words in dictionary

English is the global lingua franca – the language of international business, diplomacy, and education. But why? Is English still a colonial language?

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  • Lingua franca (n) – a language used for communication between groups of people who speak different languages.
    • The international business community sees English as a lingua franca.
  • Colonial (adj) – relating to a colony or colonialism.
    • Various parts of Africa have suffered under colonial rule.
  • To impose (v) – to force someone to accept something, especially a belief or way of living.
    • He wants the government to impose strict controls on dog ownership.
  • Dominance (n) – the quality of being more important, strong, or successful than anything else of the same type.
    • The dominance of the car makes cycling and walking increasingly difficult.
  • Legacy (n) – something that is a part of your history or that remains from an earlier time.
    • The Greeks have a rich legacy of literature.
  • To marginalize (v) – to treat someone or something as if they are not important.
    • Now that English has taken over as the main language, the country’s native language has been marginalized.
  • Imbalance (n) – a situation in which two things that should be equal or that are normally equal are not
    • There are major economic imbalances between the two countries.
  • To homogenise (v) – to change something so that all its parts or features become the same or very similar.
    • TV has homogenized the culture and language of large parts of the planet.

English as a Colonial Language

67 countries have English as their official language (as well as 27 other territories), many more use English as a lingua franca or business language, and overall there are around 1.5 billion people around the world who speak English as a first or second language. How did English become such a global language?

Colonialism. The spread of English throughout the world can be traced back to the colonial era, which began in the 16th century with the arrival of European powers in the Americas. As the Europeans established colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, they brought with them their languages, including English.

In many cases, English was imposed on the colonized populations as the language of administration, education, and commerce. In other cases, English was adopted by the colonized people as a way to gain access to the opportunities and resources that came with colonialism.

English has been used as a tool of power and domination in many parts of the world throughout history, particularly during the colonial era. The spread of English was directly linked to colonialism, as European powers used it as a means of establishing control.


One way in which English was used as a tool of power was through its adoption as the language of government, schools, and business. By imposing English, colonial powers were able to assert their dominance and maintain control over local resources, economies, and institutions.

English was also used as a means of suppressing local cultures and languages. People were forced to abandon their own languages and adopt English in order to gain access to education, employment, and other opportunities. This led to a loss of cultural identity and a weakening of local cultures, as the use of English became more widespread.

The legacy of English as a colonial language can still be seen in many parts of the world today. In some countries, English is still the language of administration, education, and commerce, and it is often seen as a symbol of power and prestige. In other countries, English is seen as a language of oppression, and there are ongoing efforts to reclaim and revive indigenous languages that were suppressed during the colonial era.

The imposition of English has often led to a shift away from the use of indigenous languages, as proficiency in English became necessary for education and employments. As a result, many indigenous languages have become endangered or extinct.

Moreover, the use of English as a colonial language has helped maintain power structures that favour English-speaking countries and individuals. English has become the language of international diplomacy, business, and academia, giving speakers of English a significant advantage in these fields. This has allowed English-speaking countries and individuals to maintain economic and cultural dominance over non-English-speaking countries and individuals.

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English as a Lingua Franca

A lingua franca is a language that is used as a means of communication between people who do not share a common native language. It is often used in international settings, such as in business, diplomacy, and academia. Originally “lingua franca” referred to a Mediterranean language that was used as a common language for trade in the region during the Middle Ages.

While English is often associated with being a colonial language, it has also become a prominent lingua franca in many parts of the world. In this context, it is used as a tool for communication rather than as a means of power and domination. The use of English as a lingua franca has been driven by globalization and the increasing interconnectedness of the world.

Unlike a colonial language, which is imposed on a colonized population, a lingua franca is used voluntarily by individuals who see it as a practical means of communication. While English was historically imposed on many colonized populations, its use as a lingua franca is often the result of a choice made by individuals who wish to communicate with others who do not share their native language.

English has become a global lingua franca due to its widespread use in various fields such as business, education, science, technology, and entertainment. One of the key factors contributing to the use of English as a global lingua franca is its historical legacy as a colonial language. During the colonial era, English was imposed on many parts of the world, and its use was seen as a sign of power and prestige.

The widespread use of English in media and popular culture has also contributed to its status. English-language media, such as movies, music, and television shows, are widely consumed around the world, leading to the exposure of large populations to the language.

Many scientific publications and conferences are conducted in English, and English is often the language of instruction in universities around the world. As a result, proficiency in English has become a requirement for many academic and professional fields.

The use of English as a lingua franca comes with both advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it allows for effective communication between individuals who do not share a common native language, which can be crucial in our modern lives. It can help to break down linguistic barriers and promote understanding between different cultures.

However, the use of English can also have negative implications, particularly in terms of power and cultural identity. English is often associated with Western cultural and political dominance, which can create feelings of inferiority and loss of cultural identity. The dominance of English can create a language hierarchy, where individuals who are not proficient in English are marginalized and excluded from certain opportunities.

Native speakers of English often have an advantage in international settings, as they are more likely to be fluent in the language and therefore more comfortable in communication. This can lead to a disadvantage for non-native speakers, who may struggle to express themselves effectively or be misunderstood due to differences in pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary.

Alternatives to English as a Lingua Franca?

Are there alternatives to using English as a lingua franca? Yes! Alternative models for global communication have been proposed as a way to promote linguistic and cultural diversity. Two of these models are Esperanto and World Englishes.

Esperanto is a constructed language that was created in the late 19th century with the aim of providing a neutral and easy-to-learn language for international communication. It is designed to be a second language for everyone, and as such, it does not have any cultural or political associations. The language has a regular grammar and a limited vocabulary, which makes it easier to learn than many natural languages. While Esperanto has not gained widespread adoption, it has a dedicated community of speakers and is used in a variety of international settings, such as conferences and online forums.

World Englishes, on the other hand, is a term that refers to the different varieties of English that are spoken around the world. These varieties of English have developed in different cultural and linguistic contexts and reflect the diverse identities and experiences of their speakers. World Englishes challenges the idea that there is a single “correct” form of English, and instead recognizes the diversity of English language use and its cultural and social dimensions. Advocates of World Englishes argue that it can be a more inclusive and democratic approach to global communication, as it recognizes and values the contributions of non-native English speakers.

While both Esperanto and World Englishes offer alternatives to the dominance of English as a lingua franca, they face their own set of challenges. Esperanto has not gained widespread adoption, and it is unclear if it will ever achieve its goal of being a universal language. World Englishes, on the other hand, has been criticized for promoting linguistic fragmentation and for not addressing the power imbalances that exist in global communication.

Implications for English Learners

For English learners, navigating the complexities of using English as a global lingua franca can be challenging. On one hand, learning English can provide access to educational and career opportunities, and facilitate communication with people from different parts of the world. On the other hand, using English as a lingua franca can also mean conforming to the norms and expectations of English-speaking cultures, and potentially eroding one’s own cultural identity and language.

One way for you to navigate this complexity is to recognize and value your own cultural and linguistic identity, and to actively seek out opportunities to use your native language and engage with your own cultural community.

Another approach is to develop intercultural skills, mainly the ability to communicate effectively with people from different cultures, and to recognize and respect cultural differences. This can include developing knowledge about different cultural norms and communication styles and being able to adapt one’s own communication style to different cultural contexts.

English learners can also explore and appreciate the diversity of English language use, and develop an awareness of the different varieties of English that exist around the world. This can involve learning about different accents, dialects, and language use, and recognizing that there is no one “correct” way to use English.

Finally, it is important for English learners to be critical consumers of English language media and communication, and to recognize the power imbalances that exist in global communication. This can involve questioning dominant cultural and linguistic norms, and actively seeking out alternative perspectives and voices.

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Final Thought

Today I’ve tried to discuss English’s history as a colonial language, how it became the global lingua franca, and whether this poses any issues. While learning English can be a great experience, I think it is important that everyone retains and maintains their own native language and customs!

What do you think? Should we have a different global lingua franca?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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