What is English as a Lingua Franca? An introduction to the field


Alessia Cogo
Goldsmiths, University of London

‘English’, as a language, has for some time been seen as a global phenomenon and, therefore, as no longer defined by fixed territorial, cultural and social functions. At the same time, people using English around the world have been shaping it and adapting it to their contexts of use and have made it relevant to their socio-cultural settings. English as a Lingua Franca, or ELF for short, is a field of research interest that was born out of this tension between the global and the local, and it originally began as a ramification of the World Englishes framework in order to address the international, or, rather, transnational perspective on English in the world. The field of ELF very quickly took on a nature of its own in its attempt to address the communication, attitudes, ideologies in transnational contexts, which go beyond the national categorisations of World Englishes (such as descriptions of Nigerian English, Malaysian English and other national varieties). ELF research, therefore, has built on World Englishes research by focusing on the diversity of English, albeit from more transnational, intercultural and multilingual perspectives, to which I will return later.

In this introduction to ELF, a definition right at the outset should be helpful. ELF is an intercultural medium of communication used among people from different socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and usually among people from different first languages. Although it is possible that many people who use ELF have learnt it formally as a foreign language, at school or in an educational institution, the emphasis is on using rather than on learning. And this is a fundamental difference between ELF and English as a Foreign Language, or EFL, whereby people learn English to assimilate to or emulate native speakers. In ELF, instead, speakers are considered language users in their own right, and not failed native speakers or deficient learners of English. Some examples of typical ELF contexts may include communication among a group of neuroscientists, from, say, Belgium, Brazil and Russia, at an international conference on neuroscience, discussing their work in English, or an international call concerning a business project between Chinese and German business experts, or a group of migrants from Syria, Ethiopia and Iraq discussing their migration documents and requirements in English. The use of English will of course depend on the linguistic profile of the participants in these contexts, and they may have another common language at their disposal (other than English), but today ELF is the most common medium of intercultural communication (Crystal 2003; Graddol 2006), especially in transnational contexts.

So, research in ELF pertains to roughly the same area of research as English as a contact language and English sociolinguistics. However, the initial impetus to conducting research in ELF originated from a pedagogical rationale – it seemed irrelevant and unrealistic to expect learners of English around the world to conform to native norms, British or American, or even to new English national varieties, which would be only suitable to certain socio-cultural and geographical locations. So, people from Brazil, France, Russia, Mozambique, or others around the world, would not need to acquire the norms originated and relevant to British or American English speakers, but could orientate themselves towards more appropriate and relevant ways of using English, or ELF. Researchers called for “closing a conceptual gap” (Seidlhofer 2001; Jenkins 2000) between descriptions of native English varieties and new empirical and analytical approaches to English in the world. With the compilation of a number of corpora (the Asian Corpus of English, ACE, the corpus of English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings, ELFA, and the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English, VOICE) ELF empirical research started to explore how English is developing, emerging and changing in its international uses around the world. Since the empirical corpus work started, research has expanded beyond the pedagogical aim, to include explorations of communication in different domains of expertise (professional, academic, etc.) and in relation to other concepts and research, such as culture, ideology and identity. 

The initial empirical focus was on describing what ELF looked like, or, more linguistically, on identifying salient linguistic features in ELF use. However, close analysis of corpora showed that ELF is highly variable and context dependent, and therefore features are relevant as symptoms of “the underlying processes that give rise to the emerging forms” (Cogo and Dewey 2012: 3). The current interest of ELF research, therefore, has shifted to looking into the processes that facilitate communication in these international contexts, such as negotiation and accommodation. In the rest of this introductory essay, I will start by surveying some of the processes that underlie and support ELF communication, before moving on to research on attitudes, identity and multilingual issues. Ultimately, I will point out how dealing with ELF requires a reconceptualization of the notion of ‘language’. One caveat, before I delve deeper into these aspects of ELF – this paper is written with the idea of introducing the phenomenon of English as a Lingua Franca through my own work, rather than via an overview of all the work carried out in this area, so it is inevitably skewed towards my own view and approach to the field and my own preferences and interests. Most of the work currently being carried out in ELF is surveyed in other publications (among others, Cogo 2016b; Jenkins, Cogo and Dewey 2011).

Accommodation and negotiation of meaning

Research on ELF has come to focus on the processes of regularization, of redundancy reduction and the tendency to increase explicitness in the aim of enhancing clarity. These processes, underlying and motivating ELF communication, have been shown to constitute examples of linguistic creativity. In this sense, rather than describing the resulting unconventional forms as deficient and foreign because of their non-conformity to ENL, these examples of creative use and construction of ELF are effective and appropriate in the contexts where they are used.

A key aspect of ELF communication is negotiation of meaning – the conversational work carried out by participants for making meaning and achieving understanding. The analysis of negotiation moments has pointed to the use of various strategies which can be classified into ‘pre-empting strategies’ and ‘solving strategies’ (see Cogo and Dewey 2012). The former are used to prevent a possible misunderstanding in the conversation, when something may be ambiguous and the speaker may carry out some active work in order to clarify what is being said, even if no conversational problem is identified. The second kind of strategies are the solving ones, the conversational moves that speakers make when there may be a non-understanding and they signal it and try to solve it by negotiating meaning.

The following short transcript of a conversation between work colleagues is an example of negotiation work. The participants involved in the conversation are from different sociolinguistic backgrounds and have different repertoires of linguistic resources that are available to them in the conversation and that can become relevant in the exchange. Anna’s main first language is Italian, but she also speaks English at work and knows French; Jean’s main language is French, but he also speaks English for work purposes, and a bit of German; Karen is German, but speaks English and French fluently. They are discussing a collection of holiday pictures, which are described by Jean as “cheesy”. It is the adjective “cheesy” that starts a negotiation of meaning.

Example 1: Fleur bleu

1  ANNA: =too much eh?                             

2  JEAN: =cheesy


4  ANNA:   [YE::AH

5  KAREN: yeah a bit too much I think

6  JEAN: so … blue flower we say … fleur bleu

7  ANNA: why? … to say that it’s cheesy

8  JEAN: yeah … fleur bleu means … you know when you have these pictures with 9              little angels of

10 KAREN: ah            [yeah

11 ANNA:                   [yeah

12 JEAN: fleur bleu

13 KAREN: kitsch- [kitschig

14 JEAN:                  [kitschig yeah @@@

After Jean’s description of the pictures as “cheesy” the other participants agree with him (in lines 3 and 4), but Jean still carries on with an exploration of a French expression which partly corresponds to “cheesy” while also expanding its meaning. The expression “fleur bleu” refers to the old-fashioned pictures of angels carrying blue flowers, as in the picture above, and is something Jean uses to enlarge the concept of “cheesy” and include sweet, almost saccharose. But it is the way he explains the French expression and the ensuing negotiation of meaning that is interesting for us. Jean does not immediately introduce the words in French, if he did that the other participants may or may not be able to understand what he is saying. Instead, he translates the expression first (“blue flower” in line 6) and then signals that French people say that (“we say”) but that this may not be a common expression anywhere else. He uses a contextualization cue, “we say”, which signals to the other participants that he is translating. Only then, when he has already expressed the meaning in English, does he translate the expression back to hisoriginal. In line 7, Anna moves in to question whether the meaning of “fleur bleu” corresponds to “cheesy”, and while Jean confirms it in the following turn, he carries on to explain where the idiom comes from, i.e. from the pictures with little angels (line 8 and 9). Anna and Karen confirm that they have understood the expression, and then Karen provides again another corresponding expression in German “kitschig”, which Jean finally confirms.

This conversation is a successful example of negotiation involving different kinds of strategies. The first, pre-empting strategies, concern monitoring speakers’ contributions to the conversation, paying attention to unusual moves or implicit signals of problems and taking steps to disambiguate potential unclear aspects. For instance, if interlocutors may seem to hesitate the speaker can adopt pre-empting strategies such as repetition, paraphrasing, code-switching and use of multilingual resources in order to clarify their intended meaning (see Cogo 2009; 2010; Cogo and Pitzl 2016). In the extract, Jean takes great care in explaining the French idiom before any possible non-understanding can create problems in the conversation. Other strategies may include explicit reflections on language, such as metadiscourse, or explicit lexical suggestions. Pre-empting strategies are particularly important in ELF talk as they ensure the monitoring of understanding and the prevention of communication problems, and, therefore, also show how mutual understanding is not taken for granted. In the blue flower example the negotiation is not only a way of monitoring understanding but also enhances the meaning and expands the semantic area covered by “cheesy” – in other words, using “cheesy” would not be enough for Jean, so the three participants use their multilingual repertoire to add and enhance its meaning.

The second kind of strategies, the ones concerned with solving non-understanding, deal with explicit signals of problems in communication and focus on resolving them. A range of signals is used by speakers to indicate a possible non-understanding, such as non-response, prolonged silence, explicit requests for clarifications, comprehension questions or different kinds of repetition. All these are used to indicate that something happened in conversation that may affect understanding and meaning. For instance, in the first example Anna performs a comprehension check in line 7 to make sure she has understood and Karen suggests her own version of “cheesy” in line 13.

Empirical research on natural communication portrays a picture of ELF as a dynamic and complex medium of communication, which emerges out of the local and situational encounter among the participants, but also relies on the shared resources in their specific practice (educational, professional or other). For example, in another project carried out among business people in their workplace, the findings showed that participants co-constructed the socio-linguistic resources necessary to carry out their work and, in doing that, prioritized content over ‘accuracy’ according to a native speaker model (Cogo 2016a; 2012a). The study also revealed the importance of intercultural accommodation skills and multilingual sensitivities for carrying out successful communication in ELF contexts.

Attitudes and orientations

More recent sociolinguistic research in ELF has also emphasised that investigations of language use should not be kept separate from in-depth explorations of practices, including attitudes, ideologies and power, at the local level.  These explorations focus on the orientation of the speakers towards the resources that emerge, are shared or co-constructed in the community, but can also branch out in investigations of language ideology and identity.

For instance, the following example is an extract from a conversation which I recorded a few years ago and was part of an investigation into ELF strategic use and perceptions (Cogo 2010). The specific moment in the conversation transcribed below happens towards the end of a meeting among colleagues discussing some important work issues. One of the colleagues felt the meeting went relatively well and starts saying what she feels is the reason why relations among co-workers are fine.

Example 2: On the same boat

1 NANA: yeah I think we are all on the same ... on in ... ah: what is it

2 ... on the same boat

3 ISABEL: yeah?

4 NANA: yeah? ... how do you say? on the same boat?

5 ISABEL: I don’t know yeah ... on the same boat I think ... on the bus on the train

6 ANNA: anyway we understand you

7 ISABEL: yeah ... we are all foreigners

8 NANA: all foreigners (laughing)

According to Nana, colleagues’ relations are positive and colleagues generally get on because they are all “on the same boat”. Nana, Isabel and Anna (all pseudonyms) are here involved in discussing this idea, and while they agree with each other overall they seem to negotiate on a linguistic level. Initially, Nana wants to know what preposition, either ‘on’ or ‘in’, would be correct to use with the idiomatic expression so she explicitly asks for corrective feedback with “what is it” (line 1). When Isabel does not take up the request Nana asks again with a different formulation “how do you say?” (line 4). Isabel first admits that she does not know the ‘correct’ idiomatic expression, and then she starts playing not with the prepositions but with the lexical items, instead. Isabel’s play with different means of transport, “boat” “bus” and “train”, has the double function of livening up the discussion and refusing to be seen as the authority in terms of grammatical correctness. So as Isabel put it, “we are all foreigners” and foreignness is something they have in common, but not something to be seen in a negative way. Isabel, by this means, seems to endorse Nana’s original proposition about how well they all relate as colleagues. Foreignness is like a resource that alerts them to possible different ways of saying things, possible different interpretations.

The example also shows how speakers from different lingua-cultural backgrounds orient to English and their attitudes to their English practices. As highlighted at the beginning, the focus is on how language is used, co-constructed and shaped to adapt to the communicative context, the situation and the interlocutors, rather than learned. However, in a current study on refugees and asylum seekers’ advice consultations (Cogo, in preparation) I found that negotiations in such contexts are very sensitive: the advisors’ orientation towards the advisees’ displayed knowledge of English, and their understanding and orientations towards ELF use rather than native norms, are key to successful advice consultations, especially in sensitive situations of power imbalance. ELF therefore is not seen as a simplified version of English, but as complex, creative, and as co-constructed by participants moulding and shaping their linguistic (multilingual) resources. ELF co-construction, however, is not a neutral endeavour, but subject to people’s agency, orientation towards it and access (sometimes unequal) to resources, including linguistic ones.

Reconceptualizing “language” in ELF research

The traditional view and early conceptualizations of the nature of a lingua franca conceived the phenomenon as language simplification, but current corpus work has demonstrated the complex and fluid nature of ELF, rather than its simplification. This is especially evident on the level of pragmatics, where empirical data collected in different studies showed occurrence of new, adapted or translated idiomatic expressions, which are used effectively in different ELF contexts or communities. For instance, in my work on pragmatic strategies I collected naturally-occurring spoken data among colleagues from different linguistic backgrounds chatting together during their coffee breaks. The findings showed how local expressions were altered, adapted or translated to be made comprehensible and relevant in their talk, through skillful and sophisticated negotiations of meaning and use of multilingual resources (Cogo 2010; Cogo and Dewey 2012). Similarly, the negotiation of the idiomatic expression “in the same boat” demonstrates how creatively changing an idiom “serves to establish a sense of playfulness and in-group belonging” (Cogo 2010: 304), and how idiomatic construction is also possible depending on and in relation to speakers’ orientations and ideologies.

Ultimately, research in ELF is no longer simply a matter of investigating how English is changing and adapting to different contexts and speakers, but rather involves and requires a re-conceptualization of ‘language’ and a rethinking of the traditional tenets in linguistics and applied linguistics more generally. The challenge relating to the concept of language is posed by the dynamic nature of ELF communication, which requires changes and adaptations to different contexts and users, and by its situational nature, in that it emerges from the different constellations of speakers, communities and contexts. ELF is not a self-contained, bounded system but a practice, which is inherently variable, adaptable and heterogeneous and cannot therefore be considered a ‘variety’, at least not in the traditional sense of the term. So, instead of thinking of ELF in terms of a separate and bounded system, we need to think in terms of shared repertoire/s of resources that people co-construct and draw from in order to carry out certain activities in specific contexts. This also implies going beyond static descriptions of linguistic features to highlight the processes that facilitate and ensure effective communication. A re-directed focus on repertoires also allows us to consider English not in isolation but in relation and contact with other languages and resources that may be part of the speakers’ repertoire. This has also shifted the attention to analyzing “languaging” or “translanguaging” as inevitable and indeed important/essential aspects of ELF, the creative exploitation of multilingual resources according to users’ needs and circumstances (Cogo 2012a).

Identity – shifting between user and learner

It is commonly assumed that learning a language and using a language are two different processes and would normally occur separately and in a specific order – first you learn a language and then you use it. However, latest developments in language learning research have shown that learning a language involves using it, and, therefore, that learners and users are simultaneous and shifting roles and identities. These, in practice, are also influenced by the sociocultural context, the language attitudes and ideologies. For instance, in my work with business people in different companies (Cogo 2012a; 2016a), I interviewed participants about their relation to English, including reflections on their roles of learners or users, how satisfied they felt about their English in business contexts, etc. The findings were more complex than just the dichotomy of user and learner would represent, with fluctuating identities in between the two. Some participants were rather happy with their English, and some commented on how they mixed English with other linguistic resources (French and Italian, for instance) to enhance and expand on their meaning but also to signal their different identities. Others were less positive about their English and felt they still needed to attend English lessons and still saw themselves more as learners than as users. Still others fluctuated in their attitudes to English and their learner versus user roles, sometimes even seeing themselves as shuttling between one and the other within the same conversation. Some were proud of being international individuals, open to different intercultural experiences and portraying themselves as expert in negotiating an identity in English alongside their identity in their first language. For instance, one Italian businessman reiterated that his “italianitá” was an important aspect of his English professional identity. He did not need to focus on “bending over backwards” to sound English and felt that his linguistic proficiency allowed him to function effectively in the international business communities he worked in, but also allowed him to move comfortably between Italian and English social worlds, forming relationships in both his first language and English. Other participants felt they were good at English but still needed to develop their proficiency and positioned themselves as occasional English speakers, sometimes in a learner mode, and with few opportunities to develop an identity through English in the context where they worked (see Cogo 2012a and 2016a). Unequal access to English seemed to limit their imagined identities as English users in their current and future practices.

The concept of identity, then, emerges as multifaceted, dynamic and fluid, developing from the social relations and interactions with others, society and culture, and shaped by personal experience. Identities, however, do not merely emerge in interaction but are also constrained by the specific socio-cultural environment and institutional conditions in specific contexts, as well as by what people bring to the interaction, their attitudes and ideologies. Identity for all the participants seems to be culturally embedded with the work they do and the linguistic resources they use for their professional practices. It is also embedded in the institutional environment where they operate. The essentialist notions of the language learner, and the dichotomy of learner versus user, are limiting and untenable, and it is only by acknowledging the complex relation between language and identity and the complexity of identity itself that we start understanding and untangling the diverse experiences of ELF speakers.

[Editor's Note: Since the Modern Humanities Research Association referencing style, which is the 'house style' of GLITS-e, is atypical in the field of linguistics, we have made an exception for Alessia's article.]


Cogo, A. (in preparation) Giving advice in sensitive contexts: a sociolinguistic exploration of advice and advocacy sessions for refugees and asylum seekers.

Cogo, A. (2016a). “They all take the risk and make the effort”: Intercultural accommodation and multilingualism in a BELF community of practice. In L. Lopriore and E. Grazzi (eds.) Intercultural Communication: New Perspectives from ELF. Rome, Italy: Roma Tre Press.

Cogo, A. (2016b). English as a Lingua Franca in Europe. In A. Linn et al. English in Europe. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Cogo, A. 2009. ‘Accommodating difference in ELF conversations: A study of pragmatic strategies’. In Mauranen A. and E. Ranta (eds.) English as a Lingua Franca. Studies and Findings. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 254–273.

Cogo, A. 2010. ‘Strategic use and perceptions of English as a Lingua Franca.’ Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 46(3), 295-312.

Cogo, A. 2012a. ELF and Super-diversity: a Case Study of ELF Multilingual Practices from a Business Context. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 1(2), 287-313.

Cogo, A. 2012b. ‘French is French, English is English’: standard language ideology in ELF debates. In P. Studer & I. Werlen (eds.) Linguistic Diversity in Europe, 233-256. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Cogo, A. 2015. Complexity, negotiability and ideologies: a response to Zhu, Pitzl, and Kankaanranta et al. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 4(1), 149-155.

Cogo, A. and M. Dewey. 2012. Analyzing English as a lingua franca: A corpus-driven investigation. London: Continuum.

Cogo, A. and M-L. Pitzl. 2016. Pre-empting and signalling non-understanding in ELF. English Language Teaching journal, 70(3).

Crystal, D. 2003. English as a Global Language. (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Graddol, D. 2006. English Next. Why global English may mean the end of ‘English as a Foreign Language’. British Council. Free download at http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/sites/ec/files/books-english-next.pdf

Jenkins, J. 2000. The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. Cogo, A. and Dewey, M. 2011. Review of developments in research into English as a lingua franca. Language Teaching 44(3), 281-315.

Seidlhofer, B. 2001. Closing a conceptual gap: the case for a description of English as a lingua franca. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 11, 133–58.

ACE – Asian Corpus of English, http://corpus.ied.edu.hk/ace/

ELFA – English as a Lingua Franca in Academic settings, http://www.helsinki.fi/englanti/elfa/

VOICE – Vienna Oxford International Corpus of English, https://www.univie.ac.at/voice/