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Who owns a language? – Understanding legitimacy in ELF

Jennifer Jenkins is, perhaps, one of the most cited linguists in the world when it comes to studying or applying English as Lingua Franca (henceforth ELF) concepts. In a globalized world, a lingua franca is a very necessary means of communication for successful interactions between different cultures. The usage of ELF is reported to happen mainly in non-native speakers’ communication and is highly likely to take place in contexts in which speakers are connected to each other through a “practice”. For Eckert and Wenger (2005), a “practice” is a way to get something done and achieve an expected outcome regarding it, whose standards are shared by a community. To illustrate this, we can think of two employees from distinct companies working together to solve a problem, or even picture an international academic conference or a leisure trip. All these situations have a “practice” connecting individuals.

ELF is an English language variety – following the label of varieties such as “American English”, “British English”, “Pakistani English”, and so on. As stated by House (2003), it makes no sense studying ELF by comparing it to the language standards of other English varieties because it has characteristics of its own. In a matter of comparison, one may look into sociolinguistics and get to see the African-American Vernacular English has grammar rules as complex as the so called “standard varieties” of English. In this sense, ELF is a variety of English per se and must be research as such. However, unlike other language varieties that are connected to the idea of geographical communities, ELF is a cross-cultural variety that mainly exists within specific communication situations: it is employed when certain “practices” arise within a community of speakers. Therefore, ELF is not a language variety related to Communities of Speech; it is connected to Communities of Practice.

While this may look obvious, one must not forget that the social structure of Communities of Practice is not devoid of power relationships and prestige. On the contrary, its fluid structure and hierarchy (see Wenger, 2005) create “legitimacy” roles, which exercise change over a community’s various resources – language included.At the same time ELF is celebrated as a detached variety from the English of the colonizers, it is not free from social pressures that may shape language and dictate prestige and stigma (just like any other language variety). This short article will look into the theory behind Speech Communities and Communities of Practice to illustrate this point, and also to highlight the importance of fair conditions of interaction, whether in professional, academic or touristic settings.

Speech Communities and Communities of Practice

The concept of “Speech Community” is widely discussed within linguistics. For Labov (1972), such a community is composed by speakers who share the same social values towards a language. Gumperz (1968) also adds that Speech Communities can be identified thanks to the number of interactions their members have with each other. However, in a high connected and globalized world, “communities” are not restricted to geographical positions nowadays.

Kachru (1982) showed us that English language speakers may be found in three circles: the first one contains speakers whose native language is English; the second one comprises the nations where English was imposed as an official language; and the third circle is the one where English is studied as a foreign language. The space a language (variety) has in a community is known as “domain of use”, as presented by Schmidt Rohr and described by Fishman (2000). This concept is related to the speakers who use a certain language (variety), to the places these varieties are valued, and even the sort of documents in which these varieties appear.

These characteristics are also part of what Wenger (1998) calls a Community of Practice. For the author, a Community of Practice is defined by a purpose, which is understood and continuously renegotiated by its members, with specific rules for relationships and engagements between them. Above all, it is important to consider what is produced in this community and what the shared repertoire of resources and routines is – which must have been previously established within the community, throughout its existence.

This also includes how language is used and perceived according to the practices inside the community. For a community member, the power hierarchy of the group is not rooted in one’s role, but in the “legitimacy” one exerts. Performing a practice within the structure of a community is not the same as being in a role that can dictate what should be part of the community or not. Power and autonomy are determined by those individuals inside the community’s framework, or hierarchy, who can decide what is part of the practices and resources of the group. In the same sense, as defended by Eckert and Wenger (2005), those who have this legitimacy are the ones who may influence the linguistic repertoire of a whole Community of Practice.

Lingua Franca and communication

When English as Lingua Franca comes to mind, it may be seen as a great way to make communication flow in situations connected to the business world of multinational companies, which somehow connects Earth’s East and West through a common tongue. This is one scenario which illustrates well how English as Lingua Franca is used. As stated by Levis (2005, p. 373), the contexts of communication may vary depending on who the speakers are: (i) native and native speakers; (ii) native and non-native speakers; (iii) non-native and native speakers; and (iv) non-native and non-native speakers. Such possibilities are very common in the business field, especially if we consider that most multinational companies are based in English-speaking countries (see Espace Mondial, 2018).

Approaches which defend that ELF is only used between non-native speakers may be forgetting where most of the multinational companies in the world are settled. Such a vision may make sense in the European context, where the market share of multinationals may be more balanced among non-English speaking cultures. However, for nations of the southern hemisphere that may not be true, as many subsidiary companies there may need to get into touch with companies based in English-speaking countries.

As we know, the main goal in this, and other, interactions is to ensure speakers on both sides are intelligible. For Derwing & Munro (2015, p. 5), intelligibility is ‘the degree of match between a speaker’s intended message and the listener’s comprehension’. Smith and Nelson (1985) also highlight the ability of the listener to recognize individual words or utterances as part of it – and the same is defended by Lindemann (2017). Besides playing an important role in understanding the message that is being conveyed, listeners must also be vigilant to avoid bearing any type of bias towards a speaker because of their language variety. In an EFL setting, this sort of attitude is not beneficial for speakers of foreign languages. For instance, in Hujala’s (2009, p. 98) study on ELF interactions in a Finnish workplace, some office workers stated that they “perceived NSs [native speakers] as sources of new language information, targets of feelings of envy, helpful in negotiation of meaning, but also dominating, and “the only ones who really know English””. It is also interesting to see that most of those interviewees “identified themselves as speakers of Finnish English or English and not as ELF speakers” (Hujala, 2009, p. 100).

One’s language is part of one’s identity. As stated by House (2003, p. 572), ELF communication has as its main characteristic the fact that “each individual moves in and out of a variety of contexts, which are likely to have quite different forms of participation”. This leads to fluid identities. With this in mind, it is important to remember that Communities of Practice, as we have mentioned before, are not free from standard models of power that reflect a community and the groups involved in it. Therefore, it cannot be said that English as Lingua Franca is exempt from the prestige of different English varieties. Maybe the final question we can pose here is “what if “legitimacy” comes from a native counterpart within the structure of power of a community of practice”?

Final remarks

Here, we argue that ELF exists within the scope of Communities of Practice and is not free of certain degrees of language standardization or bias. It is restrained to the “legitimacy” (see Eckert and Wenger, 2005) within the structure of power of those involved in a specific practice. In this sense, it is hard to assume that ELF is a language variety totally free from the shackles of colonialism or of unconscious “nativelike” models of language. Let us think about multinational companies once more. If legitimacy within the structure of this type of community of practice falls under a native counterpart (e.g. the multinational’s CEO), such language models are likely to replicate. If it is found in a non-native segment, a subsidiary company, the language standard is likely to follow their linguistic repertoire for establishing intelligibility features. In either case, asymmetrical power relationships, which most likely cannot be negotiated within a community of practice, may see ELF being compared to a sort of “model of language”, “nativelike” or not.

English as Lingua Franca will tend to favor any part of social interactions which have the support of the legitimacy existent within a Community of Practice. Employers and employees, franchisors and franchisees, headquarters and branches, servants and guests, all of these situations show the asymmetry of power that exists in many interactions of a globalized world. When one of these sides is represented by a privileged group of people, the conditions for a covert bias on the ELF variety are present. In that sense, workplace relationships are vital for good communication practices.

Researchers in ELF must also dedicate more time and effort to better understand the nature of the interactions that take place in whichever context is being studied. How are prestige and stigma seen by the speakers? What are the relationships of power in the community? What are the practices being produced and who has legitimacy to exercise power over them? It is necessary to see ELF as a language variety, both linguistically and socially.

Aprofunde mais no Webinar:


  • Derwing, T. M. & Munro, M. J. (2015). Pronunciation fundamentals: Evidence-based perspectives for L2 teaching and research. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Eckert, P. Wenger, E. (2005). Communities of practice in sociolinguistics: what is the role of power in sociolinguistic variation? Journal of Sociolinguistics, 9/4, pp. 582-589.
  • Espace mondial (2018). Multinational corporations. Retrieved Mar 12, 2023, from corporations.html#:~:text=At%20the%20present%20time%2C%20there,subsidiaries%20of%20the%20same%20company).
  • Fishman, J. A. (2000). Who speaks what language to whom and when? In: WEI, L. (Org.). The Bilingualism Reader. Londres: Routledge.
  • Gumperz, J. J. (1968). The Speech Community. International Encyclopedia of Social Science, v. 9,pp. 381-386.
  • Hujala, E. (2009). English as a Lingua Franca in the workplace: one-size-fits-all? In search for a deeper understanding of Finnish speakers of ELF. Master’s Thesis. University of Jyväskylä.
  • Kachru, B. B. (1982). The Other Tongue. English Across Cultures. Urbana, Ill. University of Illinois Press.
  • Labov, W (1972). Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Levis, J. M. (2018). Intelligibility, oral communication, and the teaching of pronunciation: Cambridge.
  • Lindemann, S. (2017). Variation or ‘error’?: Perception of pronunciation variation and implications for assessment. In Isaacs T. & Trofimovich P. (Eds.), Second Language Pronunciation Assessment: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 193-209). Bristol, Blue Ridge Summit: Multilingual Matters & Channel View Publications.
  • Smith, L., & Nelson, C. (1985). International intelligibility of English: Directions and resources. World Englishes, 4, 333–342.
About author

Victor Carreão has worked in ELT in Brazil in varied educational contexts. He is currently an English Language Arts teacher in a bilingual school, bringing literature and language together in the classroom. He holds a PhD and a Master's in Linguistics, focusing on sociolinguistic research, and has also worked as a speaking examiner for international exams.
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