ELF: why we can’t teach it

Let’s cut to the chase. We can’t teach it, because there is no “it”.

As language learners and teachers are undoubtedly aware, language, its use and its users are complex things. English is no exception. In fact, the term “Englishes” might be more appropriate, but this isn’t the time or place for that discussion.

The point is, even if we agree for the time being to talk about “the English language”, as if it’s one nicely defined, delimited, static, monolithic thing, we should also acknowledge that when we use our (English) linguistic resources for some particular purpose, we’ll use them appropriately for that purpose. We won’t use everything we know for everything we do in English, and we’ll select from our linguistic repertoire according to the needs of the situation, including the needs of our interlocutors, obviously.

Which means we can’t ‘teach ELF’, so to speak, just as we can’t precisely ‘teach EFL/ESL’. In any of these cases, what we’re really doing is teaching learners to use English in a particular way/setting/environment and/or for a particular purpose.

Repeat after me:

English AS a lingua franca!

A hell of a lot of people in the world use English nowadays. It’s unsurprising that they don’t all use it for the same purpose(s), or in the same way.

(So in fact, perhaps a better abbreviation would be “EFLFP” – English for lingua franca purposes?)

But anyway, now we’re getting to the point of the term “ELF”: one of the many ways of using English in the modern world is… AS A LINGUA FRANCA.

I like Seidlhofer’s (2011:7)* view of ELF as:

“any use of English among speakers of different first languages for whom English is the communicative medium of choice, and often the only option.”


And to my mind, therein lies the problem with questions like:

This ELF thing… how can we teach it?

There is no “it”, as such. ELF is not a variety. ELF is not a dialect or an accent. And ELF is not a language. ELF is a kind of use of language. So let’s rephrase the pedagogical question:

How can we teach learners to use English as a lingua franca?

I think this addresses the reality of ELF slightly more appropriately. Personally, I tend to think of ELF as a phenomenon. In this terminology, I’m in good company – Cogo & Dewey (2012:18) phrase it thus:

“English as a lingua franca is a naturally occurring, very widespread, especially contemporary linguistic phenomenon … [which] involves online modification of English language resources to suit the particular communicative needs of interlocutors, resulting in innovative uses of lexicogrammatical, pragmatic and sociocultural forms”

Can you teach a phenomenon? I’d argue, no, not exactly. But can you teach people how to use their linguistic resources in certain ways, in certain circumstances, for certain purposes? Absolutely.

The problem we encounter here is that we don’t yet know exactly what successful ELF interaction looks like. But with ongoing research, the picture is getting clearer.

So let’s refine our question a bit further:

How can we help learners to use and modify their English language resources to suit their particular communicative needs and those of their interlocutors?

To my mind, this is the crux of the ELF argument.**

ELF is a complex, dynamic, emergent phenomenon (perhaps even more so than other uses of English? certainly, we still have a lot to learn about it), a way in which English is used in certain circumstances, and cannot be a (codified) variety.

So in the sense of teaching something fixed, absolute, black-and-white, you can’t teach ELF. But in the sense of teaching flexible, adaptable communication skills and strategies for dynamic, diverse situations, there’s plenty of room for development. We can (and should) teach students how to use their linguistic resources appropriately for the situation at hand.

And that means we can teach learners how to use English as a lingua franca.***

by @AnthonyGaughan for #eltpics



Cogo, A. & M. Dewey (2012). Analysing English as a Lingua Franca: A corpus-based investigation. London: Continuum.

Jenkins, J. (2007). English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seidlhofer, B. (2011). Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

*Incidentally, I strongly recommend reading at least the first chapter of this book if you’re interested in better understanding the phenomenon of ELF.

**And in fact, there is nothing necessarily ELF-specific about this question. We could ask the same question if we were teaching students who need to communicate with English native speakers. BUT – and this is crucial – the demands on the interlocutors, particularly the non-native speakers in this latter context, are not necessarily the same. And that means what (and how) we teach needs careful reconsideration.

***And of course, we can teach them to use English for other purposes, too. Not all learners will need to use English as a lingua franca – but I do believe it’s important that they have a choice. As responsible linguistic educators, we mustn’t just assume that all learners wish to be guided by native-speaker norms. As Jenkins (2007:22) has pointed out: “ELF increases rather than decreases the available choices, while it is the insistence on conformity to NS norms (British and American English as the default models throughout the expanding circle) that restricts them. ELF researchers merely suggest that learners should be put in a position to make an informed choice by means of having their awareness raised of the sociolinguistic, sociopsychological, and sociopolitical issues involved.” (emphasis in original)


About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Great post Laura. That last part about “choice” hit it on the head for me.
    For some reason, I kept reading KLF, rather than ELF. I’m not sure we can teach KLF either : )

  2. Pingback: ELF: why we can't teach it | English as a secon...

  3. Pingback: Adapting and supplementing the coursebook – IATEFL Reflection #1 | ELF Pronunciation

  4. James Humphries

    Never come across the term ELF before. Great post, thanks.

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