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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton August 31, 2022

English as a lingua franca and linguistic justice: insights from exchange students’ experiences

Sabine Fiedler EMAIL logo


This paper focuses on English as a lingua franca, an area of research that has gone through several phases of reconceptualization over recent years. What has not changed despite the reframing is the insistence that ELF, with its focus on intelligibility rather than formal accuracy, is not to be judged on the basis of standard English norms. In response to these claims, researchers have argued from linguo-political and philosophical perspectives that re-labelling English ‘ELF’ does not remove native-speaker privileges and linguistic injustice. This paper addresses the topic by presenting some results of an investigation into students’ language choices and practises during study abroad. Drawing on data gained by means of a questionnaire survey and semi-structured interviews, it will show that, despite their use of English in lingua franca situations, a considerable number of students adhere to standard English as an appropriate model and measure their own proficiency in English and progress in language learning against native-speaker norms.

1 Introduction

In an early linguistic justice analysis, Jonathan Pool (1991) argued that there were only two alternatives to ensure equality in multilingual communicative situations. The first is where everyone learns everyone else’s language. The second one is where everyone learns a language that is external to the group. As regards the first option, one must admit that (in Europe) high-level competence in several languages will probably be restricted to an elite of the intellectual and gifted few (Ammon 2003; Gooskens 2019). Quality and success in the learning of foreign languages vary hugely, but statistics on the matter are sobering. According to the European survey Eurobarometer (2012), 54% of the EU population are fluent in a language other than their mother tongue and 25% are fluent in two other languages (European Commission 2012).

The second alternative puts artificial or planned languages on our agenda, which indeed would offer a relatively neutral solution. Everything we know about the realities of Esperanto communication suggests that the use of a deliberately constructed language that needs to be acquired by everyone, that is relatively easy to learn even by adults after the so-called critical age, that is a suitable means for everyday conversation as well as a literary medium and a language for special purposes, can present an effective solution from the perspective of linguistic justice (see, for example, Fiedler and Brosch 2022b). However, this option does not seem to have found enough supporters, in the short run at least, whether because of a lack of knowledge about it or lack of political will (see Brosch and Fiedler [2018] and Fiedler [2015] for a more detailed discussion).

In addition to the two solutions that Pool mentions, there is, theoretically, still a third option. It is the idea of adopting a language that has already been learnt and used worldwide and viewing it detached from its native-speaker origin and cultural baggage, affording it legitimacy in various forms as an equal means of communication that can be used and designed by everyone according to their abilities and needs. In this context, one school of thought (some authors use the term “movement” [Berns 2009; Holliday 2008; O’Regan 2014], Park and Wee [2014] speak of a “research project”) has drawn much scholarly attention in recent years: English as a lingua franca (ELF). This article is concerned with this approach. It challenges its practical feasibility and implementation by presenting some results of an investigation on students’ linguistic realities during study abroad and especially their reflections on the use of English. Before describing this investigation in Section 3, ELF and its recent reconceptualization will first be presented in more detail.

2 ELF: different views on an area of research

When ELF came into being as an area of research in the second half of the 1990s, its focus was the empirical description of English in international encounters among non-native speakers by means of corpus projects. These have revealed a set of properties of ELF on different linguistic levels. Jenkins’ groundbreaking book The Phonology of English as an International Language (2000) has shown, for example, that in oral communication the interdental fricatives /ð/ and /θ/ are often substituted with alveolar and labiodental fricatives (/z/ /s/; /v/ /f/) or alveolar plosives (/d/ /t/); uncountable nouns such as information and advice are often used with the plural ending -s; the relative pronouns which and who are treated as interchangeable for animate and inanimate nouns, and verbs in the third person are often used without the inflectional ending -s (see Seidlhofer 2004). It was found that these uses are usually unproblematic because they do not cause misunderstanding. Being oriented towards intelligibility and communicative efficiency instead of native speaker prestige, ELF advocates do not consider these features to be errors but variants or differences (Jenkins 2006: 140), characteristics of ELF “as an emerging English that exists in its own right and which is being described in its own terms” (Jenkins 2007: 2 [original emphasis]).

ELF publications have elicited negative responses and criticism, as Jenkins (2007) describes in detail. These concern above all the status of ELF as a variety. The English used by non-native speakers is ever changing, depending on communicative settings and partners’ linguistic competencies, and thus too heterogeneous and fluid to be codified. As a consequence, ELF researchers have meanwhile given up describing it as a variety (see Jenkins 2015).

In addition, debates on ELF focus on the question of whether ELF should present a basis for a teaching model. Edmondson and House (2003: 338f.) voice their opinion for changes as regards goals and contents of teaching programmes: “(W)e suggest that the teaching of ‘Culture’, as embodied in the appreciation of literary texts, and gaining insight into other cultural aspects of a country or countries where English is L1 can have no central role to play.” Other researchers, such as Gnutzmann (2007 do not see it as an alternative to a standard English or native-speaker-based model in English language teaching. One reason is that it is difficult to predict the future needs and communicative purposes of today’s learners and because a new paradigm such as this can only be introduced when it is accepted by its users.

Sowden (2012: 93/94) argues that the introduction of an additional ELF teaching model can have a divisive effect on society and in this way aggravate inequalities rather than diminish them: “It is highly likely that where choice existed, the more affluent, ambitious, and well connected would opt for schools where native-speaker standards prevailed, and the poorer sections of the community would be relegated to schools where ELF was the norm.” Indeed, various studies have revealed that non-native learners and users of English definitely prefer a native standard, especially British and American English, as these varieties represent “real” or “authentic” English and are considered prestigious (Erling 2005: 227; Gnutzmann et al. 2014; Hynninen and Kuteeva 2017; Jenkins 2007: 186; Mollin 2006: 199; Wright 2004: 176).

Other points of criticism have referred to the representation of ELF communication as “neutral” or “culture-free” (for a discussion, see Fiedler 2011) and smooth, “robust”, and cooperative. With regard to the latter aspect, it is noteworthy that the so-called let-it-pass principle, i.e. the observation that “[u]nclear talk is routinely ‘passed over’ on the common sense assumption that it will either eventually become clear or end up as redundant” (House 2003: 558), which was described as characteristic of ELF interactions in English (e.g. by Firth 1996; House 2003; Seidlhofer 2011), has been challenged in its general validity in recent studies (Cogo and House 2017: 174). In addition, studies including speakers of various proficiencies, such as Knapp’s (2002) investigation, have shown that “the co-operative and consensual style reported in recent studies as a typical feature of ELF interactions seem to be restricted to certain types of situations” (p. 241) (see also Park and Wee 2014).

Furthermore, the restriction of ELF research to spoken communication is often criticised as a major flaw (see Gazzola and Grin 2013: 96; Sowden 2012: 95). Some of the features described as typical of ELF usage (see above) would probably be immediately changed into standard English if the texts were transferred into writing. This is in line with the finding of a study of the use of English as a lingua franca in international business (Ehrenreich 2011) that “[w]hile endonormativity is the general rule in most interactions, […] [e]xonormative standards play a role with regard to a select number of written texts, e.g. contracts or the corporate website” (p. 26).

For several authors, ELF is a mere re-labelling of English (Gazzola and Grin 2013, O’Regan 2014). Grin (2011: 59) points out that “[t]he differences between what is labelled as ‘English as a lingua franca’ and simply ‘English’, in terms of their consequences for language status, are superficial, and mostly of little importance”; and Phillipson (2003: 40) refuses the term as “[…] communicative inequality is obscured when English is referred to as a ‘lingua franca’, a concept that appears to assume communicative equality for all”.

Recently, ELF researchers have emphasised ELF as a multilingual strategy. Hülmbauer and Seidlhofer (2013: 390), giving wrong word formations such as financiate (for ‘finance’), the use of information as a countable noun, and the use of false friends (e.g. grossly) as examples, point out:

ELF is used as a shared resource which becomes activated in linguistically diverse settings. (…) No matter how much of the plurilingual influence is directly observable on the surface structure of ELF talk – the important thing is that there is, in principle, room for integration of plurilingual elements. ELF thus clearly has to be viewed as a multilingual mode.

(Hülmbauer and Seidlhofer 2013: 390)

In a similar vein, Jenkins (2015: 77), influenced by the development of the concept of ‘translanguaging’ (García and Li 2014), presents a reconceptualization of English as a lingua franca as “English-within-multilingualism”. In my view, however, the occasional interpolation of words and sentences by ELF interactants from their multilingual repertoire (traditionally called code-mixing and code-switching), as recently described by some authors adopting the new perspective of ELF (e.g. Cogo 2020), does not yet seem to justify a repositioning of ELF as “English as a Multilingua Franca (EMF)” (Jenkins 2015). Neither does our data suggest that students, when they use English as a lingua franca, regard their communication as multilingual.

ELF has been discussed as a strategy to reduce linguistic injustice (Van Parijs 2011; De Schutter 2018). Its understanding of non-native speakers of English as self-confident and competent users instead of “defective communicators” (Seidlhofer 2004: 213), and its claim to respect linguistic diversity based on the argument that if the teaching of English focuses on features that are “crucial for international intelligibility” (Seidlhofer 2003: 136), it “leaves other languages intact” (p. 137), are to be seen in the context of linguistic equality. Recent publications also show that ELF researchers see their point of departure in disadvantages that non-native speakers experience, such as in higher education (see Jenkins 2020). From a linguistic justice perspective, however, well-intended efforts for more equality in communication can turn out to have detrimental effects. If non-native English is a legitimate form dissociated from the English of native speakers, a “neutral” English, then there is no need to criticise inequality of international communication. If it presents a “multilingual mode” or a “multilingua-franca” because of the multilingual background of its speakers, then there is no reason any more to complain about the loss of linguistic diversity due to the dominance of English (see Grin 2018). English when used as a lingua franca is still English, however, and despite the idea that non-native speakers’ lexical and grammatical imperfections are tolerated, it should not be ignored that non-native speakers are put at a disadvantage, as they have to invest a great deal of time, money and energy into language learning and may still communicate with difficulty. This is why recent developments of ELF in particular should be carefully scrutinised (for further critiques of ELF, see Fiedler 2010 and 2011).

3 English as a lingua franca: exchange students’ experiences

3.1 Presentation of the study and major findings

This study draws on data obtained within a large-scale research project on European exchange students’ language practises and choices which was part of the “Mobility and Inclusion in Multilingual Europe” (MIME) research project funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development (2014–2018). The data was collected between autumn 2015 and spring 2018 by means of online questionnaires before and after the students’ stays abroad (more than 500 respondents) and interviews during their stays (78 participants). The participants’ countries of destination were (in order of frequency): France, the UK, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Poland.[1]

The data on students’ language proficiencies confirms the key role that English plays in higher education today (see Table 1). It was the language spoken by all the respondents, with 18.1% of students of philological subjects and 12.0% of those studying non-philological subjects having already reached the highest level of proficiency (C2) prior to their stay abroad. Interestingly, 22.3% of students of non-philological subjects reported that English was the only foreign language in which they were able to communicate. This figure was 10.4% among students of philological subjects. These relatively high percentages, considering the high level of education that university students have, corroborates the Eurobarometer data mentioned in the introduction and thus the limited success of the EU’s policy of multilingualism, which aims for European citizens to speak two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue (the so-called M+2 formula).

Table 1:

Proportion of students who speak languages besides English (%).

English Foreign language 2 Foreign language 3 Foreign language 4
Students of philological subjects 100 89.6 44.0 14.0
Students of non-philological subjects 100 77.7 33.7 8.5

A major finding of our study is that a large majority of exchange students consider learning the language of the host country an important incentive for their stay. In practice, however, student enthusiasm is often stymied by a lack of adequate language courses and/or poor organisation, causing students to spend most of their time with other exchange students, as opposed to with locals. This was especially the case in countries with less widely spoken languages, where the language of instruction is usually English. Nevertheless, most students managed to acquire some knowledge of the local language or to improve their proficiency. Among non-philologists, the number of students without any knowledge of the host country’s language dropped to a third and the number of students who passed an A1/A2 course more than doubled. One in ten students, however, returned home without any knowledge of the local language. Among the students of philological subjects, the number of people without any knowledge fell to almost zero, and more than half of all students were proficient users of the local language (having reached C1/C2 level) by the end of their stay.

The students were asked about the languages that they used in particular contexts: at the university (in seminars and lectures), when talking to other exchange students or to local students, in university institutions, and in their everyday lives outside of university. The respondents’ answers showed that English predominated in all these situations, and that it was only in everyday life outside of university that local languages played a more important role (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: 
Language choices in specific situations (outgoing students).
Figure 1:

Language choices in specific situations (outgoing students).

The Erasmus programme itself also strengthens the role of English (see Cojocaru 2018, Salomone 2022: 51/52). Our study shows that this is based on three factors. The first and most important one is the use of English as the students’ working language at host universities. Secondly, English has a significant impact as the dominant means of communication among Erasmus students. They resort to it as a common means of communication whenever people from various linguistic backgrounds come together. Its use is perceived as easy and convenient, especially in comparison with the local language, which they have often started to learn only in their host country (see also Kalocsai 2009). The third factor, which is closely related to the previous two, is students’ experience of having successfully managed their stay abroad by means of a foreign language. They may not have achieved their goal of learning a new language, as this turned out to be too difficult in the time they had at their disposal, as the conditions for doing so were not favourable, or because it did not prove necessary. Nevertheless, using English made their stay abroad successful from a linguistic perspective. From a psychological point of view, this positive personal experience is an important reason why the Erasmus programme strengthens the status of English.

3.2 Exchange students’ attitudes to ELF

The findings that are relevant to this article were above all obtained from the semi-structured interviews during the exchange students’ stays abroad. It was here that they expressed their opinions on the use of English as a lingua franca. Questions of the use of English by native and non-native speakers were not included in the catalogue of questions guiding the interviews, but the format of semi-structured interviews gave the participants the opportunity to speak at length and to lead the conversation in directions that interested them. The fact that they raised the topic on their own initiative, either in the final open question of the questionnaire or in the interviews, is indicative of the importance that they attach to it.

As for their attitudes to ELF, the students can be divided into two major groups. The first stressed the positive consequences of using English as a non-native language, such as the ease of communication and their access to the many varieties that English now encompasses. The second group focused on negative aspects, such as some speakers’ comparatively low level of proficiency and the disadvantageous effects that this had on the quality of their studies and on their own degree of proficiency.

For example, when asked how they managed the linguistic challenges of their studies abroad, most students reported that they encountered no particular difficulties using English at their host universities. Six of the interviewees explained their trouble-free communication when using English, and the boost this gave their self-confidence, by the fact that the language served as a lingua franca, i.e. that it was used by non-native speakers.

(1) “I can follow very well. […] at the uni where I am there are almost exclusively international professors, who don’t speak English as their mother tongue, so you are surrounded all the time by people who also speak acquired English, which makes everything easier.” (Student of economics in Russia)[2]

(2) “Everything runs smoothly […] Well, I think this is also because the Greeks are not native speakers and neither am I, and one meets in the middle easily, when there is something one doesn’t understand, one is on the same level easily.” (Student of education in Greece)

Some students (both incoming and outgoing, and regardless of the subjects they were studying) emphasised as positive the fact that their stay abroad made them aware of the many ‘Englishes’ that exist, both as regards native-speaker accent varieties and forms of English influenced by learners’ mother tongues. They considered this good preparation for future encounters in the language:

(3) “and maybe my understanding of accents has improved, since we have many different accents of international students here, the French accent, the Danish, Chinese, but also the Spanish accent.”

(Student of English in Britain)

(4) “I would say that my understanding of English grew better […] the accents are mixed. When you have to decipher, sometimes it’s deciphering what a person is saying. […] It’s nice when you can understand the RP [= Received Pronunciation, the accent traditionally regarded as the standard for British English – S.F.] or American English, but […]. But you will not only speak to Americans and others, you will meet, for example, Hindu persons and Chinese people and English and the English world will be complicated to understand. And yeah, that’s a part of the learning.”

(Slovak student of English in Germany; interview conducted in English)

The majority of students who mentioned that English is spoken as a lingua franca (more precisely, nine out of sixteen) took a negative view, however. They criticised their fellow students or teachers for the poor English that they spoke, as this had a negative impact on the quality of teaching (see 5 and 6), or they expressed their disappointment concerning the development of their own English proficiency (see examples 7 and 8).

(5) Interviewer: ‘Would you say you can follow the classes well?’

“As for the lecturers, it depends. There are teachers who speak very good English, as they maybe have connections with Great Britain. Well, the British accent prevails <laughs>. But I must say that there are also lecturers who haven’t gained much experience in English, who have not yet practised speaking English so much. This has made the lessons worse […] but in general the teachers were able to use English, of course. It varied considerably.’

(Student of education in Hungary)

(6) “The professors try very hard, but the quality is not very high. The only course – I still have chosen an additional course in Business Communication Skills, here the professor comes from Liverpool. That’s really enjoyable. As for the others, it happens occasionally that they ask us about terms and they paraphrase them. That’s a pity, I had been hoping for more.’

(Student of business studies in Poland)

(7) Interviewer: ‘Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your linguistic situation, something we have not yet spoken about?’

“Well (…) The English that is spoken here is not always the best, as there are many Erasmus students here, and all Erasmus students live in the same hall, so that one has a lot to do with them (.) and therefore I’m not sure, one understands one another without any problems in English, but I can imagine that this is not perfect English, so that one simply takes over other speakers’ mistakes.”

(Student of mechanical engineering in Norway)

(8) ‘What I am a bit afraid of and what makes me less secure is that the people I talk to here aren’t native speakers of English, and the lecturers aren’t either. When they mark my essays or what I’m writing here, they will overlook my errors, especially in grammar […] I’m a bit afraid that mistakes creep in that I do not notice.’ (Student of medicine in Sweden)

Several interviewees assumed that their English proficiency was decreasing during their stay abroad,[3] and they saw the main cause for this again in their use of the language with non-native speakers.

(9) “I feel like my English has become worse […] The thing is that I studied half a year abroad already and made friends with native speakers, native speakers of English and that I share a flat with native speakers in Germany. That means that last year, for one and a half years I was permanently surrounded by native speakers, which I believe improved my level of English considerably, and here I’m not together with native speakers and I – that’s what I notice talking to people who are not so good at English – restrain myself in my language use, I use simpler words, less complex sentences etc., and in fact, at the beginning I was asked two or three times to use less difficult words and to talk a bit more slowly. I was asked by Italians and Japanese students not to talk so fast and much English. […] Well, I know that I had level C1 before […] I hope not to have fallen back to level B2. Let’s wait and see till the end of January, it could happen.”

(Student of sociology in Lithuania)

(10) ‘I would rather say that my English has deteriorated, as I have lost my British accent due to the many types of English here […] At the beginning, when I arrived I was told that I have a British accent when I speak English and meanwhile nobody says so <laughs>. This has got lost.’

(Student of meteorology in Sweden)

The interview findings are confirmed at least in part by our questionnaire data. In the questionnaire, a considerable number of our respondents (33.2% of those studying philological subjects and 34.1% of those studying other subjects) reported that on the basis of their language tests (see footnote 3) their proficiency in English did not change or even deteriorated. However, these results must be regarded with caution because a number of students had already reached the highest level (C2) in their test before going abroad and were, therefore, not able to improve their level.

4 Discussion

This investigation shows that exchange students have different attitudes towards English as a lingua franca. While some of them view the use of English by non-native speakers mainly positively, as it facilitates understanding and opens up the international community of Erasmus students which they may not otherwise have had access to, as Peckham et al. (2012) describe, other exchange students focus on contacts with native speakers, and English is like any other language in this respect. They consider their interactions with these to be advantageous for improving their language. Despite the dominance and overall successful use of English as a non-native language over the course of their stay abroad, this group of exchange students adhere to native-speaker norms and regard these as the benchmark of their own proficiency. This is also in line with investigations that describe that non-native speakers tend to adopt ready-made constructions from native-speaker talk for their own speech (Howarth 2002; Partington 2003), up to the point that in academic writing, for example, they apply techniques such as “language re-use” (i.e. copying fragments of previously published texts) in their wish to meet linguistic requirements (Flowerdew 2007; Gnutzmann and Rabe 2014).

In line with Bourdieu (1991), in a network of power relations including economic, social and cultural forms of power, language can be seen as an important form of symbolic power through which to gain access to economic and social power. Knowledge of English plays a major role in this context. It is, as Prodromou (2008: 249) argues, a “weapon in the hands of the oppressed” that gives them access to formal education and job prospects. For some people, even a rather low level of proficiency might be a powerful instrument, depending on the field of activity. For others, for example university students striving for positions of responsibility in society, a reduced form of English provides only a “broken weapon”, with “reduced linguistic capital” (250).

Innovation is highly dependent on acceptability. As regards ELF, this includes non-native English being received as suitable by non-native and native speakers alike. There has been little research on the question of to what extent native speakers of English are willing to agree on the linguistic consequences that their language’s role as a lingua franca has for its use and are tolerant of deviations from standard English norms. Kalocsai (2009), in her study of Erasmus students using English during their stays in Hungary and the Czech Republic, found that English native-speaking students were not central members of the international community of exchange students that used English, but peripheral ones, as they did not use strategies such as accommodation, negotiation, and cooperation, which is why they were judged as “uncaring and inefficient communicators” by non-native speakers (Kalocsai 2009: 40).

The topic of English as a lingua franca and native speakers’ positions on its development has attracted attention beyond educational settings. When in December 2017 The Telegraph (2017), reporting on misunderstandings among politicians because of native speakers’ unilateral use of English idioms, took up the topic, quoting from an article by J. Jenkins in which she proposed that native speakers of English should avoid using idiomatic speech and adjust their ways of speaking to international users, the contents of the more than 200 online comments did not give reason to be optimistic that ELF might quickly be accepted among native speakers.[4]

5 Conclusion

This article has dealt with English as a lingua franca, focussing on the question of whether it might be a contribution to establishing linguistic justice worldwide. The topic remains controversial because, on the one hand, its use by non-native speakers in a large number of settings makes ELF a sociolinguistic reality that serves people well, especially in oral communication, and cannot be ignored. On the other hand, this does not fundamentally change the situation that a single language is the dominant medium of international communication, and that the language that is used as a lingua franca is at the same time a native language for some of the interlocutors, which causes inequality.

Since the users of a language are the most important factor in communication, this article has been concerned with their perceptions and attitudes. We examined the experiences of exchange students, since stays abroad, especially under the Erasmus programme, are a prime example of English serving as a lingua franca. The study shows that students have diverging opinions. While some of them welcome how easy it is to communicate among non-native speakers, others have reservations about English as a lingua franca and adhere to native-speaker varieties as their target norms. They consider ELF to be unauthentic and fear that it may put them in a position of weakness.

Empirical work such as that presented here tells us that communication cannot be reduced to intelligibility. As Salomone (2022: 36) argues, “[a]t least for now, though individuals might informally speak to each other of necessity in non-standard English, the most valued common means of global communication is a form of English that is not simply mutually intelligible but one in which the written and spoken forms correspond with each other”. English cannot be detached from its origin, as many of its non-native users are aware of the existence of a “real” English and they associate non-native English with low prestige. Psychological factors such as feelings of inferiority or superiority play an important part in language use. Given the complexity of language issues, a comprehensive approach to the management of linguistic diversity must be an interdisciplinary effort. In addition to linguistic factors, non-linguistic aspects (i.e. political, economic and social conditions giving rise to inequality and unfairness) have to be considered as well (Hultgren 2020).

For the realisation of a model such as ELF, its users’ consent is essential. In the same way it is necessary that first-language speakers of English are willing to be tolerant of variation introduced by non-native speakers. This aspect has hardly been addressed and should be included in further investigations of the topic.

Corresponding author: Sabine Fiedler, Philological Faculty, Institute of British Studies, University of Leipzig, Beethovenstrasse 15, 04107 Leipzig, Saxony, Germany, E-mail:

Funding source: European Commission

Award Identifier / Grant number: ‘Mobility and Inclusion in Multilingual Europe


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Received: 2021-07-16
Accepted: 2022-04-14
Published Online: 2022-08-31
Published in Print: 2022-09-27

© 2022 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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