English as a Lingua Franca – what’s it all about? (Part 1 of 3: English around the world)

This post is the first in a three-part series based on CPD workshops recently held at SGI in London on the topic of English as a Lingua Franca (“ELF”).

Awareness and research of ELF has been growing steadily over the past 15 years or so, but there still don’t seem to be many people in the English language teaching industry who really appreciate what it’s about, which makes it hard to have an informed opinion on what it might mean for their practice.

The SGI workshops were intended to introduce ELF to teachers and generate some discussion about its implications.

Each post will end with a mini task for you to think about. Be sure to come back for the next post, in which the answers (or more questions) will be revealed!

So, without further ado, here we go with the first instalment.


English around the world (Part 1 of 3)

To understand ELF, first we have to step back for a moment to reflect on how English has evolved into the global language it is today, and consider all the different people around the world who use it in one way or another.

The most famous illustration of English around the world is Kachru’s “three circles”, devised some 30 years ago:

In the inner circle, inhabitants of these countries learn English as their L1, sometimes called their “mother tongue”. These people are often referred to as “native speakers” of English (though that term isn’t uncontroversial… but we won’t go into that here).

In the outer circle, English serves as a second language. Such countries are typically colonies of the former British Empire, and English still exists there today, for example as an official language for administration. It might not be the L1 of the majority of the population, but it has an important presence. In some cases, fully-fledged local varieties have developed, such as Singapore English or Nigerian English.

In the expanding circle, English is used but not as a first or a second or an official language. It is used for some other reason, maybe by people working in tourism or in education, for example. English is a tool for communication when people do not share the same L1, and do not speak each other’s L1.

(It’s worth mentioning at this point that it’s very hard to determine precise numbers of speakers in these categories because, among other reasons, it’s hard to say what counts as ‘speaking’ English! If you want to read more about this, Walker’s book (details below) is a good place to start.)

Things have undoubtedly changed a bit since Kachru created his “circles”, but the most significant development has been that the expanding circle just keeps expanding!

Now let’s look at some ‘speaker populations’.

How many people do you think speak BBC English? What about Indian English? American English?

Here’s a quick test.

Take these groups:
• American English
• British English
• ‘BBC’ English
• Indian English
• Native speakers
• Non-native speakers

And match them to these numbers of speakers:
• 1200 million
• 400 million
• 230 million
• 200 million
• 57 million
• 1 million

Come back for the second blog post in this series to check your answers


Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language (2nd edn.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an International Language: New models, new norms, new goals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Important note: The phenomenon of ELF impacts all areas of language, not just pronunciation. In the recent SGI workshops, we only talked about ELF as related to teaching pronunciation—and so the same is true of these blog posts.

You may also like our other English as a Lingua Franca blogposts…

1. Chia Suan Chong talking about ELF

2. ELF: Should we change our teaching?


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