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Review of  English as an Academic Lingua Franca

Reviewer: Josep Soler-Carbonell
Book Title: English as an Academic Lingua Franca
Book Author: Beyza Björkman
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.3240

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This monograph examines the role of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in an academic context in Sweden. More specifically, it provides a thorough analysis of the linguistic form and communicative effectiveness of English in an engineering course at an international university. The corpus of data that gives shape to this study comes from a variety of methodological sources: participatory observation and recordings of lectures delivered in ELF, as well as observations of students’ group discussions of classroom assignments. A survey was also delivered to a sample of students in order to find out about their language attitudes towards ELF.

The book is inscribed in the growing research area of ELF (Seidlhofer 2011) as, “the widest use of English in the world today” (p. 1). It contains six chapters and four detailed appendices that clarify and strengthen the methodological procedure followed to conduct the study. Chapter 1 provides the introduction to the monograph. In it, the author discusses issues such as the relevance of the English language in today’s world, touching briefly upon the historical developments that have brought it to its current centrality, specifically in the fields of science and technology. The chapter also summarizes some of the most relevant scholarly debates on the role of English as a global language, with particular emphasis on the internationalization of higher education. It focuses on these debates in the context of continental Europe and Sweden, more specifically. The author concludes the chapter by arguing in favor of ELF and for the need to provide detailed analyses of it that can legitimate a form of English as spoken by non-natives from a variety of first language (L1) backgrounds. Such an effort, according to Björkman, will help strengthen the view that English used in international settings does not have to be linked necessarily to Englishization or Americanization (p. 28), thus explicitly detaching globalization from the view of English as a result of (neo)imperialistic trends.

Chapter 2, “Previous research on ELF”, provides the reader with a detailed summary of what has been said and written thus far in the area of ELF. The content of the chapter is structured into two main parts: work without normative elements (pragmatics) and work including normative elements (form). It then advocates in favor of merging the two areas, or exploring how form and function interact, which is a union that other authors have also recently argued for (e.g. Cogo and Dewey 2011). The chapter concludes by briefly mentioning other ELF studies that have placed identity and attitudinal issues at the center of their analysis (e.g. Jenkins 2007).

Chapter 3, “Exploring an academic ELF setting in Sweden: the site”, presents a description of the investigated setting, the specific objectives that the author wanted to attain with her study and the methodology she implemented to obtain the data needed for that. The monograph investigates “the morphosyntax of spoken English as the academic language in Sweden and the pragmatic strategies speakers use” (p. 60). The study follows a deductive approach, setting out to explore some initial hypotheses, and validating or refuting them. More specifically, the author seeks to describe the commonalities and the differences of non-standard usage of English in her data as compared to those features already described elsewhere in the literature. The chapter then describes the procedures the author followed in collecting and analyzing her data, which include a variety of tools and techniques: participatory observation and recordings of lectures and of classroom group-discussion sessions, and a survey investigating attitudes toward non-standard usage of English.

Chapter 4, “Operating in a Swedish ELF site”, is the central chapter of the monograph, offering an extensive overview of the main results obtained by the author. These are presented in a well-organized fashion, concentrating on the two main dimensions explored: (1) Form and (2) Communicativeness. The author provides a fine-grained analysis of the naturally occurring data she has gathered in the frame of the observed academic settings. In the “form” dimension, she explores the commonalities of usage she has found in her data, i.e., the features of ELF usage as already described elsewhere in the literature regarding this dimension. Following this, she contrasts non-standard and standard forms also present in her data. Regarding the dimension of “communicativeness”, the author explores the issue of overt disturbance, i.e., what elements are likely to produce communication difficulties. In that sense, she concentrates on interrogative sentences, and her intonation analyses show that non-standard questions are the only features that cause overt disturbance. This, she argues, indicates that “questions per se are important real-time signals that show comprehension or disturbance” (p. 119). The chapter also contains the results of the survey that was delivered to a sample of the students to find out about their perceived communicativeness and attitudes towards ELF.

Chapter 5, “Theoretical and practical implications”, includes a discussion of the main findings reported in the previous chapter. It starts with a general discussion, contrasting the results found in the analyzed ELF setting with literature on other related areas such as World Englishes, Creoles, and Learner Language. The author finds a certain degree of overlap between these areas and her study, and claims that this is “due to the demands of functional communication” (p. 150). Moreover, this degree of overlap is important in strengthening the claim that ELF is not formally sui generis (as it has sometimes been argued by some authors), as the features found in ELF are also present in other forms of English. On the communicative dimension, Björkman stresses the finding that questions are an important aspect of communication in ELF, and that speakers do rely on more than one cue to make sense of them (i.e. not just the syntactic structure, but also intonation). Regarding the perceived communicativeness and attitudes towards ELF, the survey enabled the author to map which non-standard features had the highest incomprehensibility, on the one hand, and which ones produced more irritation, on the other. Moreover, the survey also helped to reveal some key attitudes towards ELF. Noticeably, some respondents reported negative appraisals of non-standard forms if they were produced by their teachers or lecturers.

As per the theoretical implications of this study, the author discusses three main strands: (1) the status of ELF, (2) norms and standards for speech, and (3) good English. In this section of Chapter 5, Björkman tackles several of the most-debated questions regarding ELF: Are speakers of ELF eternal language learners, as opposed to native speakers?; Is ELF usage learner language?; Is ELF a sui generis form?; What are the standards for speech?. Finally, a much more general (but equally important) question briefly discussed here is: What is good English?. Concerning this last question, the author argues that “the notion of good English in ELF settings appears most strongly associated with effectiveness, not with correctness or adherence to native speaker norms” (p. 178).

Regarding the practical implications, in light of the results from this study, the author offers several suggestions that would be of significant help to those needing to operate in an ELF setting, whether they be students, lecturers, or other university staff. These suggestions revolve around one core idea: raising awareness of ELF, particularly among those who need to engage with it more actively. Specifically, the author addresses pragmatic strategies to help teachers produce more effective lectures, and issues for the language classroom, such as the design and development of pedagogical materials.

Finally, Chapter 6, “Looking ahead”, concludes the monograph. In it, the author first provides a summary of the study and what has been presented thus far. She underlines what, according to her, has been the most important contribution of the study: to help define the effective speaker and the notion of communicativeness, with a particular emphasis in academic settings. Björkman indeed succeeds in stressing the point that it is pragmatic ability, not necessarily high (grammatical) proficiency, that makes a speaker effective. She then discusses some implications of her study in relation to the notion of the native speaker, arguing that in present times, being a native speaker of a language does not necessarily yield having a position of advantage vis à vis non-native speakers. In fact, according to her, it may be a detrimental feature, and even more so if speakers’ degree of intercultural awareness and awareness of ELF settings is rather low. Finally, she concludes with further remarks in relation to the internationalization of higher education and language policy making. In line with ELF academic work, Björkman argues that ELF does not necessarily entail a threat to local languages and an obstacle to multilingualism. In this sense, ELF is used in a complementary fashion next to other linguistic resources, and therefore, it may actually enhance plurilingualism. In this last section, the author discusses several points from policy documents that are problematic, according to her. The book is concluded with some final, optimistic remarks related to ELF and its future scholarly developments.


Considering its quality, the reviewed monograph constitutes an excellent piece of work. It is very well organized, neatly presented, clearly written and is smoothly developed from beginning to end. It is methodologically impeccable and also constitutes a valuable addition to ELF scientific work. In this sense, the book succeeds in attaining its main objectives. One of its foremost strengths is the combination of methods that the author has used, both to gather her data and to analyze it, which are clear indicators of the hard work she invested.

In terms of content, I agree with the idea that, whether we like it or not, English as a global language will maintain its centrality (a hyper-central position, in terms of De Swaan 2001) in the foreseeable future. Indeed, it is non-native English that is most likely to be found in today’s world. For this reason, it makes a lot of sense to conduct detailed analyses of English in contexts such as ELF. Moreover, I strongly sympathize with the notion that these analyses are the necessary first step in raising awareness of such forms of the language, and ultimately, legitimizing its use and its users.

However, seen from a more anthropological linguistic perspective, I think it is necessary to combine such a linguistically focused analysis with a more ethnographically informed approach (Rampton 2006). The fact that the author collected her data by means of ethnographic tools (i.e. long hours of participatory observation and recordings of those observed sessions) would have allowed for that. Moreover, the language-ethnographic perspective also requires giving more centrality to the question of diversity. In this sense, given that ELF research strives to take into account the different (linguistic) backgrounds with which speakers come to an interaction, it seems arguable that a more prominent place be given to this fact. Indeed, we are informed about the different languages and ethnic backgrounds of the speakers in the investigated setting in Table 3.1 (p. 68), however, there is hardly any more reference to that kind of diversity throughout the book. In my opinion, this is a key issue, especially when trying to de-naturalize and de-essentialize the English language and, in particular, the notion of the native speaker. I think ELF is very well situated to make important contributions in this area, particularly in relation to current debates in the field of language and super-diversity (Blommaert and Rampton 2011). Scholars in both fields (i.e. ELF, on the one hand, and language and super-diversity, on the other) may disagree with me if I suggest that, in fact, I see both lines of work as complementary and possibly feeding each other in a symbiotic manner. Nevertheless, I do believe that if we are to provide potent holistic analyses of our studied realities, this is the route to explore in order to capture the complex interaction between language, communication, and society (Bastardas-Boada 2013).

Another issue that seems underexplored relates to language attitudes and ideologies of the speakers in the analyzed setting. It seems natural that this is the case, as they occupy a secondary position in the author’s objectives, but I would like to stress their importance and link it to one of the findings reported in the monograph: the fact that “some of the respondents perceived the non-standard forms as produced by the lecturers only and expressed irritation although the survey was not about teachers’ production” (p. 158). This result resonates with other recent studies conducted in a comparatively similar context (Jensen et al. 2013) and may lead to important consequences for lecturers, in particular, as well as for the general linguistic and institutional environment. Jensen et al. (2013) find a strong correlation between lecturers’ English skills and their general lecturing ability, as reported by business students in teacher rating forms in Denmark. Although ELF research shows that the notion of linguistic correctness is of less importance in ELF settings, stereotypes and prejudices still seem to play an important role, and the potential for downgrading lecturers’ general teaching skills is of key relevance. This is also why research on ELF is of paramount significance in demonstrating that communicative effectiveness, and not (grammatical) correctness, is what needs to be emphasized. Yet again, the crucial importance of language attitudes and ideologies and their potential effects in people’s lives comes to the forefront of this discussion.

Another noteworthy topic revolves around the argument that ELF actually fosters plurilingualism, rather than being an obstacle to it. On the contrary, I believe it is receptive multilingualism (Rehbein, ten Thije and Verschik 2012) that favors a plurilingual context more decidedly. ELF may not be a threat to multilingualism (House 2003) and may well be used as a complementary resource by speakers of different linguistic backgrounds to aid their communication (Seidlhofer 2011), but when ELF is present in an interaction, other languages are not. Sure enough, speakers in ELF contexts use other linguistic resources for meaningful purposes (Söderlundh 2012). Nevertheless, it is precisely this playful use of other languages that makes ELF lead to multilingualism. Possibly, receptive multilingualism presents a higher degree of complexity and more difficulties for (effective) communication. However, a couple of fundamental questions need to be asked here: What is effective communication?; What makes a speaker an effective communicator? The answers probably have to do with more than just conveying one’s thoughts and ideas effectively. Björkman provides answers to these questions for the setting she has investigated, but other contexts might require different pragmatic and communicative strategies from the participants.

Finally, I am inclined to believe that historical and socioeconomic issues are of relevance when producing analyses of English as used internationally. In their recent essay, Block, Gray and Holborow (2012) clearly identify the links between neoliberalism and applied linguistics. Additionally, Robert Phillipson (2009) has been a leading scholar in debates around English as all but a politically and economically neutral language. However, I would stress that I do believe that English as a global language (i.e. ELF) is here to stay and that we should equip ourselves with as much knowledge of it as possible. In my opinion, these two views (i.e. ELF studies and historically and economically situated analyses of English) are not necessarily antagonistic, but rather complementary.

To conclude, all the points that I have raised for discussion in this latter section constitute more general reflections for further thought rather than shortcomings of the book under review. It is indeed a complex endeavor for a single researcher to encompass all these different lines of investigation in a monograph. I believe it is the task of interdisciplinary teams to work at further levels and to produce multilayered studies, which are indeed challenging in and of themselves. The reviewed monograph constitutes a relevant contribution to ELF studies and is more than likely to become a key reference in future developments of the field. Instructors of graduate courses in sociolinguistics, English linguistics and/or English for Academic Purposes will surely find it interesting to incorporate the book in their reading lists and bibliography references.


Bastardas-Boada, Albert. 2013. General linguistics and communication sciences: Sociocomplexity as an integrative perspective. In Àngels Massip-Bonet and Albert Bastardas-Boada (eds), Complexity perspectives on language, communication and society, 151-173. Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer.

Block, David, John Gray & Marnie Holborow. 2012. Neoliberalism and applied linguistics. London and New York: Routledge.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton. 2011. Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13(2). 1-21.

Cogo, Alessia & Martin Dewey. 2011. Analysing English as a Lingua Franca: A corpus-driven investigation. London: Continuum.

De Swaan, Abraam. 2001. Words of the world. Cambridge: Polity Press.

House, Julianne. 2003. English as a lingua franca: A threat to multilingualism? Journal of Sociolinguistics 7(4). 556-578.

Jenkins, Jennifer. 2007. English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jensen, Christian, Louise Denver, Inger M. Mees and Charlotte Werther. 2013. Students’ attitudes to lecturers’ English in English-medium higher education in Denmark. Nordic Journal of English Studies 13(1). 87-112.

Phillipson, Robert. 2009. Linguistic Imperialism Continued. London: Routledge.

Rampton, Ben. 2006. Language in late modernity: Interaction in an urban school. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rehbein, Jochen, Jan ten Thije & Anna Verschik. 2012. Lingua Receptiva (LaRa) – Remarks on the quintessence of receptive multilingualism. International Journal of Bilingualism 16(3). 248-264.

Seidlhofer, Barbara. 2011. Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Söderlundh, Hedda. 2012. Global policies and local norms. Sociolinguistic awareness and language choice at an international university. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 216. 87-109.
Josep Soler-Carbonell obtained his Ph.D. in Linguistics and Communication at the University of Barcelona (2010) with a contrastive analysis of the sociolinguistic situation in Estonia and Catalonia from the point of view of speakers’ language ideologies. His main research interests gravitate around the broad areas of sociolinguistics and language anthropology, language ideologies, language and identity, language and media, and intercultural communication. He now works as an Associate Professor at the Institute of Communication, Tallinn University and as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Tartu. In his current project, he investigates the role of English as a global language in the internationalization of Estonian higher education from both macro and micro perspectives.