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Editorial NR

What is (not) English a Lingua Franca?

A counterargument to ‘Who owns a Language? – Understanding legitimacy in ELF

Writing and researching a field such as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) can be challenging as it is one that is highly scrutinized by teachers and students alike. Talking about ELF can cause riots in the teachers’ lounge, and many might have an opinion about it, but no definite certainty. This could be because the research field itself avoids any descriptions, as teachers are the ones who know their realities better than anyone and therefore should be able to find the space to make their lessons more ELF-informed. When the New Routes article ‘Who owns a Language? – Understanding legitimacy in ELF’ came to light in an attempt to connect ELF and Communities of Practices, ELF researchers and practitioners felt some misconceptions might be finding their way into the teachers’ lounge discussions.

As mentioned by the author of the New Routes article, Jennifer Jenkins is indeed one of the most cited linguists in the world for her work with English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). Her findings guided the whole theory of English as a Lingua Franca and opened the way for many other researchers in many fields in linguistics, going from hard core language analysis to implications in the ELT classroom.

English as a Lingua Franca has been evolving since Jenkins’s first book ‘The Phonology of English as an International Language’, which trailblazed research into English as a Lingua Franca. According to Jenkins (2015), there are at least 3 phases in ELF research. In ELF 1, the focus was to systematize patterns that could be called English as a Lingua Franca as a variety, for this reason, researchers were paralleling findings under a World Englishes perspective. ELF 2 focused on analyzing beyond the idea of coming up with English varieties but rather focused on the use of strategies and language used to communicate within communities of practice. And finally, ELF 3, in which Jenkins proposes a redefinition of ELF within a multilingual setting. According to her, English as a Lingua Franca, therefore, becomes English as a Multilingua Franca (EMF), defined as “[m]ultilingual communication in which English is available as a contact language of choice but is not necessarily chosen” (Jenkins, 2015; 73). This more recent conceptualization is necessary according to Jenkins (2017) because the multilingual nature of ELF has been underemphasized in ELF research. She points out that one of the reasons for this elaboration is that “ELF research has been becoming too self-contained and ‘compartmentalized’, looking in on itself too much and not taking enough note of the world outside ELF” (2017, 4).

As we can see from the previous paragraph, I have briefly summarized what ELF is and its different phases and approaches. What concerns researchers in the field seems to be what has been spread about what ELF is and what it certainly is not. In the last issue of New Routes, we saw an example of what ELF is not anymore (if it ever was) and hasn’t been for quite some time. As we can see in the quick summary offered above, ideas such as English as a Lingua Franca being a variety have been long surpassed. It is a way of looking into the uses of the language and how we can apply different resources and repertoires to communicate with interlocutors of different languages and cultural backgrounds.

It is an honest mistake one can make when looking at ELF 2 research. However, more recent research has already been carried out on how ELF is used in different communities of practice; not as a framework for the creation of new varieties of English, but as a framework to localize the analysis of the many communication strategies and uses of the language. Susanne Ehrenreich (2017) collected examples of language within a business setting and analyzed them using a communities-of-practice framework. In her introduction, she already mentions how the concept of communities of practice does not serve the purpose of reconceptualizing the contexts in which ELF may happen:

“In an attempt to find an adequate notion to conceptualize the sociolinguistic realities of multilingual ELF speakers globally, it was initially considered a possible alternative to the established concept of the speech community. However, as is argued in Ehrenreich (2009: 130), as a “mid level category” (Wenger 1998: 124) the concept of community of practice generally describes smaller and more cohesive group configurations and is therefore not a suitable candidate for such re-conceptualization efforts.”
(Ehrenreich, 2017 – p. 37)

After the analysis of the collected material, she once again emphasized how a community-of-practice approach is not able to generalize and describe how ELF may or may not be. Her conclusions were that:

“In terms of the overall qualities of (B)ELF identified so far, community-of-practice-based work generally supports previously gained insights into ELF in many ways. Crucially, what it offers on top of that are contextually sensitive analyses from multiple perspectives of individual aspects of ELF communication, analyses that eventually contribute to a more socially differentiated description of ELF”.
(Ehrenreich, 2017 – p. 46)

Another point brought by the NR’s article is the idea that ELF is a language variety that tries to ‘sell’ itself as free of colonialism and language prejudice even though it is potentially the variety enforced by a privileged group. Again, ELF is not a variety that can be used to enforce any colonial ideology or prejudice by being a variety. As it is not a variety, but a way of looking at English, of course, the many ways we can look at it are also affected by individuals’ biases and prejudices. For this reason, ELF researchers look more closely at how these attitudes, informed by ideologies in society, play a role in how we communicate. ELF research dwells on the individuals’ beliefs and attitudes towards language and how to raise awareness of how we deal with the many ways English can be used.

So, if there is a native speaker in a room of non-native speakers, research shows that attitudes towards language and power play are what will guide whether non-native speakers will try to replicate an accent or conform to standard varieties. English is being used in this room as a lingua franca, but attitudes towards this language are what will guide how negotiation will happen. That’s why raising awareness of language uses within an ELF perspective can empower users of the language when they see themselves in such situations. Not in a romantic sense, mind you. In the sense that communication and intelligibility are the forces to guide negotiation in social interaction and coming to terms that any idealized standard is nothing but an ideology. ELF researchers have been looking at attitudes, power struggles and beliefs since ELF 2, which started around 2008.

ELF has been critiqued before for not taking issue with such ideas mentioned in the NR article. As a reply to such claims that ELF does not take power, ideology, and criticality in general into consideration, Jenkins, Baker and Baird (2015) had their response:

“[…] Questions of standard language ideology, native speaker ideology, and indeed the ideology of ELF scholars themselves have all been subjects of discussion and debate (e.g. Jenkins 2007; Seidlhofer 2011; Baird et al. 2014). It may be that O’Regan is unaware of the ELF literature on these subjects, or that he disagrees with the approaches taken so far because they do not accord with his own Marxist understanding of the issues. But it is not realistic to expect one research field to be accountable in terms related to another. Given the complexity of the intercultural encounters that are the typical subject of ELF inquiry, we need open investigation in which characterizations of power relationships, and other relationships, are only established after careful investigation”.
(Jenkins, Baker and Baird, 2015)

As we can see, the problem is taking ELF as a unity, as if it should be researched from a single perspective. The lack of knowledge of the rich literature and even the different perspectives within the field can lead to a monolithic and simplistic view of ELF research. There are a variety of research papers and books on how ELF users deal with attitudes, ideologies, and beliefs in shared communication practices such as Jenkins’s 2007 ‘English as a Lingua Franca: Attitudes and Identity’.

Finally, these references might not be the most up-to-date ones, as ELF research has been evolving in leaps and bounds, but when speaking about ELF, it is necessary to analyze research from different eras (just like Taylor Swift’s work). Each era has its own development ideas, and many have been left there as it is, once again, always evolving, and we can look at them as a starting point, but we are never (ever ever) going back to what we had before. If the readership wants to know about what ELF is (and is not!) here is a noob-friendly reference guide:

  • Baker, W, Jenkins, J, & Baird, Robert. (2015). ELF researchers take issue with ‘English as a lingua franca: An immanent critique’. Applied Linguistics. 36. 121–123. 10.1093/applin/amu038.
  • Ehrenreich, S (2017). Communities of practice and English as a lingua franca. In The Routledge Handbook of English as a Lingua Franca (1st ed.). Routledge
  • Jenkins J (2015) Repositioning English and multilingualism in English as a lingua franca. English Pract 2:49–85. Available for free download at: (2017)
  • Jenkins, J., Baker, W., & Dewey, M. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge Handbook of English as a Lingua Franca (1st ed.). Routledge.
About author

Priscila Bordon has been an English teacher for over 10 years in both public and private sectors with experience from kindergarten to teaching in universities abroad. She holds a Master of Arts in Global Englishes from the University of Southampton. She is a Chevening (U.K) and Fulbright (U.S) alumna as well as DEI commendation winner in the 2022 ELTons for her book in English as Lingua Franca focuses to English Language teachers in public schools in Brazil. She is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer and English as a Lingua Franca consultant for ELT publishing houses.
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