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International Journal of Applied Linguistics w Vol. 19 w No.

2 w 2009

Issues in researching English as a lingua

The Author
Oxford, Ferguson
UK Journal
Publishing ofas
a linguaLinguistics
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

franca: a conceptual enquiry1

Gibson Ferguson University of Sheffield, UK

This paper discusses a number of as yet unresolved conceptual issues in

researching English as a lingua franca (ELF). These include: (i) the status of
ELF as a variety, or set of varieties; (ii) the status of ELF features as errors or
as legitimate variants; (iii) the definition of the expert ELF user; and (iv) the
desirability, and consequences, of any future codification of ELF norms.
Argumentation leads to the conclusions that codification may not ultimately
be as advantageous as sometimes supposed, that work remains to be done in
defining the expert ELF user, that EFL features cannot usefully be regarded as
errors, and that if ELF cannot yet be considered a delimited variety, this may
not be of such import as some believe.
Keywords: English, lingua franca, variation, standard, codification

En este artículo se analizan una serie de cuestiones conceptuales todavía

pendientes en la investigación del inglés como lengua franca (ELF). Estas
abarcan: (i) la situación de ELF como variedad o conjunto de variedades
lingüísticas, (ii) la situación de las características distintivas de ELF entendidas
como errores o como variantes legítimas, (iii) la definición del usuario experto
en ELF, y (iv) la conveniencia, y las consecuencias, de cualquier futura
codificación de las normas del ELF. La exposición de estas cuestiones nos
conduce a varias conclusiones fundamentadas en que la codificación en
última instancia podría no ser tan ventajosa como a veces se presupone, en
que todavía queda trabajo por hacer en cuanto a la definición del usuario
experto en ELF, en que las características del EFL no deben considerarse
errores, y en que si el ELF aún no se considera una variedad delimitada, quizá
su importancia no sea tal.
Palabras clave: Inglés, lengua franca, variación, estándar, codificación


The debate over the model of English most appropriate for teaching in
Kachru’s (1985: 12) Outer Circle countries is a longstanding one whose details
hardly need to be rehearsed here because they are well known from the writings
of the principal protagonists (Halliday, Macintosh, and Strevens 1964; Prator
1968; Quirk 1985; 1988; 1990; Kachru 1985; 1988; 1991; 1992) and because the

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Kachruvian perspective, favouring the recognition of endonormative New

English norms in Outer Circle contexts, appears to be in the ascendant over
the more conservative stance of Quirk’s camp – at least in academic circles.
The terrain most strongly contested is thus no longer the legitimacy of
Outer Circle indigenised varieties but that of English as a lingua franca (ELF),
used predominantly, though not at all exclusively, across Kachru’s Expanding
Circle societies (e.g. Japan, Greece, Germany,). Just as tolerance has been
extended to the new Englishes of the Outer Circle, so, argue Seidlhofer and
Jenkins (2003), should a greater degree of independence be accorded to users
of ELF. Refined in a series of publications over the last ten years (e.g. Jenkins
2000; 2002; 2004; 2006a, b; Seidlhofer 2001; 2002a, b; 2004; 2006),2 their
argument, in essence, is not just for a programme of empirical research but
for a set of new norms, lingua franca (ELF) norms. And the reasons are not
dissimilar to those advanced in support of the new Englishes: English cannot
truly qualify as an international language if native speaker varieties remain
the exclusive source of authoritative norms of usage; many learn English not
to interact with native speakers but with other lingua franca users; the
importance of English in their lives is such that it constitutes an element in
their personal identities; and finally, these bilingual users deserve to be
identified not as deficient users of a British/American standard English but
as competent, authoritative users of their own self-sufficient variety.
However, as Seidlhofer (2001) has pointed out, there is at present no
authoritative description of how English is used as a lingua franca and no
basis therefore for promulgating an alternative teaching model, never mind
an ELF curriculum; it is for this reason, to fill what she calls a ‘conceptual
gap’ that she (2001: 146) has initiated the compilation of the VOICE ELF
corpus (the Vienna–Oxford International Corpus of English). Complementing
previous research by Jenkins (2000) on the phonology of English as an
international language, and work on the pragmatics of ELF use by House
(1999) and others, this is intended to extend knowledge of the lexico-
grammatical aspects of ELF spoken interaction. The immediate research
objective, according to Seidlhofer (2001: 147; 2004: 219), is to identify ‘salient,
common features of ELF use’. The long-term goal, though, is the codification
of an alternative ELF norm, or so it appears.3 As one would expect, however,
given the scale of this research enterprise, there are a number of as yet
unresolved issues that deserve attention and that this paper focuses on.
These include:

(i) The status of ELF as a variety of English, or set of varieties of English.

The question here is the extent to which there is at present a readily
identifiable ELF variety, or varieties; and, if not, whether such varieties
are emergent.
(ii) The extent to which a conventional SLA framework is or is not applicable
to ELF usage. This is of obvious pedagogic, if not communicative,
significance because it is influential in determining whether features of

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ELF usage are to be regarded as errors or as unexceptional, legitimate

instances of variation from standard L1 Englishes.
(iii) The extent to which it is possible to delineate an independent ELF cline
of proficiency without implicit recourse to some native or native-like
benchmark – a move that might undermine the aspiration that ELF
should be independent of, and non-parasitic on, native L1 benchmarks
in both teaching and testing.
(iv) The advisability of codifying, i.e. ‘fixing’ and stabilising, a set of ELF
norms. From an ELF perspective there are, as Seidlhofer (2001: 150) –
echoing Bamgbo3e (1998) – suggests, advantages to codifying a ELF norm.
But there are also, as we shall argue, less widely adumbrated drawbacks.
In short, though endorsed by Ammon (2000; 2006) and others on the
grounds of greater equity, codification may also have undesirable side
effects, especially if implemented prematurely (see Dewey 2007).

Before engaging with these interrelated issues, however, it seems

useful to recall some of the strengths of ELF research as a descriptive and as
an ideological endeavour.

ELF and the ‘politics of recognition’

The spread of English in the 20th century has been linked with the
exacerbation of two main kinds of inequality (Ferguson 2006): (i) socioeconomic
inequality within societies and (ii) inequalities of communication in English
between native speakers and second language users, who incur the
considerable costs of formal study.
The first kind of inequality lies beyond the scope of this paper. The
second, however, is central to ELF research insofar as this seeks to reposition
ELF speakers as competent speakers of their own variety as opposed to
imperfect users of a British/American standard English.4 And an ELF norm,
if implemented, might hasten the de-anglicisation of English, a process
Ammon (2000; 2006) and de Swaan (2001) believe is necessary if ‘non-native’
academics are to communicate on more equal terms with their native
counterparts. It is not difficult, then, to see ELF as fundamentally animated
by a ‘politics of recognition’ (Taylor 1994), a struggle for the recognition of
the autonomous identities of bilingual ELF users.
Thus, on the ideological plane – as an endeavour of appropriation, of
normative liberalisation – ELF has much to commend it.

ELF research as a descriptive enterprise

Over the past decade, descriptive work on English as a lingua franca has
made progress, with perhaps the most significant advances coming in

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phonology, where Jenkins (2000; 2002) has identified a set of phonological

features, a so-called lingua franca core (LFC), that is essential for
international intelligibility but not identical with any one L1 or L2.5 There
may be problematic issues in the specification of the core (see Dauer 2005;
Field 2005 for details), but nonetheless the LFC can be seen as a significant
contribution, not least because it moves innovation in pronunciation teaching
from the realm of the desirable to the feasible.
In lexico-grammar, meanwhile, research based on the VOICE corpus
(Seidlhofer 2004) has called attention to frequently occurring features of ELF
interaction that pose few or no difficulties for communication even while
ungrammatical in L1 standard English (see e.g. Seidlhofer 2004; Seidlhofer,
Breiteneder, and Pitzl 2006; Breiteneder 2005).
Our purpose here, however, is not to review this body of descriptive
research but to make a straightforward point, which is that there can be no
objection to the ELF descriptive enterprise. It is clearly useful to have
empirical descriptions of how English is used in lingua franca
communication, of what causes misunderstanding and what is redundant to
effective communication, since, among other things, this can inform the
reassessment of pedagogic priorities and allow more sensible, realistic
priorities to be set.
More contentious, however, is how this research should be exploited, and
whether the norms of an ELF variety (or varieties) should be codified with
the resulting variety offered as a normative model for teaching. It is these
issues we now consider, turning first to the question of whether there is in
fact a distinctive ELF variety or set of varieties.

The status of ELF as a variety (or varieties) of English

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the aspiration toward eventual codification,

there is some ambivalence among ELF researchers on this very issue.
Seidlhofer (2006: 46), for example, observes:

Whether ELF should be called a variety of English at all is an open

question, and one which cannot be answered as long as we do not have
any good descriptions of it.6 It is well known that divisions between
languages are arbitrary, and therefore those between varieties have to be
as well . . . It does not make much sense, therefore, to talk about a
monolithic variety as such: a variety can be treated as if it were a
monolith, but this is a convenient fiction, for the process of variation itself
never stops.

Kirkpatrick (2007: 156), meanwhile, refers to ASEAN ELF7 but reserves

judgement as to whether this can be considered a systematic and distinct

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it would be impossible to describe ASEAN lingua franca English as a

single systematic system that could be codified and then used as a model
for the ASEAN English language classroom. Rather than being a
systematic code, ASEAN lingua franca English comprises a number
of separate systems

This ambivalence reflects, perhaps, an awareness of the differences between

ELF and the post-colonial new Englishes, which can be summarised as follows.
First, on the sociohistorical plane, ELF is a comparatively recent formation
of globalisation rather than of colonialism/postcolonialism, and whereas
several of the Outer Circle Englishes have progressed to phases 3 (nativisation)
or even 4 (endormative stabilisation) of Schneider’s (2003; 2007) dynamic
model for the evolution of postcolonial Englishes, it is not clear whether the
same cannot be said of the most commonly studied European ELF variety
with its very different, non-colonial origins.
On the sociolinguistic plane, meanwhile, ELF appears, in Europe at least,
to operate over a relatively constrained range of domains8 – primarily, though
not exclusively, professional, academic, business, and inter-governmental –
and thus one might argue that ELF tends to be the domain of the better-
educated, upper strata of European society. In the postcolonial Outer Circle,
on the other hand, English typically has a wide range of intranational
functions, and is widely employed by speakers from various social strata,
one consequence of which has been the differentiation of the local variety
(e.g. Singapore English, Nigerian English) into acrolectal, mesolectal, and
basilectal sub-varieties that command the loyalties of local populations for
whom they function as identity markers. The same cannot be said of
ELF, however, for, as several commentators, including Jenkins (2007), have
noted, ELF does not appear to elicit any strong emotional attachments:
it appears, in Meierkord (2002) and House’s (2006: 90) view, to be more
‘a language for communication’ than one for ‘identification’.
One reason for this is that there does not appear, as yet, to be a stable,
settled community of ELF users to whom such traditional sociolinguistic
concepts as speech or language community can readily be applied. Rather, a
central motif of ELF is heterogeneity: users move in and out of ELF,
constituting themselves as transient ‘communities of communication’ that
continually dissolve and re-form. Thus there is, as yet, no identity-driven
process of ‘nativization’ or ‘endonormative stabilization’ (Schneider 2003:
250) comparable to that found in some Outer Circle local varieties.
Turning to the structural plane, it is not clear either that ELF has, as yet,
the stability, regularity, or systematicity that one finds in Outer Circle
Englishes. Militating against stabilisation is the aforementioned heterogeneity
of ELF interactions (even within Europe); interactions that bring together
speakers of many different L1s, whose version of English is marked by the
substrate influence of their home languages, and speakers of differing levels
of proficiency ranging from expert users to others who are still learning the

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code. The outcome is a high level of variability. Certainly, this is the opinion
of commentators who might otherwise be regarded as favourable to the ELF
project, such as Meierkord (2004: 128–9), who observes that ELF is a
‘syntactically heterogeneous form of English’, and that ‘it may well be that
ELF never achieves a stable or even standardised form’, or House (2006: 88),
who remarks: ‘In ELF there is no consistency of form that goes beyond
participant level.’
Corpus-based research on the lexico-grammar of ELF spoken interaction
has identified a certain number of regularly occurring features, but again it
is unclear whether the evidence base is as yet sufficient to justify assertions
that ELF is a distinctive, linguistically delimited variety.9 Counting against
would be evidence from empirical studies reporting considerable variability
and idiosyncrasy, even in prototypical ELF features such as deletion of 3rd
person singular present tense -s morpheme (3sgØ) or levelling of the L1
standard distinction between countable and uncountable nouns.
Breiteneder (2005), for example, drawing on a small corpus of spoken ELF
interaction, found that 14 different speakers (out of a sample of 21) delete the
communicatively redundant 3rd person singular -s morpheme (3sgØ) in
contexts where British standard English would require it, but, crucially, they
do not do so invariably. Indeed, she finds that in no less than 80% of
instances the -s morpheme is supplied in conformity with L1 standard
English, and that there are also 15 instances, spread over 10 speakers, where
an -s morpheme is inserted superfluously.10 Mollin (2007), meanwhile,
drawing on a corpus of spoken and written ‘Euro-English’, finds only 30
instances (2.5% of the 1,180 instances in the corpus) where a British English
non-count noun (e.g. advice) is used as if countable (e.g. advices), with 8 of
these instances deriving from a single speaker.11
Also of interest in these studies, and indeed in Meierkord (2004), is the
relatively high frequency of occurrences that conform with L1 standard
English usage. For example, only 20.5% of 141 instances of potential 3rd
person present tense -s morpheme use in Breiteneder’s data diverge from L1
standard English, leading her to remark that ‘ELF usage in fact very largely
corresponds to standard English norms’ (Breiteneder 2005: 10). Meierkord
(2004: 118), finally, reports that 88% of turns in her data base of spoken ELF
interaction comply with ‘the grammatical rules of L1 varieties of English’.
What this suggests is that there appears, thus far, to be relatively little
identification with, or attraction toward, any ELF-indigenous set of forms,
and that Schneider’s (2003: 249) phases of ‘nativisation’ or ‘endormative
stabilisation’ have yet to occur. The implication is that it would be premature
at this stage to assert the existence of a systematic ELF variety with a
linguistic identity of its own. Because there is a label ‘ELF’, referring to an
important use of English, we do not necessarily have to suppose there is as
yet a corresponding delimited linguistic variety.
Qualifications are needed here on several fronts, however. To say that
there is at present no readily identifiable, delimited ELF variety, or varieties

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of English, does not preclude the possible emergence of varieties of ELF

in the future. Indeed, it may be that we are already in the initial stages of
new dialect formation, a phase marked, as Trudgill (1986: 98) points out,
by substantial variability before processes of levelling, simplification, and
regularisation have fully played out. All varieties start out from some point
of variation, however small initially.12 And the fact that there seems to be
little identification with, or subjective orientation toward, features
documented as occurring frequently in ELF interaction may be attributed to
the relative novelty of the notion of ELF norms for the majority of L2 users
of English.
Another future possibility is the construction of a European ELF variety
through language planning intervention, perhaps arriving at a point where a
composite ELF variety based on corpus research would serve as a new
standardised norm. There are L1 precedents.13 An example would be Ivar
Aasen’s 19th-century construction of Landsmål, later named Nynorsk – one
of two Norwegian standard languages – out of a composite of several rural
Norwegian dialects.14 There are advantages to such procedures, but (as we
shall see later) intervening to standardise and codify an ELF variety might
also have some potentially undesirable side effects.
Having discussed the status of a putative ELF variety, we move on to the
second of our concerns: whether features reported as common in spoken ELF
should be regarded as errors or, alternatively, as mere deviations from L1
standard English.

Features of ELF usage: errors or variation?

Various objections have rightly been raised against treating innovative

features of postcolonial New Englishes as errors within a conventional SLA
conceptual framework (see Brutt-Griffler 2002; Ferguson 2006; Jenkins
2006a). The relevant points here are: (i) that in Outer Circle contexts it is
highly problematic to assume that the target of second language acquisition
is a standard metropolitan variety, first of all because there is little or no
input available from metropolitan native speakers; second because local
varieties index valued identities; and third because nativised local varieties
are, in any case, moving toward a stage of ‘endonormative stabilisation’
(Schneider 2007), and (ii) that conventional SLA concepts such as error and
fossilization may be appropriate when applied to individuals acquiring a
second language whose speech is punctuated by individual idiosyncrasies,
but are highly problematic applied to features that are widely distributed
and accepted in the local speech community. In this case it is more
convincing to speak not of individual SLA but of what Brutt-Griffler (2002:
135) refers to as ‘macro-acquisition’ – the acquisition by a community of a
new variety that does not antedate but is forged in the very process of
macro-acquisition itself.

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However, as we have seen, the sociolinguistic and sociohistorical

circumstances of the postcolonial new Englishes are rather different from
those of ELF, and it may be the case, therefore, that the arguments deployed
on behalf of the former will not apply to the latter. Indeed, evidence from the
studies cited above (e.g. Breiteneder 2005) that there is considerable intra- as
well inter-speaker variability in ELF leads some commentators (e.g. Mollin
2007: 183) to suggest that what we are dealing with when looking at ELF
usages is a form of learner English.
There are grounds, however, for believing the normative situation to be
more complex than this view allows, and for refraining from classifying as
erroneous all attested ELF deviations from L1 standard English. First, it
cannot be taken for granted that in ELF interactions from which native
speakers are absent, there is, or should be, a speaker orientation to the norms
of British or American standard English (Jenkins 2006b: 139). Second, as
Jenkins (2006a, b) and others have pointed out many times, ELF is a
sociolinguistic domain of use where speakers are beginning to remake English
on their own terms, according to their own needs, audiences, and knowledge
of other languages. It is not obvious, therefore, that a SLA conceptual
framework, primarily psychological in orientation, focusing on the process of
individual acquisition of a language assumed to be a L1 standard language,
is appropriate, or to be preferred to a more socially oriented variationist
Here, rejecting the centrality of the native speaker, two strands of
argument converge, but by rather different routes. The first strand,
principally associated with Cook (1999), argues that bilingual L2 users are
almost invariably different from monolingual native speakers in their
knowledge of the target language. It makes sense, therefore, to treat them as
persons in their own right, as bilingual users, not as aspiring native speakers,
and to adopt a bilingual as opposed to a monolingual norm in English
language teaching. The argument is persuasive up to a point, but there
remain at least two areas of contention, one of which is that this approach –
disappointingly from an ELF perspective – does not propose an alternative
ELF variety, independent of native speaker norms, as a possible or
appropriate target. Rather, it regards native-like monolingual competence as
an unnecessary, ultimately irrelevant goal. The second related issue is that,
having dispensed with native-like competence as a goal and settled on the
successful L2 user as a yardstick, it provides little detail on just what
constitutes such a successful user (a point we shall return to later).
Meanwhile, the second strand of argument, associated principally with
Jenkins (2006b), diagnoses SLA’s difficulties as stemming from a failure to
distinguish between EFL (English as a foreign language) contexts, where
near-native competence in a L1 standard English may be an appropriate goal,
and ELF (English as a lingua franca) contexts, where native speakers are not
the target interlocutors and where consequently their norms are not ‘the
reference point against which correctness is judged’ (Jenkins 2006b: 139).

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Thus, argues Jenkins, the same linguistic feature (e.g. absence of 3rd person
singular present -s) might well be treated as an error in an EFL context but
as a legitimate variant in an ELF context.
There are, however, two difficulties with Jenkins’s (2006b) argument
worth briefly commenting on. The first is that, while Jenkins’s distinction is
cogently argued, it may also, from the perspective of a learner (and possibly
of a teacher also), seem highly idealised, in that the two (EFL and ELF)
may not be perceived as mutually exclusive. Indeed, a learner (perhaps
most learners) may wish – at one and the same time – to learn EFL for
communication with native speakers and ELF for communication with other
bilingual users – in which case the teacher has the complex but not
impossible task of communicating to learners that different norms apply in
different contexts depending on the interlocutor.
The second difficulty – temporary perhaps but potentially graver also –
is that if native speakers and L1 standard English cease to be the reference
point ‘against which correctness is judged’ (and I for one have no objection
to this in principle), there is a pedagogical need for some alternative
reference point. But at present, as we have seen, there is no such empirically
validated yardstick for correctness. True, research (e.g. the VOICE corpus) is
beginning to identify commonly occurring lexico-grammatical features of
ELF that deviate from L1 standard English yet pose no difficulties for
communication. But these findings are preliminary, and new norms have yet
to gain widespread acceptance in what is still a very heterogeneous and
inchoate ELF ‘speech community’. Again, one can assume the existence of
expert ELF speakers, but precise definition of these individuals remains
elusive, as we shall see presently.
The normative situation would thus seem to be ambiguous: on the one
hand, the norms of a native standard English do not seem especially relevant
or applicable, on the other, alternative ELF norms have yet to emerge, never
mind be codified.
Relevant here also is the problematic character of the ideologically
charged notion of linguistic correctness, and, thence, the inadvisability of
rushing to label as erroneous perfectly intelligible ELF spoken forms. The
first point one might make is that linguistic (in)correctness in the case of L1
users, and error in the case of L2 learners, is usually determined by reference
to the standard language. But the standard language, usually a prestige
variety held up for the less educated to emulate, is itself in part an ideological
construction. Indeed, the very notion of correctness, the idea that there is
only one correct form of the spoken language, is one element in what Milroy
and Milroy (1998) and Milroy (2001) refer to as a ‘standard language
A further complication with the standard language as yardstick of
correctness is that it remains unclear just what the standard encompasses.
Most commentators would accept the notion of a written standard, with
standard forms of spelling and written morphosyntax, and would also accept

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that there is no standard pronunciation, only more or less prestigious accents.

But there is far less consensus regarding the existence of a standard spoken
English (see Crowley 2003: 259), from which it follows that, whereas it is
relatively easy to discern what is non-standard in writing, this is a more
fraught process with speech, especially as significant differences have been
reported (see e.g. Carter and McCarthy 1995) between the grammar of speech
and writing. And by contrast with writing, there are, as McCarthy and Carter
(2002: 70) point out, no ‘obvious authorities’ for the grammar of conversation.
The implications stretch beyond native L1 language use to the treatment
of error in L2 language learning, in that, even with a L1 standard English as
target, it becomes more difficult in the case of informal speech to identify
particular features or constructions as unambiguously erroneous. It is not
obvious either why one would wish to embark on such an exercise, for the
question whether a particular features is erroneous only arises in rather
specific situations of language use – for example, in L2 classroom contexts,
in assessments focusing on accuracy, and in writing for formal, public
purposes. In informal speech, on the other hand, and indeed in many other
communicative situations, the issue of error is far less salient: what matters
more is whether what is said is clear and intelligible to the relevant
Cumulatively, these various arguments point to the conclusion that it is
difficult to justify treating attested ELF features (e.g. variable or non-use of
3rd singular person -s, variation in prepositional usage, invariant all-purpose
question tags), as they occur in informal spoken discourse, as errors. More
appropriate would be to regard them as non-standard variants, relative to L1
standard English, that have the potential to stabilise as regular features of a
new variety of spoken English. With writing, on the other hand, the situation
is less clear (research into ELF writing is at a far less advanced stage), and
consequently the teacher might be best advised, for the time being, to caution
against the use of such variants in formal written genres.

Defining the expert ELF user

As we have seen, both ELF researchers and scholars such as Cook (1999)
argue that the successful bilingual L2 user should replace native-like
proficiency in a L1 standard English as the yardstick, or target, of successful
L2 acquisition. Jenkins (2006b: 141) adds that ELF has its own sui generis
proficiency cline, a cline independent of the trajectory followed in EFL

ELF speakers just like EFL speakers (and for that matter, native English)
speakers come in a range of proficiency levels. Some are expert users . . .
Others are still learners, and yet others have ceased learning some way
short of expert (ELF) level.

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However, little detail is provided to delineate this alternative proficiency

cline, to define more precisely the language of the expert ELF user, or,
indeed, to provide a means of distinguishing between ELF acceptable
features and others not so acceptable. Thus, we remain uncertain whether or
not such an intelligible and attested expression as they didn’t interest in my
work is acceptable in ELF terms.
Both Jenkins (2006b) and Cook (1999) prefer to defer consideration of
these matters, arguing that progress along ELF clines is still ‘largely an
empirical matter’ (Jenkins 2006b: 141); and, to be fair, this is probably
the case. Corpus research, combined with appropriate sociolinguistic
investigation and proficiency testing, is likely to produce relevant
information. But, as Jenkins (2006b) herself hints in her use of the word
‘largely’, not all questions are entirely empirical. The definition of the
‘ELF end-point’, for example, cannot be straightforwardly ‘read off’ from
corpus data, as ultimately some evaluative, even ideological, judgement
as to what the ELF community would deem definitive of an expert speaker
is required.
The main problem, however, with waiting for empirical evidence to
establish an ELF proficiency cline is that it becomes well-nigh impossible for
the duration of the wait to construct an ELF test of English, as Jenkins herself
implicitly acknowledges (2006c: 49): ‘it is too early to suggest that the
examination boards should be establishing EIL criteria.’
The technical reason is that test construction requires some clear
definition of the end-point of ELF acquisition and of the proficiency cline up
to that point; the descriptive reason is that we still lack a settled account of
what linguistic features ELF varieties actually encompass.
For the time being, then, the best that can be done in testing terms is to
refrain from penalising those non-standard features that are characteristic of
ELF discourse. Here Jenkins (2006c: 49) and Elder and Davies (2006: 289) find
themselves, perhaps unexpectedly, in accord:

Presumably non-standard and discoursal features characteristic of ELF

would be overlooked if the overall message was clear. (Elder and Davies
2006: 289)
. . . examination boards . . . could at least move to a position where they
refrain from penalizing the use of those NNS variants which are
emerging as potential forms of future EIL varieties. (Jenkins 2006c: 49)

Also relevant in this context, because it may assuage some of Jenkins’s

(2006c) concerns about the conservatism of examination boards, is the point
made by both Taylor (2006: 52) and Elder and Davies (2006: 295) that
accuracy of linguistic form now assumes less importance than it once did,
with criteria such as task fulfilment, effective communication, and
responsiveness to interlocutors coming more to the fore.

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Problems of codification

For some time ELF researchers have looked to an eventual codification of an

ELF variety; some enthusiastically (e.g. Kirkpatrick 2006: 79), others, like
Seidlhofer (2001: 150), more cautiously and circumspectly:

The importance of codification is too obvious to be belaboured . . . one of

the major factors militating against the emergence of endonormative
standards in non-native Englishes precisely the dearth of codification . . .
What I propose, then, is to . . . explore the possibility of a codification of
ELF with a conceivable ultimate objective of making it a feasible,
acceptable and respected alternative to ENL in appropriate contexts of
use. This is, of course, a long term project and a huge and laborious task
– an undertaking which must be carried out with extreme care, and which
should not give rise to exaggerated expectations.

Following Bamgbo3e (1998), they see codification as one means of

conferring legitimacy on ELF variants and of enhancing the feasibility of
teaching an alternative form of English, a variety different from the hitherto
hegemonic L1 standard English.
Ammon (2006: 25) suggests another reason for codifying an international
lingua franca variety with norms ‘close to but systematically different from
native-speaker English’, which would be to redress the unmerited advantage
Anglophone scientists enjoy over their non-Anglophone peers in
international scientific communication. This unfairness stems, Ammon (2000;
2006) believes, from an unnecessary insistence on native-like L1 standard
norms in scientific texts. For Ammon (2006: 25), the proposed new codified
variety would most appropriately be referred to not as ELF but as ‘Globalish’,
the name reflecting a variety no longer under the normative control of native
speakers of English.
The motives for codification are, then, straightforward and impeccable: to
make feasible the teaching of a alternative variety distinct from the L1
standard form of the language, and to afford non-Anglophone scientists the
opportunity to participate in international scientific communication on more
equal terms. There is little doubt, too, that progress in describing ELF will
eventually make codification feasible. But before pressing ahead, researchers
should be aware of the possible drawbacks outlined below.
The first point is that proposals for the codification, in effect the
reification, of an ELF variety contrast uncomfortably with recent interrogations
of traditional conceptions of languages as natural bounded entities, scholars
pointing out that, far from being natural, they are ‘historical constructs’
(Joseph 2006: 145), and that far from being clearly bounded, as Western
language ideologies would have it, they interweave in the habitual speech of
bilinguals (Heller 2007). There are also some (e.g. Makoni and Pennycook
2007; Pennycook 2007; Thorne and Lantolf 2007) who question the utility,

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even the coherence, of the notion of languages as autonomous linguistic

systems, a notion taken for granted in popular discourses and, to an extent,
in formal linguistics. There is a discernible movement, then, toward a more
‘processual’ view of language as situated and contingent performance – as
‘languaging’ – toward a greater emphasis on the communicative activity of
speakers as opposed to an emphasis on the properties of a code autonomous
of and external to those speakers, and toward a view of grammar as
emergent, with only provisionally valid rules, rather than as a fixed, bound,
pre-existing body of rules (see Hopper 1998; Makoni and Pennycook 2007).
A number of significant consequences follow if one adopts this theoretical
perspective. First, ELF could be viewed not as a set of varieties but as a fluid
cluster of communicative practices where speakers draw on a wide, not clearly
bounded range of linguistic features – some standard, some non-standard,
and others not English at all (at least according to the conventional view).
And, of course, if one takes ELF to be a kind of speaker activity from which
distinctive grammatical-lexical regularities may eventually sediment
(Hopper 1998), the previous discussion as to whether ELF constitutes a
variety or not loses much of its import.
Thus, the pursuit of codification might be regarded as lending support to
a particular, questionable view of language and to an ideology of language
that has performed few favours for non-standard users of English, whether
these be native or second language speakers. From this perspective, to codify
ELF might be to remove its fluidity, its openness as communicative practice.
However, even if one does not wish to commit to the theoretical outlook
espoused by Makoni and Pennycook (2007) and others, there are other
reasons to be cautious of codification, three of which come immediately to
mind. The first is that ELF is still very much an emergent, rather fluid
phenomenon in which a whole range of speakers of different backgrounds
and levels of proficiency participate; in such circumstances, premature
codification may, as Dewey (2007: 348, echoing Joseph 2006) suggests,
short-circuit processes of stabilisation and sedimentation, putting in place an
artificial construct that does not engage the loyalty of users.
A second risk is one pointed out by Elder and Davies (2006: 296), a risk
that attends most efforts at codification and standardisation; namely, that in
codifying an ELF variety one may be constructing an alternative set of norms
that has the same potential to exclude, even demoralise, non-standard ELF
users in ways not dissimilar to how L1 standard English has at times
functioned to exclude and marginalise.
This leads us to the third point: that establishing a codified standard form
for ELF will not in itself win widespread acceptance. All that codification
accomplishes is that it stabilises and documents a particular set of linguistic
norms, and while this may be necessary, it is not sufficient to gain widespread
acceptance. History is replete with standardisations, and constructions (e.g.
Ogden’s ‘Basic English’), which have withered away because they have not
won the loyalty of those whom the standard is supposed to serve. To endure,

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a newly codified, standardised variety needs the support of political

authority or that of the relevant speech community; but attitudinal data
supplied by Timmis (2002), Jenkins (2007), and others suggests that in the
case of ELF this remains uncertain.
Finally, standard language ideology is powerful and intra-language
hierarchies widespread, and it may turn out to be the case that, far from
conferring legitimacy, codification of an ELF variety may encourage
unfavourable comparisons between ELF and L1 standard English, and cause
some, misleadingly, to speak of ELF as a ‘reduced variety’.
However, these remarks should not be taken to imply that codification of
ELF is unfeasible or necessarily undesirable. Indeed, if ELF is to be taught in
schools, some degree of codification will eventually be necessary. What we
are arguing, rather, is that codification should be regarded circumspectly
with due attention, given to its potential drawbacks.


This paper has reviewed a number of conceptual issues in ELF research: the
status of ELF as a variety or set of varieties, the treatment of ELF features as
errors or legitimate variants, the definition of the ELF expert speaker, and
finally the question of codification. Clearly, these are interrelated: a good
description, for example, is a fundamental requisite for codification, and this,
in turn, is necessary for consistent teaching and assessment. The fact the
issues are discussed in sequential order should be regarded as an
expositional device, and an indication that they are distinguishable, rather
than as an assertion of their independence.
Turning now to the first issue discussed, we concluded that ELF has not
yet developed into a variety of comparable status to Outer Circle nativised
varieties. On the question of error or variation, we argued that there was no
compelling reason to regard recurrent, documented features of ELF, as they
occur in spoken interaction, to be anything other than communicatively
effective variants. Writing may be a different matter, however – in pedagogy
at least. This is because the standard is most clearly realised in the grammar
of the written language, and because there already exists a widely used
de facto World Standard Print English (WSPE), a form admitting only minor
regional variants. Even here, however, divergent ELF features could be
conceptualised not as errors but as non-standard variants, with the
pedagogic goal not one of error eradication but of repertoire expansion
We then turned to an issue recognised to be problematic for ELF testing
and teaching (see Jenkins 2006b: 175) – the continuing absence of any clear
definition of the expert ELF speaker, one that does not covertly invoke a L1
standard or native-like proficiency criterion; and the absence of a clearly
delineated proficiency cline along which ELF users move as they progress
from lower to higher levels of ELF proficiency. Further empirical research is

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likely to cast light on these matters, but until it does, ELF teaching and testing
will be hampered.
Finally, we considered the possible codification of ELF norms, arguing
that, while codification may seem to hold out the promise of legitimation, it
also has a number of drawbacks, not least of which is the possibility of the
newly codified variety becoming a new mechanism of exclusion. It is not
obvious, then, that the most effective form of resistance to standard language
ideology lies in the construction of an alternative standard.
It appears, then, that there is considerable work to be done before ELF can
be taught in its own right – and not necessarily work originating with ELF
researchers alone. Descriptive ELF research cannot be expected to provide
answers to all the outstanding questions. In the meantime, it is important to
acknowledge the contribution ELF research continues to make to our
knowledge of variation within English, to our understanding of intelligibility
in communication, and to our understanding of how linguistic norms
operate. It has also helped to bring English language teaching closer to the
‘real world’ (Gupta 2006: 96) by breaking down monolithic, outdated
conceptions of what is correct, by forcing acknowledgement that lingua
franca users form an important, distinctive constituency of learners, and by
suggesting alternative pedagogic goals.
It is unclear at present, however, whether ELF will make a lasting mark
on how English is taught internationally. The greatest obstacle probably is
attitudes, and in particular the historically ingrained assumption that native-
like proficiency and conformity to L1 standard norms is the most secure
benchmark of achievement in second language learning.


1. I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and
suggestions on this paper.
2. There are, however, differences in the emphasis of Jenkins and Seidlhofer’s ELF-
related work: Jenkins focusing more on phonology and pedagogy; Seidlhofer
more on theoretical and descriptive issues, and lexico-grammar.
3. The reason for inserting the phrase ‘or so it appears’ is that Seidlhofer (2006) and
Jenkins (2007) have frequently claimed that ELF is misunderstood. Whether this
is the result of misreadings, lacunae in their exposition, or, possibly, shifts in their
conceptualizations of ELF and in the aims of ELF research remains unclear.
4. There are various reasons why native speaker L1 varieties of English should,
indeed, cease to be the ultimate source of authoritative norms; but it strikes me
that the argument from demography (the sheer number of lingua franca users) is
not as compelling as it is sometimes presented as being. What matters, surely, is
the frequency and the range of functions for which ELF users employ English,
rather than a head count of all those individuals who claim to use English to
whatever degree for lingua franca purposes. Here, I would argue, adopting a
somewhat different emphasis to Jenkins (2007: 8), that ELF researchers would

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profit from initiating a macro-sociolinguistic survey into who uses English as a

lingua franca in Europe, to whom, how regularly, and for what purposes.
5. Features of the LFC are detailed in numerous publications (e.g. Jenkins 2000;
2003), so will not be rehearsed here.
6. In fact, as an anonymous reviewer points out – correctly, I think – the recognition
of a cluster of speech forms as a distinct variety is rarely, if ever, based only on
description. Description is necessary but not sufficient, because acceptance as a
variety is also conditioned by sociopolitical and attitudinal factors.
7. The acronym ‘ASEAN’ stands for Association of South-East Asian Nations.
8. The wording ‘appears to operate’ is important in this context, for, as Jenkins
(2007: 10) points out, there is a dearth of empirical evidence regarding just how
widely English is used as a lingua franca, by whom, and for what purposes.
Mounting such a survey would be a priority for ELF research.
9. In saying this, I do not wish to imply that it is either necessary or necessarily
desirable to demonstrate that ELF is a delimited, distinctive variety, though some
advocates of ELF as well as opponents do seem to believe this is necessary to
legitimate ELF as a valid form of communicative practice.
10. The same is true of many non-standard L1 varieties of English, e.g. They knows
where she is.
11. It is worth pointing out here that Mollin’s (2007) and Breiteneder’s (2005) data
sources and stances toward ELF are very different.
12. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for drawing attention to this fact.
13. These are not, of course, entirely equivalent or comparable to standardising and
codifying a second or formally learnt language variety.
14. Deumert and Vandenbussche (2003: 4) note that many standard languages are
composite varieties based on ‘polycentric selection’ from several dialects.
15. The belief that there is one correct form for the spoken language is what leads a
not inconsiderable number of native speakers to stigmatise their own speech as
‘incorrect’ or ‘ungrammatical’.


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e-mail: [Received March 2, 2009]

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