What “lingua franca” means Essay


Today we are living in a “Global Village”. As the Internet explosively grows, even more people are becoming aware of this “Global Village” on a personal level. People correspond with others from around the globe on a regular basis, products are bought and sold with increasing ease from all over the word and “real time” coverage of major news events is taken for granted. English plays a central role in this “globalization” and it has become the de facto language of choice for communication between the various nations of the Earth. So many people speak English. However, many of these people do not speak English as their first language. In fact, they often use English as a lingua franca in order to communicate with other people who also speak English as a foreign language.

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1.      What “lingua franca” means

A lingua franca is any language widely used beyond the population of its native speakers. The de facto status of lingua franca is usually “awarded” by the masses to the language of the most influential nation(s) of the time. Any given language normally becomes a lingua franca primarily by being used for international commerce, but can be accepted in other cultural exchanges, especially diplomacy. Occasionally the term “lingua franca” is applied to a fully established formal language. Thus formerly it was, for example, said that French was the lingua franca of diplomacy.

The term “lingua franca” originated as modern Latin for “Frankish/French language,” after French became the predominant language in diplomacy and commerce among the European nations, and as those countries expanded their influence world-wide, into the mid-20th century. Later, the term “lingua franca” has become so commonplace that it now continues to be applied to any “universal” language. English is currently one of the most widely spoken and written language worldwide and it is the most widely used lingua franca.

2.      English language

English is basically a Germanic language with a lot of Latin words in it. That means that the grammar and many of the most frequent words are Germanic, and the most formal or technical vocabulary is Latin. This linguistic mixture is a result of number of historical events.

English is now the official or dominant language in over 60 countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, many Commonwealth nations including Australia, Canada, Malta, New Zealand and other former British colonies. It is also a dominant or official language in many countries formerly under British rule.

English is currently one of the most widely spoken and written language worldwide, with some 380 million native speakers. Only Chinese, Hindi and possibly Spanish have more native speakers. Approximately two billion people on the world can speak some English.

The modern trend to use English is certainly influenced by the residual consequences of the British Empire, but has accelerated in the age of electronic media through massive Anglophonic cultural exports from the United States (movies and music), and perhaps as well due to the Internet’s origins in the United States and the resulting and continuing prevalence of English, particularly American English used there. English is also regarded by some as the global lingua franca owing to the economic hegemony of the developed Western nations in world financial and business institutions. The de facto status of English as the lingua franca in these countries has carried over globally as a result.

Landmark recognition of the dominance of English came in 1995 when, on the accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden, English joined French and German as the working languages of the European Union. Many Europeans outside of the EU have also adopted English as their current lingua franca. For example, in Switzerland, which has four different official languages, English serves as a lingua franca with the relatively high foreign-born population.

3.      English as a lingua franca

In September 1977 the NASA spacecraft Voyager One blasted off on its historic unmanned mission to Jupiter. On board, the scientists had installed a recorded greeting form the people of the planet Earth. Preceding brief messages in 55 other languages for any inhabitants of outer space were replaced by the gold-plastic disc playing a longish statement from the secretary-general of the United Nations (Kurt Waldheim), speaking on behalf of 147 member states – in English.

Twenty-eight years ago, Nasa`s choice of language was controversial, today, however it looks more than slightly prophetic. At the down of a new millennium, if ever a language had a right to represent the planet to distant galaxies, it is the one that more and more commentators refer to as “global English”.

English, in short, is Europe’s language. The implications for business are enormous. It is no longer just top executives who need to speak English. Everyone in the hierarchy of each company is feeling the pressure to learn a common tongue as companies globalize and democratize. These days in formerly national companies such as Renault and BMW, managers, engineers, even leading blue-collar workers are constantly calling and e-mailing colleagues and customers in Europe, the United States or Japan. The language is usually English.

A generation ago, it was not like that. Most European companies did the bulk of their business at home. They maintained only a small group of English-speaking “international experts” to deal with issues out of the borders. Nowadays, in Europe there are hundreds of multinational corporations spreading across borders in mergers and acquisitions. Suppliers follow them into a foreign market. In most of these companies, managers who do not know English are confined to limited domestic operations.

4.      English as a lingua franca for Europe

English as a lingua franca for Europe, also known by the abbreviation ELFE, is a concept promoted by some linguistics experts, which aims to standardize the use of the English language in the European Union. English, in some form or another, is already widely used and understood by people in European Union countries, despite it only being spoken natively by a small percentage of those people. However, regional differences in English, as well as peculiarities in spelling, vocabulary and grammar shared with few other European languages, have made learning it more difficult for many Europeans.

ELFE does not only aim at making English easier to learn, ELFE indicates the development of high level languages for a global society. English is developing into a more international language, for example by emphasizing those elements of English which it shares with other European languages. ELFE integrates much international expert terminology and uses mostly phrases that are self-explaining. It avoids English expressions that frequently create misunderstanding in communication between people from different parts of Europe. ELFE does not necessarily indicate standardization of English, it also could describe a style that is more suitable for use of English as a European lingua franca.

4.1.     The motivation for ELFE

The 25 member states of the European Union use a wide variety of languages. There are currently 20 official EU languages. Although the EU attempts to respect all of them by providing translation services, this generally consumes large amounts of time and money. For that reason the benefits of a lingua franca, a common language that can be used by everyone to communicate with everyone else, are obvious.

Despite controversy, English has already assumed the position of a European lingua franca to some extent. According to a Eurobarometer survey in 2001, 47% of EU citizens spoke English well enough to hold a casual conversation, a higher proportion than any other language in Europe. Though, that this survey did not include the nations of the ten Eastern and Southern European countries that joined the union in 2004. English is also the most commonly taught second language to children in Europe.

There are, however, problems with the idea of Europe simply adopting an already existing form of English, such as British English or American English, for use as its lingua franca.

4.2.     Current problems with English

4.2.1.   Cultural difficulties

English as an international lingua franca should be as culturally neutral as possible. For hat reason, one of the goals of ELFE would be to remove phrases with inappropriate or culture-specific associations (for example, sport terminology). Proponents of ELFE argue that this is necessary for a lingua franca, because otherwise Europeans who adopt the English language as a means of everyday communication would also be forced to adopt the customs, traditions, and modes of thought specific to the major English-speaking countries, many of which are embodied in the language.

4.2.2.   Pronunciation difficulties

The sounds indicated by the letters th, voiced interdental fricative and voiceless interdental fricative, are not found in other European languages with the exception of Spanish, Greek and Icelandic. The French replace it with the sounds “s” and “z”, Scandinavians and Italians replace it with the sounds “t’” (or “f”) and “d’. ELFE would choose one of these sounds and standardize it.

In most of the other Germanic languages, like German and Dutch, consonants at the ends of words are never voiced, and so native speakers of those languages tend not to voice consonants at the ends of words in English, hence mug and muck, and bat and bad are pronounced alike to them. There is also confusion because they pronounce the present tense of build the same way as the past tense, built. This confusion also extends to their writing.

Phonetists note that besides the difference in vowel quality, there is also a difference in length between the vowel sounds in the words bit and beat. Speakers of languages that do not have vowel pairs with this distinction, such as Italian and Spanish, often have difficulty with this distinction. The most obvious difficulty is the large number of vowel sounds in the English language, each one of which has to be learned by listening and training tongue placement.

4.2.3.   Intonation difficulties

English is a language with stressed syllables, like other languages of Europe, both unmarked in writing and capable of changing the meaning of words and even sentences. However the manner of marking different types of information structure (relating to topic, comment, focus and presupposition) and when this is done differ between different languages. Although words without the usual stress can be understood by native speakers, changes in meaning of sentences spoken by them (“I thought she was supposed to wash the pan” vs. “I thought she was supposed to wash the pan” vs. “I thought she was supposed to wash the pan” vs. “I thought she was supposed to wash the pan.) are often entirely missed.

4.2.4.   Punctuation differences

The British use their punctuation rather similarly to the French, but not entirely. Although people can learn another language fluently, they often slip back to the punctuation of their native one. German for instance has very distinctive rules for the placement of commas, which English lacks. Several forms of quotation marks and number formats may be seen in non-native English texts.

4.2.5.   Vocabulary difficulties

Non-English speakers sometimes take English words and modify them for concepts that they think are appropriate, but which will not be understood by native speakers. There are also many “false friends” in English, such as the French and German words actuel (aktuell) and eventuel (eventuell), which in English do not mean actual and eventual but rather current and possible.

It is expected that a standardized ELFE would declare many of these neologisms normative, forcing native speakers to use them when communicating with other Europeans.

4.2.6.   Spelling difficulties

English is known to have one of the most difficult spelling systems among European languages, and mistakes among its native speakers are quite common. There is a reasonably high proportion of dyslexic people who speak English as a native language compared to those who speak languages with a more regular orthography (writing system). Conversion of written text  into spoken words is equally difficult and challenging.

5.      English as a lingua franca and European cultural identities

Might not the use of English also change other European languages to the point of gradually destroying their identities? Is English maybe already “colonizing” structural and discourse conventions in other European languages? Not at all. Research made by the German Research Foundation has shown that German, Spanish and French texts resulting from multilingual text production are not influenced by the English language on these levels. And another research project investigating the nature of interactions in English between speakers of different European languages has revealed differences in culture-conditioned ways of interacting, which, however, do not lead to misunderstanding.

English as a lingua franca is nothing more than a useful tool. It is a “language for communication”, a medium that is given substance with the different national, regional, local and individual cultural identities its speakers bring to it. English itself does not carry such identities, it is not a “language for identification”.

Because of the variety of functional uses of global English, English has also a great potential for promoting international understanding. Its different speakers must always work out a common behavioral and intercultural basis.

Paradox as this may seem, the very spread of English can motivate speakers of other languages to insist on their own local language for identification, for binding them emotionally to their own cultural and historical tradition. There is no need to set up some fight between local languages and English. There is a place for both, because they fulfill different functions. To deny this is to uphold outdated concepts of monolingual societies and individuals.

Most European speakers, for instance, keep their national language and regional varieties for identification while simultaneously benefiting from using English to establish “imagined communities” in science, economics, etc. for pockets of expertise. And a recent survey of attitudes to English revealed unanimous support for using English as a lingua franca in Europe. No one thought English destroyed their mother tongue’s identity, no one felt that communicating in English led to inequality between speakers of English and speakers of different languages.


English is firmly establish everywhere as the international language of business, finance, and technology. Indeed, English is becoming the binding agent of a European continent moving towards political and economic unification. However, using English as a lingua franca in Europe does not inhibit linguistic diversity, and it unites more than it divides, simply because it may be “owned” by all Europeans – not as a cultural symbol, but as a mean of enabling understanding.


Indicator presenting the percentage of all pupils in upper secondary education, who are learning English as a foreign language. It covers general education in countries where English is described as a foreign language in the curriculum.




Czech Republic





















United Kingdom