English as a lingua franca unifies people

Emergence of ELF unites people, brings praise, and generates discussion on English student needs

“I’m a great believer that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other, and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they’re interested in.”

―Bill Gates (1955- ) American business magnate, philanthropist

As more people learn English, using English as a lingua franca (ELF) has become increasingly popular. According to some estimates, the number of English language learners now outnumbers the number of native English speakers by 2-1. I recently heard a prediction at a Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) convention that China will have more fluent English speakers by 2030 than the United States.

This bold prediction about the spread of English – and the number of “fluent English speakers” illustrates the appeal of the ELF argument. What level of English do these English language learners possess? How strong are their speaking and writing skills? Can they convey their ideas, emotions, and beliefs to other English speakers and listeners?

ELF interactions “concentrate on function rather than form,” according to Wikipedia, and therefore do not emphasize correctness. For instance, saying “she write books” rather than “she writes books” works because the meaning is clear for many casual spoken interactions. Yet, clearly, the grammar remains imperfect and non-traditional. Many linguists note the prevalence of these conversations and withhold judgment about the “correctness” of this language. Consequently, ELF can be described as “airport English” or “international entry level.” Cosmopolitan cities – across the globe – have thousands of these daily discussions.

Within limited contexts and situations, this “airport English” or “taxi-driver talk” clearly works.

From my perspective, meaning matters most, and simple communication trumps perfect grammar in many contexts. ELF makes it possible for a Dutch student to ask for directions in Portugal, or for a Californian to bargain at a marketplace in Indonesia. This trend of speaking imperfect English has become a wonderful, global, and daily occurrence.

Is ELF good enough? Critics naturally fear the “degradation” of language. English – like any other living language – does change, but must we confuse “description” with

I previously reviewed Robert McCrum’s Globish: , a popular primer on the growing importance of English as the global tongue of choice. It’s clear that the language once intimately linked to the British empire has become the shared property of professionals around the world.

For instance, the scientists at European Council for Nuclear Research primarily collaborate with colleagues in English–despite originating from dozens of countries where English is not the native language. It demonstrates that while ELF creates a universal feel to conversations, it is important that students continue learning further and strengthening their grasp on the English language to communicate on a more meaningful, complex level.

Do you think of English as a lingua franca? How do you see this trend in your teaching? How do you challenge your students to move beyond ELF and embrace higher, more academic standards for their English?

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