logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Varieties of English and other Englishes


As a starting point, we'll assert something: teachers need to know about varieties of English and be familiar with the characteristics of the ones their learners are most likely to encounter.  Crystal, 1998:17, puts it like this:

Teachers need to prepare their students for a world of staggering linguistic diversity. Somehow, they need to expose them to as many varieties of English as possible, especially those which they are most likely to encounter in their own locale. And, above all, teachers need to develop a truly flexible attitude towards principles of usage.

Developing the flexibility that Crystal sees as important implies that teachers should not make an a priori assumption that their own dialect (yes, everyone has one) is the sole norm against which their learners' production should be measured.  What is needed is a step back to view the wider world and some understanding of its staggering diversity.

All languages vary.  The number of speakers there are, the range of contexts in which the language is used and the geographical spread of the language will determine just how much variation occurs.
Even those languages which are partially overseen by institutions charged with maintaining linguistic purity (such as the various academies around the world) will vary by region and context as well as between individuals and in those operating in certain fields.
(The term 'variety' encompasses phenomena such as accent, dialect, sociolect, idiolect and so on which are, in some cases, quite difficult to define.)


Before we go on, can you take a stab at the answers to:

  1. Approximately how many users of English as a first language are there worldwide?
  2. In how many countries is English spoken as an official language?
  3. How many different standard forms are recognised?
  4. How many other Englishes can you name?
and then click eye open to reveal some suggestions.


How does language use vary?

There are a number of factors at work but we can condense them into two main categories, like this:


There are two main factors to consider:

Who is using the language?
Language use will vary depending on where people come from and their social class.  The two factors interact so, for example, an upper-class variety in one geographical or political area may differ from a lower-class variety in the same area.
Ethnicity also frequently plays a role.
What is the language being used for?
Language use will vary by register.  Occupational registers include things like jargon and special forms of English (legalese, IT-speak, medical language and so on) and topic-based registers will include things like sports registers, special hobby registers (can you read a knitting pattern?), pastimes and so on.


Variations on a theme: lects

A lect is just another term used by sociolinguistics for a variety of a language.  It's a useful neutral term to use, however, because it avoids the connotations that some percieve in terms such as dialect.



This is not the place to enter into the argument about whether a dialect is a language or not.  If you want to know whether a dialect qualifies as a language, check the Ethnologue site (linked below).

As a rule of thumb, a dialect is distinguished from other variations in language use by having unique phonological, grammatical and lexical features but is, nevertheless, still generally comprehensible to speakers of other varieties of the same language.  Examples include Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaans, Hindi and Urdu, Czech and Slovak, US and British English and many more varieties of what are essentially the same language around the world.
For political, social or cultural reasons, speakers of some dialects may like to suggest that their variety constitutes a separate language and should be respected as such and, of course, comprehensibility to users of other varieties exists on a cline from not at all to fully comprehensible.  On the other hand, there are similarly grounded pressures in some cultures to minimise differences and class what are barely, if at all, mutually comprehensible languages as varieties of the same language.

Dialects vary like this:

  1. The lexicon
    What the United States calls a hood, the British call a bonnet, what Canadians call an automobile or car, Indians might refer to as a motor, what the British call a dunce might be called a bubu in Jamaica, what in parts of the USA are referred to as britches would be pants or trousers elsewhere and so on and on and on.
    Specific words are in use to describe things which exist in the local environment but may not exist elsewhere in the world and the influence of local languages on the vocabulary and grammar of English is often identifiable.
  2. Grammar
    There are grammatical variations, too.  In the USA the question might be
        Did you just get here?
    but in Britain, that would probably be
        Have you just got here?
    In Southern England, you was is common and in the north, I were is similarly frequently heard.  Both are considered non-standard forms.
    Other grammatical differences are observable so, for example, in some varieties of English, write can be used with a direct object as in:
        I'll write him
    but in others, that is not allowed and
        I'll write to him
    is preferred.
    Both forms will, naturally, be understood by all speakers.
    For more on the grammatical differences between British and American English, see the article (linked below).
  3. Spelling
    The differences between BrE spelling and AmE spelling are mostly traceable to the reforming zeal of the American lexicographer, Webster.  In general, AmE spelling is simpler and more consistent.  That's not the same as saying that it's any more regular, of course.
    Other varieties, such as Canadian English, often use a mixture of BrE spelling and AmE spelling.
  4. Pronunciation
    varies regionally, too, of course.  Everywhere.
    Depending on the precision with which a local accent is defined, it may be confined to a very small area (a single Caribbean island or, in some cases, areas of large cities which have identifiably different accents from their neighbours).  At other times, we may speak of a British accent, an American accent, an Indian accent and so on with no recognition of the very significant differences such descriptions hide.
    If you are interested in the major differences between British and American pronunciation, see the answer linked below.


This refers to the way that language varies by social class, gender, age or ethnicity.  Trudgill, 2003, defines it this way:

A variety or lect which is thought of as being related to its speakers' social background rather than geographical background. A social class dialect is thus a form of sociolect.
(Trudgill, 2003:122)

and he also defines an acrolect as being the highest status variety with basilect the lowest and various mesolects somewhere in between.  The situation is not simple and further complicated by people's ability to code switch, alternating between a high-status variety and a lower-status variety as the situation demands.
Certain settings, for example, church sermons, academic lectures, news broadcasts and so on require, in many cultures, the use of a distinctively different and often higher-status variety of a language than do other settings, such as conversations with family and friends, TV soap operas, personal letters and so on in which the use of slang and colloquialisms is more common and, in fact, often required.

Some sociolects, such as African American Vernacular English can differ very markedly from other standards, for example in omitting copular verbs so:
    He here
serves as:
    He is here
In Britain, too, a traditional stratified society, variations in grammar, lexis and pronunciation are very noticeable in acrolects and basilects.  For example,
    brother may be pronounced not as /ˈbrʌð.ə/ but as /ˈbrʌv.ə/
    hello may be pronounced without the initial /h/
and so on.

This is also not the place to enter the argument about how class is (or even whether it should be) defined.  Suffice it to say that it is unlikely that you will hear the British royal family say
    Gis the salt, mate
or find Austria pronounced as Orstria or
    One wonders where one's drill has got to
uttered on a British building site.
Grammar varies here, too, with a noted preference in some classes, for example, to use we was instead of we were and ain't instead of isn't and so on.
There are variations in the lexicon, too, with words such as brill, diss, righto, toodle pip, spiffing, yep, yeah, aye, nah, nope, nay being used variably by certain age groups, socioeconomic groups and so on.
Pronunciation can vary markedly with social class.  For example, pronouncing the 'r' in father is considered high status in some varieties (such as Southern USA) but low status in others (such as Britain and the American East Coast).
Such considerations go in and out of fashion, of course.


Accents and idiolects

This is the most obvious form of language variation and we are all familiar with the fact that the origins of speakers of our own language are often identifiable from the way they pronounce the language.  Sometimes, people make efforts to reduce the impact of their regional variety in the interests of sounding more educated and at other times, people may deliberately emphasise a regional accent in order to integrate with certain groups.


British and US varieties

Setting out all the differences in varieties of accents (and dialects) which have been identified by generations of scholars is neither possible not useful but the maps of two important inner circle areas look like this:

uk us

And they hide quite significant differences, of course, as the speakers of the varieties will make clear if you ask.  Borders are not shown between the varieties because, of course, they do not really exist.  Each area flows seamlessly into the adjacent regions.

Accent varies by region and by social class as we have seen but it also varies from person to person.  The technical term is that we all have an idiolect and pronounce certain words slightly differently from those around us and that's one of the ways we can know instantly who is telephoning us if it is someone we know well.
An idiolect may also, incidentally, include certain words that we habitually use and certain types of expression which are unique to us or the people we live with.
Everybody, incidentally, has an accent whether it is a standard one or not and everyone also has a dialect.


Style and register

There is separate guide on this site to style and register (linked below).  For our purposes we will distinguish them rather crudely like this:

is to do with level of formality and social appropriateness.  When is it, for example, acceptable to use a strong regional accent, slang or context-specific lexis and when is an attempt to speak more carefully, choose standard lexis and suppress a local accent more acceptable?
is to do with the topic and context of where the language is used.  For example, among lawyers, a certain type of lexis and some grammatical structures will be commonplace when they are communicating in a professional context.  They are unlikely to use the same forms outside that domain, however.
IT-speak is notoriously laden with specialised vocabulary and structures with which those outside the field may have no familiarity at all.
All professions (including ours) have an internal set of lexemes and, in some cases, grammatical structures which are not accessible to outsiders.  Familiarity with a topic-specific argot is one of the ways we establish our professional credentials and may claim to be a member of the in group.

Style and register often work in tandem so even slang expressions among certain groups (medics, lawyers, football players, media workers and so on) may be significantly different from those used in other domains.
The social setting in which the user of a language happens to be will often determine how much subject-specific language, dialect, accent and slang are appropriate.
The ability to switch codes when the need arises is a common one and often an underestimated communicative and social skill.


Summary and some technical terminology

Language variety has been a serious subject of study for may years so it is unsurprising that it has its own set of technical terminology.  It has, in fact, an argot, so to speak, which serves to allow scholars in the area to communicate with greater precision than those who are not serious students of language variety and (as with all such things) it excludes others who are not professionals or serious scholars in the field.
Here's a summary of the main terms you may encounter and a mini-glossary.  The fourth column contains a few more examples.


Here's the glossary:

For our purposes, we define sociolect as the dialect used by members of an identifiable social class, for example, British public-school English.
It is possible to see argots, slang and jargon, standard varieties and registers and styles as sub-categories of this general term but, for clarity's sake, we have separated them here.
This is a term less disparagingly used than jargon to refer to the use of terms specific to a particular group or class, for example, football managers and sports journalists.
This term is often used disparagingly to refer to casual or 'wrong' language use.  Slangs are generally spoken forms characterised by very informal uses and often confined to certain class and regional groups such as, for example, Cockney Rhyming Slang.
For most purposes jargon may defined as the use of particular lexemes confined to certain areas of study, trade or interest.  A defining characteristic is that such terms are obscure to those unversed in the area of concern.  Certain sports have associated jargon and most trades and professions develop jargon terms understood only by those within them such as legal jargon used by professional lawyers.
The online Oxford Dictionary defines the term as something used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations and that definition is adequate for our purposes because a standard form is that which is seen as the baseline from which other varieties differ.  Standard Australian English differs, for example, from Standard British English but also differs from the varieties used by members of certain social and occupation groups within Australia.
This term is defined on this site above as being language use to do with the topic and context of where the language is used.  It is distinguished from style, which refers to levels of formality although certain social settings will also require or allow the use of certain styles.  Examples include, IT-speak, medical English, aviation English, athletics language and hundreds more.
is defined above as concerned with the level of formality which is seen as appropriate to use in certain settings (so is closely connected to but not synonymous with register).
Joos (1961) identified five styles: frozen (notices, quotations etc.), formal (precise technical or other forms such as may be used in a lecture), consultative (such as may be used between doctor and patient), casual (as used between equals in non-professional settings), intimate (as used between family members and close friends).
dialect, ethnolect, geolect and regiolect
A dialect may be either regional (such as Jamaican English, Bavarian German and so on) or it may be a sociolect used by certain classes.  Often, it is defined in both ways as we find in, for example, educated Lowland Scots.  Dialect affects pronunciation, lexis and grammar.
Other terms in the diagram above are synonymous although often preferred by researchers in certain areas.  The term ethnolect is often preferred by those studying ethnic groups, geolect by those concerned with geographical differences and regiolect by those concerned with the study of macro-languages such as Chinese, Malay and Arabic which contain mutually incomprehensible varieties of the same major language.
refer only to differences of pronunciation and may concern regional varieties used by native speakers or the particular characteristics of a second or additional language used by speakers from some language backgrounds.  Thus, we may speak, for example, of someone having a southern United States accent or an identifiable English accent when speaking in German.  Few adult learners of any additional language succeed in avoiding an accent.
An idiolect determines the fact that we can usually identify close acquaintances before they identify themselves simply from their tone of voice, their pronunciation of certain phonemes or their use of particular idiomatic expressions and personal lexis.  It is, in other words, a dialect confined to a single person (although members of the same family may have very similar idiolects).
This is a rare term which describes more or less the same phenomenon as an idiolect but is a variety used within a family or household.  Some, for example, have special words and and phrases unknown to outsiders which describe certain objects, dishes (Aunt Mabel's Potato Fritters) and so on.
Some have personalised words for other objects and many members of the same families are recognisably so because they use a particular form of words and structures.


International varieties of English

The most familiar way to classify the varieties of English around the world was developed by Kachru (1985) and looks like this:

To explain a little:

the inner circle
consists, as the diagram shows, of the traditional bases of English and their speakers provide the standards against which other varieties are judged.  It is from these speech communities, in other words, that the target norms of the teaching of English are derived.
The majority of the populations of inner-circle nations are native speakers of English.
the outer circle
represents areas in which English is widely spoken as a second language alongside indigenous languages and where the standards of production may vary quite considerably from the standards and norms of speakers in the inner circle.  In many of the nations in this circle English is an official language and even where it is not, it is used widely in government, administration and commerce.
There are few native speakers of English in these nations although there many who are functionally bilingual.
the expanding circle
represents areas in which English is not spoken widely and in which there are few native speakers of English.  Use of English is confined to those who have learned it as a foreign language.  Usually, the norms at which the teaching of the language is aimed in these settings are those of inner circle countries (predominately the UK and the USA).

The importance of all this is the concept of norms of the language:

  1. The inner circle countries are norm-setting nations and it is against their standards that measures of correctness are established.
  2. The outer circle countries are norm-developing areas in which local standards are being set and developed often independently of the inner circle countries.
  3. The expanding circle comprises countries which are norm dependent, usually on the standards developed and maintained in inner-circle nations.


English as an International Language

It is a truth not widely enough recognised that most learners of English are not learning the language to speak to you or even to people like you.  Most learners want English as a means of international communication (hereinafter referred to as EIL: English as an International Language).
Increasingly, the use of EIL is most obviously identifiable in websites.
There are around 1.2 billion websites out here.  What percentage are in English?  Click eye open when you have guessed.

Websites in languages other than English are increasing but the figures are still quite startling.  There are, unfortunately, no reliable estimates concerning the first languages of the people who are constructing, developing and maintaining websites which are written wholly or partially in English.  At least some, possibly millions, it seems reasonable to conclude from what follows, are written by people whose first language is not English.
It isn't just out here on the web that English is dominant.  In 1880, 36% of scientific publications were in English.  That had risen to 64% by 1980.  By 2000, among journals recognised by Journal Citation Reports, 96% were in English.  Some researchers are beginning to complain quite loudly that in order to be published in prestigious journals, one must not only write in English, one must accept prevailing Anglo-American theoretical frameworks.
Here are some more assertions from the British Council's website:

The situation regarding language use becomes clearer when we consider the first languages of the users of the internet and then we get this picture:

And that reveals that although over 60% of websites are, like this one, in English, fewer than half that percentage of people count English as their first language so approximately 1.6 billion people are accessing the internet and often contributing to it in English without having English as a first language.  That's a lot of users of EIL.

Apart from internet users, English as an International Language is a routine means of communication for people who do not share the language(s) of those around them or to whom they need to communicate.  Included in that group are:

and many more, of course.

If we accept, following Kachru and others, that English as an International Language is not part of any of the circles set out above (because it is independent of setting), the question which is begged is:

If English is being used as an international language, what kind of English is it and against what yardstick is its use being judged?


English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and Cultural Neutrality

A lingua franca arises when there is a need for people who do not share a common language to communicate with each other and there have been many such languages throughout history.
(We should be slightly careful here to distinguish between a lingua franca and the Lingua Franca which was a pidgin language based on Italian and Provencal but also containing elements of Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan.  It is now extinct but operated for many years as a trading language throughout the Mediterranean area.)
At one time, Greek and Aramaic both functioned as a lingua franca in the Byzantine Empire and, indeed, throughout the Middle East.  Latin was for hundreds of years the lingua franca in Europe and beyond and until the 15th century at least, most works intended for an international audience were written in Latin.  French became (and to some extent remains) the lingua franca of diplomacy and politics and is still in its lingua franca role, along with English and, marginally, German, in much of Africa.  Swahili, Malay and Hindi also function as lingua francas in wide regions of Africa, Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent respectively.
Other languages, notably the many varieties of pidgins and some creoles, developed purely for commercial and trade purposes.  A pidgin (derived initially from Chinese speakers' pronunciation of the English word business) is a reduced and simplified language used only for commercial or other confined purposes.  It may, over time, develop into a full language and then it becomes a creole with a comprehensive grammatical, phonological and lexical system.  Unlike a creole, a pidgin is nobody's first language, always having been learned rather than acquired.  There are over 20 documented pidgins based on English and many others based on, e.g., French, Russian and Spanish.

English developed its status as a lingua franca in colonial times and in the post-colonial era, new nations, faced with a range of competing indigenous languages, frequently opted to continue with English as an official language.  An obvious example of that is the use of English in India, which is home to nearly 450 languages, many of them spoken by multiple millions of people.  Despite efforts to establish Hindi as the national language (a move resented in the mostly non-Hindi-speaking south of the country), parliamentary business is frequently conducted in English and the constitution sets this out clearly.  Writing in The New York Times in 2011, an Indian journalist, Manu Joseph, regretfully concluded that:
    English is the de facto national language of India

The distinction is that English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) differs from English as a Foreign Language (EFL) or English as an International Language in one very important respect: it is not the subject of study, it is a language in use for specific communicative purposes.  This means as Seidlhofer (2011: 7) states that ELF is:

defined functionally by its use in intercultural communication rather than formally by its reference to native-speaker norms

In this respect, ELF differs from other attempts (all unsuccessful) to simplify the grammar and lexicon of English for the purposes of teaching it as a means of international communication.  The best known is Basic English, developed by Ogden in 1930 and designed to be what is termed an auxiliary language which should, it was suggested, be taught to those needing to use English to communicate in an international setting.  For a time, Ogden's ideas were quite influential, not least on science fiction writers such as HG Wells and others who saw basic English as the medium of communication in the future and on George Orwell who may have used it as a model for the concept of Newspeak in his novel 1984.  More or less the only surviving part of Basic English is a variety of word lists from the 850-item basic list up to longer and more sophisticated lists for more advanced learners.
Such attempts at deliberate simplification differ from ELF insofar as the suggestion was that Basic English should be taught whereas ELF is defined by use rather than pedagogical concerns.

Following Seidlhofer's characterisation of ELF, it is often claimed that English as a Lingua Franca is culturally neutral insofar as it is not tied to the cultural norms and context of any political or geographical area and that is arguably true, especially when the language is being used between or among non-native speakers who choose it for its cultural neutrality or who are forced to use it, having no alternative means of communication.

This differs from the kind of English normally taught via course materials constructed in Anglophone countries (usually Britain or the USA).  In those, some effort is frequently made to acquaint learners with certain aspects of the target-language cultures and it is assumed that part of the successful acquisition of the language concerns a close approach to native-speaker production and, to some extent, at least, to learning cultural aspects of the language as it is spoken in native-speaker communities.
ELF, on the other hand requires no such cultural content and will not necessarily hold up native-speaker norms as the targets of production.  For ELF to be successful, it merely needs to serve the quite narrow purposes of its transactional use and to be comprehensibly produced.  In other words, its aims are not formal correctness but functional effectiveness for the purposes at hand.
Hülmbauer et al (2008:88) put it this way:

It is important to stress that ELF, as a use of English, is to be distinguished from the pedagogic subject EFL – English as a Foreign Language. Basically, it can be assumed that the main aim of an ELF speaker is to communicate with other non-native speakers whereas EFL, which is (still) typically learned at school, takes the native speaker as a target and encompasses components of English native-speaker culture.

We could, then, conclude that ELF is culturally neutral but some have objected that this is not, in reality, the case.  They would argue that ELF is actually multi-cultural because wherever it is used its speakers bring with them their own cultural identities and their own cultural baggage.  The structure of ELF in some circumstances may also be substantially affected by the structures of the first languages of its users.
In an article discussing the role of native-speaker norms in China, Wang (2015) concludes:

However, signs are found in the country to welcome an ELF perspective. Therefore, it can be hoped that Chinese speakers will claim their ownership of English in the near future.

which strongly implies that, far from being culturally neutral, at least one variety of ELF will be, or should be, Chinese.

Within multi-national corporations, wherever they are nominally headquartered, it is reasonably common to find a form of English being adopted as the internal language of the entire business.
Writing in The Harvard Business Review, Neeley (2012) cites at least Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Fast Retailing, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, SAP, Technicolor, and Microsoft in Beijing as corporations using only English as their internal language.  To that list we can add Honda and Volkswagen.
Non-commercial, governmental and other international bodies also use English as their working language even when they are not based in or conduct most of their activities in English-speaking cultures.  These include institutions as widely varied as The International Monetary Fund, The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Companies, The Union of South American Nations, The Council of Europe, World Rugby and The World Trade Organisation.
It is a matter of debate whether the culture of a business counts as a cultural input into the language.

It is the case that there are far more users of ELF and EIL than there are first-language users of English and that is a situation that is unlikely to change in the near (or even quite distant) future.


Characteristics of English as a Lingua Franca

We have seen that ELF differs from EIL in a number of important ways, centrally:

If this is the case, we now need to look briefly at the nature of ELF.
Research is still at an early stage but we can already perceive some important characteristics.

Traditionally, learners of English are encouraged to approach a native-speaker pronunciation (usually either AmE or southern BrE).  Efforts are accordingly made to present native-speaker production as the models in classrooms.
ELF needs no such constraint because providing the users of the language understand each other deviations, often considerable ones, from native-speaker production norms do not matter as long as there is some agreement about the phonological core.  Troublesome sounds for many, such as the distinction between /iː/, /ɪ/ and /i/ and phonemes such as /θ/ and /ð/, the incidence of the schwa, the stress-timed nature of the language and distinctions between /t/ and /d/ or other voiced and unvoiced consonants in certain environments matter little, therefore.
Prosodic features, such as the intonation contour across tag questions, for example, can be discarded.
It is often noted by learners of any language that a foreigner speaking the target language is often easier to understand than a native speaker.
English has many troublesome grammar traps for the unwary learner which can be (and are) avoided altogether when ELF is used.
So, for example (drawing on Hülmbauer et al, op cit.):
  • the usually redundant final -s / -es on third-person verb stems need not be used (and often isn't).  For example:
        He like
        It break easy
        She come tomorrow

    are all perfectly comprehensible without the troublesome inflexion.
  • the distinction between simple past and present perfect becomes unimportant.  For example:
        He has just arrived
    can equally well be expressed as
        He just arrived
    with no change in the message which is sent.
  • the aspectual system of English can be simplified very considerably with very little loss of communicative effectiveness.  So, for example:
        She had already met him
    can be expressed as
        She met him before
    (as it might be in many other languages) with the adverbial functioning to signal the aspect.
        I will finish by then
    stands just as well for:
        I will have finished by then
    Other aspects, iterative, progressive and durative, in particular, can be signalled by the insertion of simple adverbials without requiring a change to the grammar so, e.g.:
        He banged on the door many times today
    can represent the meaning encoded in
        He has been banging on the door
  • the complex choices available to signal prospective aspects of verbs can be reduced to the will + base form as
        I will go to London tomorrow
    can serve to express:
        I am going to go to London tomorrow
        I am going to London tomorrow
        I go to London tomorrow

    with little if any loss of precision.
    The future can, in fact, simply be referred to in the present with the addition of a suitable time marker and that applies also to the past.  We may hear, therefore:
        She go tomorrow
        He is arriving yesterday

    and both will be instantly comprehensible.
  • progressive forms can be used for all verbs so no distinction needs to be made between he came and he was coming which absolves users of the need to differentiate between the aspects and also removes the need to learn irregular past tenses (because the -ing form is always regular).
  • distinctions between mass and count nouns can generally be ignored so informations, advices, knowledges and so on are all used to no obviously deleterious communicative effect.  Indeed, some might argue that they introduce useful concepts.
    This also allows for a reduction in the determiner system so, for example, many is allowed to determine both mass and count concepts.
  • the adverb-adjective distinction can be evaded by using the simpler form in all cases so we arrive at:
        He do it careful
        She talk loud

  • adjective inflexions which follow complex rules can be removed by the insertion of the periphrastic form in all cases so we get:
        That is more good
        She is more happy

  • articles can be simplified and often ellipted altogether so, e.g.:
        She is manager
    operates just as effectively as
        She is the manager
  • demonstrative pronouns and determiners can be reduced to the singular this and that so we can say:
        this house
        that houses

    and so on without losing communicative effect.
  • prime verbs (such as do, make, take, have and so on) can be regularised or reduced for simplicity's sake so, e.g.:
        make sport
        make the work
        make discussions

    are encountered in ELF.
  • the complexities of tag questions can be avoided by using a simple isn't it? formulation in all cases as in, e.g.:
        She was at the meeting, isn't it?
  • irregularities in the prepositional system of English can be ironed out so we will get, e.g.:
        We spoke about it
        We argued about it
        We discussed about it
        We considered about it
  • modal auxiliary verbs can be simplified by, e.g., using only should and must to allow two levels of obligation and dispensing with ought to and have to altogether.  Equally, to express degrees of likelihood, only can and, possibly, could are required so may and might are effectively redundant.  Future and past uses can be simplified by just using the same forms in all tenses so:
        I must make it last year
    stands for
        I had to do it last year.
  • marginal and semi-modal auxiliary verbs can be dispensed with altogether because, e.g.:
        I was working here once
    will serve to express:
        I used to work here
        I am eating late
    serves to express
        I tend to eat late
    and in no cases is there a significant signal loss.
Semantically, a great deal of reduction can be achieved by allowing hypernyms such as machine to do service for second-level terms such as engine, motor, device and so on.
By the same token, what is known as a relationship of troponymy in which all the second-level hyponyms are expressive of the manner of doing something can be reduced to the hypernym so, for example, the verb walk or even go will serve to express saunter, stroll, wander, walk, meander, run, gallop and lots more.  If more precision really is required at any time, the resources of the basic adjective set or adverbials can be employed so we get:
    walk relaxed
    walk fast
    go slow

    go around the shops
ELF speakers can dispense with idiom and metaphor almost altogether.  All idiomatic expressions can be substituted with literal expression so there is no longer a need to learn, for example:
    the bottom line
    close a deal
    corner the market

can all be expressed as:
    the end number
    make contract
    have monopoly

Phrasal verbs, which are sometimes seen as a subset of idiomatic language because of the opaqueness of many of them can also be reduced, so, e.g.:
    I looked it up in the dictionary
    How are you getting on?

can be simplified to:
    I looked it in the dictionary
    How are you doing?

This means in fact that some native speakers of English, unused to the constraints of ELF and unpractised in its use, may find themselves at a disadvantage communicatively if they persist in peppering their talk with idiomatic language.
This also means, of course, that native speakers who want to be clearly understood by ELF speakers have themselves to learn to speak ELF.  They are, of course, the only people who have to learn it.

Who needs English as a Lingua Franca?

It is sometimes little appreciated by people whose job is to teach English that the majority of learners do not need to learn the language to a high level of mastery.  They need to learn enough for their purposes.  A knowledge of English is, therefore, an instrument for achieving other aims, not an aim in itself.
Clearly, if a learner has ambitions to teach the language to others or to integrate seamlessly into an Anglophone culture, high levels of proficiency will be required but that describes a tiny minority of learners.  Many millions of learners find that:

  1. a level of mastery at or around the Common European Framework level B1 or B2 is adequate for most day-to-day communication.  Indeed, the Common European Framework describes learners at those levels as independent users and that is, functionally, all most learners want to become.  They do not need to be proficient, just independent.
  2. the affordances offered by a limited, inaccurate but usable knowledge of the language are adequate for their professional purposes.  Their needs for language are satisfied at that level.
  3. the time and effort required to move from an Intermediate to an Advanced level of language use outweighs any benefits that a higher level brings.  Pareto's Law seems to indicate that the last 20% of progress towards full mastery of the language requires 80% of the effort and time.
  4. it is better to have a working knowledge of a range of important foreign languages than a high level of mastery of only one.
  5. any development of language skills can proceed piecemeal once the basics have been acquired and lexical range, in particular, can be increased as and when the need arises for more communicative precision.  Such enhancements do not require laborious formal study.
  6. they have better things to do.

Undoubtedly, there are teachers of English who regret these small facts but that is not really very important.  Once we recognise that the motivation to proceed beyond a working knowledge of the language is simply not there, life becomes rather more settled.


Criticisms of the use of English as a Lingua Franca

There are, of course, some native speakers who will decry such alterations to the basic structures and lexemes of English as a corruption or pidginisation of the language but this doesn't really affect anything because ELF has nothing to do with native speakers and they are not in charge of its development.
As Widdowson (1993: 43) put it

How English develops in the world is no business whatever of native speakers in England, the United States or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant. The very fact that English is an international language means that no nation can have custody over it

It is worth noticing, in passing, that Widdowson is actually writing explicitly about EIL, not ELF and it is reasonable to assume that his comment would be even more applicable to the latter.
Notwithstanding all that, ELF does have some of the characteristics of a pidgin insofar as the grammatical system and the lexicon are much reduced and simplified.  Where it differs is in drawing its grammar and lexicon from only one source: English.

None of this is, incidentally, an argument for teaching ELF directly because, by its nature, ELF is not a subject for study, it is, in its own right, language in use, not language in a classroom.  There are, it seems, no language courses anywhere which aim to teach ELF although it clearly could be taught and learned just as people learn any pidgin language.
One of the reasons for that is that people are unpredictable and so are their needs for language.  For example, speakers of English may at some time be involved in communication in ELF because they need to communicate with other users of the variety and then may find themselves in other settings in which the use of ELF would be unacceptable or, at least, inappropriate (such as conversations with native speakers or more advanced speakers of EFL).
At other times, as we saw above, they may need to access English texts, spoken or written, and that will be made easier with higher levels of sensitivity to idiom and nuance.

There is, naturally, a danger in using ELF in settings in which more native-like modes of expression are valued.  As Swan (2002) has pointed out:

In some social contexts, serious deviance from native-speaker norms can hinder integration and excite prejudice – a person who speaks ‘badly’ may not be taken seriously, or may be considered uneducated or stupid. Students may, therefore, want or need a higher level of grammatical correctness than is required for mere comprehensibility.

He is also not alone in noting that deficiencies in grammatical structure can lead to deficiencies in communicative effectiveness and he concludes (ibid.):

Knowing how to build and use certain structures makes it possible to communicate common types of meaning successfully. Without these structures, it is difficult to make comprehensible sentences.

The criticism of ELF is, of course, that the simplification of structure and lexis may undermine its apparent purpose – simple and effective communication independent of exterior norms of correctness.  Even leaving out components of English grammar such as articles can result in miscommunication so, for example:
    She is the manager
    She is a manager
are distinguishable and encapsulate some potentially vital data which cannot be signalled with:
    She manager.



Think for a moment about what the implications are for English Language Teaching and then click eye open for a short list.

Related guides
Ethnologue site for a site giving you data on a range of other languages
BrE vs. AmE grammar for an article about grammatical differences (new tab)
BrE vs. AmE pronunciation for an article about pronunciation differences (new tab)
style and register for the guide to this area which explains the difference
sociolinguistics this is a guide to the main concerns of studies in the relationships between social factors and language variety
spelling English for the guide to the general area
the roots of English as a language develops, varieties alter with it

British Council, The, https://www.britishcouncil.org [accessed December 2013]
Council of Europe, 2020, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, available online at https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages
Joos, M, 1961, The Five Clocks: a linguistic excursion into the five styles of English usage, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World
Crystal, D, 1998, The Future of Englishes, English Today 58, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 1999), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Joseph, M, 2011, India Faces a Linguistic Truth: English Spoken Here, in The New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/world/asia/17iht-letter17.html [accessed March 2021]
Kachru, B, 1985, Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: English language in the outer circle, in Quirk, R and Widdowson, H, (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Neeley, T, 2012, Global Business Speaks English, Harvard Business Review,
available at: https://hbr.org/2012/05/global-business-speaks-english#:~:text=More%20and%20more%20multinational%20companies,across%20geographically%20diverse%20functions%20and

Ogden, CK, 1930, Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar, London: Paul Treber (Ogden's Basic English Word List is available at http://ogden.basic-english.org/wordalph.html)
Seidlhofer, B, 2011, Understanding English as a Lingua Franca, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Swan M, 2002, Seven bad reasons for teaching grammar - and two good reasons for teaching some, in Methodology in Language Teaching, ed. Richards and Renandya, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.148–152
Trudgill, P, 2003, A Glossary of Sociolinguistics, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Wang, Y, 2015, Native English speakers' authority in English, English Today DOI: 10.1017/S0266078415000516
Widdowson, HG, 1993, Defining Issues in English Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_used_on_the_Internet#Internet_users_by_language) [accessed March 2021]
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_used_on_the_Internet) [accessed March 2021]