Teaching English as a Lingua Franca (ELF): What is it, why it matters?

Image illustrating the importance of English as a global Lingua Franca

English as a lingua franca is an additionally acquired language system that is used in international settings in which speakers from varying linguacultural backgrounds who often do not share another language interact. This article aims to give a brief overview of English as a lingua franca and explain why it should be taught in English language classes. The goal is to prepare students for real life scenarios and get them ready to interact in the globalised inter-community.


What is English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)?

As the global lingua franca, English is one of the most significant symbols of the modern world along with globalization and its demographic and technological developments, such as networking, economic integration and the Internet. English as a lingua franca (henceforth ELF) is quite a new research area that has developed significantly during the last decade or so. In short, any interaction can be regarded as ELF, where English has been chosen as the medium for intercultural communication among speakers who often do not have another language in common. Nowadays, this situation is very common, for example, in international business encounters or in intercultural classrooms. 

It’s no secret that more than three-quarters of all English users are ‘non-native speakers’. As a result, your average student is much more likely to use English with a Brazilian, a Spaniard, a Russian or a Chinese, than they are with a Brit, an American or an Australian.
Marek Kiczkowiak, Founder of TEFL Equity Academy


The main characteristics of ELF interaction

As discovered in numerous ELF studies (e.g. Björkman 2014; Kaur 2011; Mauranen 2006; Ellonen 2019), a key feature of interaction in ELF is diversity. This is because ELF speakers have to cope with a variety of parameters, such as different accents, proficiency levels, communicative styles, cultural norms and references. These may easily cause some challenges in achieving mutual understanding. In addition to that, ELF speakers are likely to have gained different learning experiences with regard to the English language and may therefore display different pronunciation patterns and degrees of lexical and grammatical knowledge, as well as interpret interactional cues differently.

However, strong commonalities also emerge within ELF interaction which play a key role in achieving mutual understanding and effective communication. In fact, ELF speakers are typically strongly oriented towards achieving mutual international intelligibility as they are very much aware of and prepared for the asymmetries that diversity poses among the speakers. To quote Björkman (2014: 124), “This preparedness for what might go wrong can be regarded as one of the characteristics of ELF interactions.” With this in mind, speakers in ELF contexts have a habit of doing “proactive work” by using a variety of communication strategies to both pre-empt and resolve communicative turbulence and misunderstanding.

Photo of young female students inside of a school classroom

Some common examples of communication strategies often used by non-native English speakers are:

  • Proactive self-correction (correcting/enhancing and explaining one’s own speech)
  • Repetition (repeating key information) 
  • Clarification (paraphrasing/exemplifying prior or ongoing talk) 
  • Confirmation check (confirming whether one has understood something correctly) 


Why Teaching English as a Lingua Franca is a viable language teaching approach? 

So far, English has mainly been taught through the EFL/ESL (English as a Foreign Language/Second Language) approaches which follow the language model of native British or American English and concentrate heavily on ‘native speaker’ pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, culture, etc. Thus, teaching English as a foreign language basically prepares students to solely communicate with its native speakers. However, is it really ideal in preparing them for the large variety of Englishes that are actually out there today? The emphasis on native-like skills inevitably gives students the impression that the only way to be a successful communicator in English is to sound and think like a native, which is obviously not the case. The approach towards teaching English as a LINGUA FRANCA (ELF) instead of EFL focuses on making students prepared for the realistic language diversity that is omnipresent in international interactions and using that diversity as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. 

“And these discourses and social practises aren’t going to go away unless we actually change the way we teach the language.”

Marek Kiczkowiak, Founder of TEFL Equity Academy


To conclude this introduction to ELF, here are 4 practical steps towards teaching ELF (inspired by Marek Kiczkowiak):

  • Emphasizing mutual understanding and communication effectiveness instead of native-like correctness.
  • Practising internationally intelligible pronunciation and using different non-native speaker recordings.
  • Practising different ELF interactional situations and using communication strategies to pre-empt and resolve communicative turbulence.
  • Developing students’ intercultural communicative skills and multilingual repertoires.


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References used in this article:

Björkman, B. (2014). An analysis of polyadic English as a lingua franca (ELF) speech: A communicative strategies framework. Journal of Pragmatics 66, 122–138.

Ellonen, I. (2019) A case study of self-repair and clarification strategies in a BELF interaction. University of Jyväskylä

Kaur, J. (2011). Raising explicitness through self-repair in English as a lingua franca. Journal of Pragmatics 43, 2704-2715.

Kiczkowiak M. & Lowe R.J. (2018). Teaching English as a Lingua Franca:  The Journey from EFL to ELF. Delta Publishing.

Mauranen, A. (2006). Signaling and preventing misunderstanding in English as a lingua franca communication. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 177, 123-150.