Languages and cultures through English as a lingua franca

Will Baker

The link between languages and cultures has long been of interest to researchers.  Do languages reflect, or even contain, the cultures and thoughts of nations and peoples?  Can there be such a thing as a culturally neutral language?  In its most extreme formulation it has been suggested that the language we speak both constructs and contains our world view.  However, such strong correlations between a language, a culture and a nation are challenged in our increasingly globalised world where languages are no longer restricted by national boundaries, if they ever were, and many different languages can be found in use within nations.

This is particularly the case for the English language which has become a global lingua franca on a scale never seen before.  It is currently estimated that lingua franca users of English outnumber native speakers of the language by at least 4 to 1.  How then are we to understand the link between the English language and the cultures of its users?

My research has focused on investigating how users of English as a lingua franca (ELF) both represent and construct cultures in intercultural communication.  In such multifarious communicative settings it would clearly be naïve to expect English to necessarily be linked to the cultures of the traditional Anglophone countries.  Instead what we observe is English used to express and create dynamic and constantly changing cultural references and practices.  Thus we see a French L1 (first language) speaker using English to discuss the Japanese originated practice of ‘cos plays’ (costume plays) in a café in Bangkok.   We find a Thai L1 speaker and an Australian English L1 speaker consciously negotiating who should take responsibility for closing a conversation based on gender and generational norms from both cultures, but not deferring to either.

Such a complex and diverse view of the relationship between language and culture has important implications for English language teaching (ELT). Firstly, it suggests that successful users of English need to be equipped to negotiate such cultural diversity.  Secondly, the content of ELT materials needs to reflect this diversity of cultures.  I have recently completed a project with the British Council and a partner university in Thailand looking at how these research insights can be translated into teaching materials and activities.  This project represents an early contribution to what is becoming an increasingly important change in ELT, recognising English as global language with a global range of cultural references.

Will Baker

British Council project: