Rethinking English as a Lingua Franca

We have all heard the facts that non-native English speakers outnumber native speakers. English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) research has looked at non-native interactions and has attempted to identify a core of important pronunciation, grammar, and pragmatic features that are common to these types of interaction. ELF has also ushered in conversation regarding English-ownership, native-speakerism (e.g. accent discrimination), accuracy, and pedagogy. However, Swan* (2017), in a comment piece for ELT Journal, throws many of the assumptions of ELF into question, arguing that ELF is nothing new, that ELF is not necessarily an expression of ownership or personal expression, and that targetlikeness may be a more appropriate focus when concerning pedagogy.

Swan’s first argument is that a non-native speaker’s need for accuracy is determined by the situation. Therefore, in some contexts, highly accurate English is required (e.g. academic contexts) whereas in others, low-accuracy should be perfectly acceptable (e.g. for travel). Sometimes accuracy is a matter of preference. As an aside, Swan acerbically states that some “may aim at and even achieve perfect NS-like competence (including all the NNS proponents of ELF I have ever met)” (p. 512).

Swan also takes into consideration some scholars’ pronouncements that ELF “norms” are an expression of personality and perhaps ownership of English. Some see English, or specifically ELF, as an idiosyncratic arena where anything goes because of this. However, Swan wonders how dropping third person -s or switching relative pronouns equates to personal expression. For most non-native speakers, it is the content, not the language, that gives rise to their personal expression.

Another of Swan’s arguments is that the assertion of “ELF” users, touted as a new reality among global English users distinct from EFL (English as a foreign language), is something of a red herring (p. 513):

very many of the world’s English learners merely seek an effective working knowledge of the language, without wanting or needing a high level of accuracy. This has nothing to do with the recent growth in the lingua franca use
of English or the implied existence of a new class of ‘ELF users’.

He argues that what is termed “ELF” is nothing more than non-native speaker English, and any “norms” in this type of speech cannot be identified. While ELF research does suggest a pronunciation core (see Jenkin’s Lingua France Core), “this is a recommendation for teaching purposes; certainly not a specification of what various NNS Englishes actually have in common, if anything. And any attempt to identify significant common grammatical features in NNS English that would make it possible to talk about ‘ELF’ as a variety rather than an activity has surely been abandoned. One of my main points is that there isn’t such a real common core (though we do need a better pedagogic core); so ‘ELF’ is just NNSE [non-native speaker English” (Swan, personal communication).

Pedagogically, the light ELF does shine on the issue of accuracy speaks to a possible need to distinguish high-accuracy language learning from what Swan calls a “general-purpose programme” (GP). In such a program, the content could not be based on ELF because such a pedagogy is impossible. Teaching students numerous non-standard alternatives for a phrase like “better than” (*better that, *better of) is “bewildering” (p. 512). In order for language to be taught, there must be some standardization to it (some set of “codified forms”). He notes: I would not continue to attend classes in, say, Spanish, if my teacher’s approach was to ‘generate location-specific, classroom-oriented innovative language models’ (Dewey ibid.: 166). I expect a Spanish teacher to teach me Spanish, not make it up.”

A GP programme, therefore, would not be based on various speaker models but on targets and what students need to master to accomplish those targets. Here, ELF research is useful in establishing what is not necessary to be taught rather than an alternative of what should be taught. Knowing what should be taught, on the other hand, is important and is at the moment under-researched in terms of to what extent deviations from native speaker norms matter. Rather than providing this, ELF seems to focus on accommodation strategies and related uses of language.

In the end, Swan does not discount ELF. He made it clear it is useful for establish what need not be taught, claims “‘ELF-aware’ teaching” is important, and praises ELF for bringing a pedagogic shift away from “over-perfectionist and ineffective teaching approaches” (p. 515). Instead, his goal was to raise the issue that an “ELF norm” (something of an oxymoron, as he points out) is nothing new, not an example of self-expression, and has limited pedagogic application.


Dewey, M. 2012. ‘Towards a post-normative approach: learning the pedagogy of ELF’. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 1/1: 141–70.

Swan, M. (2017). EFL, ELF, and the question of accuracy. ELT Journal71(4), 511-515. Retrieved from

*Thank you very much to Michael Swan for reviewing this summary.

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Anthony Schmidt
English language Instructor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Anthony Schmidt is editor of ELT Research Bites. He also has his own blog at Offline, he is a full-time English language instructor in a university IEP program. He is interested in all aspects of applied linguistics, in particular English for Academic Purposes.

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