my defense it was the first time I ever did this and I also was 36 hours without sleep… but I don’t recall butchering anything so I think he was just a nasty jerk, which is why I like avoiding some of the overtouristy areas in places) If I wasn’t so passionate about languages (and didn’t have such a personal interest in Italian) I could have just said “screw this” and used that as a basis to just be yet another Anglophone tourist that goes places and doesn’t even bother learning to say “please” or “thank you” in the local language. In embracing English as a lingua franca, the rest of the world is making it a lot harder for Anglophones to try and be respectful. Then all that happens is you get continued derision and jokes about the linguistically challenged Americans, Brits, and Aussies on holiday. Certainly there are many who don’t give a damn, but for those who do, it really is an uphill battle.

    That’s why I feel that on one hand, English is allowing everyone to communicate more freely. A Dane and a Russian can talk to each other without having to learn each other’s greatly different language. This is also seeming to have a very interesting effect, from what I’ve seen, of strengthening regional languages because the national language or a more dominant regional language no longer is needed for widespread communication. It’s interesting how English is spreading so rapidly at a time where the acknowledgement and promotion of minority languages and lesser-known languages is at an all time high (witness the resurgences of Catalan, Welsh, Breton, etc.) But like Colm said, I think we, as native English speakers, lose out, because our language has been adopted by the world. They keep their own language, which helps them maintain their community and identity, and what does that leave us? It really is a double edged sword.

    Interestingly enough I never really hear any such lamentations from Francophones, particularly those who wish their language were still the LF.