English as a Lingua Franca

Shared Information and Perspectives Among Japanese People

Noboru Sakai, Tamagawa University [About | Email]

Volume 19, Issue 1 (Discussion Paper 1 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 7 May 2019.


English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), or the similar concept of English as an intercultural communication tool, has gained increased attention among English education professionals. It has also been found that people are seeking some practical usage of English in this globalised network. This study investigates Japanese people’s impressions of ELF, or what ELF can give in comparison to a traditional school educational system, in order to understand the philosophical ideal driving ELF, people’s needs in English learning and uses beyond testing and educational purposes, and what programs consider ELF will and should offer.

Keywords: English as a Lingua Franca, Japanese, Questionnaire survey


Given the increasing authority of English as a communication medium, more attention is given to English as a tool within multi-cultural global settings where many different first-language speakers have an opportunity to communicate with each other. In Japan, people want to use English for communication in particular business worlds, and English communication professionals have implied that English learners are not satisfied with grammar-based school English study and university entrance examinations—communication is essential to English use. Today, a revolution in English education is expected.

As a notable engagement in English education, Tamagawa University runs an ELF program, and Professor Oda (2015) introduced as its educational policy and characteristics as follows:

English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) program… is designed for those students in Japan who will use English as an International lingua franca and interact with a variety of users. You will not be penalized for not being able to imitate ‘native speakers’ perfectly. Instead, we will constantly reflect [on] what you can do, and gradually improve English as it is used in the real world.

This appears to be a reflection of a paradigm in which English is a speaker’s own means of communication.

At the same time, as opposed to a boom in English study, the term ELF is not well understood by the general population in Japan, and their expectations of English learning and education including ELF are vague. Therefore, this study will investigate people’s actual understanding of ELF and what they will be able to expect from this concept as an innovation in English education in Japan.

Literature Review

In language education, the shift from grammar-translation pedagogy to a more communicative focus has long been discussed and trialed, and English is also part of this phenomenon. In this globalised world, English has gained the status of a common language and how people from different backgrounds and culture use English has been a central topic of discussion.

Many scholars have discussed English not only from the viewpoint of its structure, but also have extended the idea of English as a communication medium or even an identity based on speakers’ variation. These insights are reflected in the terms English as an International Language (EIL), World Englishes, and English as a Lingua Franca (Marlina, 2014).

Driven by this philosophical aspect of English extending beyond its language structure system, actual pedagogies to teach and learn such Englishes have been proposed. Marlina (2014) encapsulates what each scholar proposes as to the characteristics of EIL in relation to knowledge and awareness, attitudes, and skills.

Saracheni (2008) summarises ELF as the following three concepts:

・ELF refers to the function of English as used among non-native speakers as a shared com-mon language; ELF communication does not have to exclude native speakers.

・ELF  refers  to  local  varieties  of  English emerging in Expanding-Circle settings, such as China, Japan, Europe, Latin America, etc.

・ELF  refers  to  a  variety  of  English,  with  its own  phonological  and  lexico-grammatical features,    stemming    out    of    the    types of interactions  involving  primarily  non-native speakers (p. 25).

Here variety is also emphasised and the identity of speakers is respected. Kirkpatrick (2011) discusses ELF in Asian countries, showing the actual existence of variety, such as pronunciations. These are different from ‘standard’ English and people enjoy their own variety. However, intelligibility is a challenge, and communication difficulty resulting from this respect for variation leads to strong opposition to ELF. Should such differences be treated as variety or as incorrectness? With regard to the Japanese people, Matsuura et al (2017) investigated nativized English word use in Japanese. The study shows the difficulty of such nativised words in various type of English speakers; just speaking English as their own language is not sufficient to create effective communication.

How do actual users of English feel about their English use as affected by this global trend in English? Do the professional suggestions of ELF really satisfy the practical needs? In the case of Japan, Japanese people have received a great deal of messages about English study, but knowledge of how general citizens of Japanese feel about ELF, or what expectations they have of it, remains limited.


This study conducted a questionnaire survey in order to find out how the concept of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) has been disseminated among Japanese people, and what impressions or expectations people have for ELF in terms of English use and education. The questionnaire was collected via an internet site (survey monkey). The researchers found the participants through Facebook posts; the responses were obtained when respondents agreed to participate in the survey, and the data was obtained anonymously. 

Since the questionnaire set out to investigate trends in ELF among the Japanese population, the questions were written in Japanese. Translations are as follows:

1. Please tell me your age, gender, and study history in the English language (including the duration you have lived abroad)

2. How about your English proficiency? (including English proficiency test scores)

3. How much are you using English in daily life?

4. Have you heard of the term “English as a Lingua Franca”?

5. English education in Japan is based on English as a foreign language. What kind of impression do you have of this?

6. If English as a Lingua Franca were to be a shared objective in English education and use, what would you expect?

7. Please state your opinion relating to English education or study

As the data analysis for qualitative data from open questions, keywords were found and counted, and quantitative data was interpreted in relation to the key words.

Results and Discussion

Twenty participants answered the questionnaire. Based on Q1, the age of the participants was between 30 and 50; they had already graduated from schools (and since further categorization does not affect the analysis, this study does not show details). There were 8 male participants and 12 female participants in the questionnaire.

In relation to the participants’ proficiency in English, they answered using several different measurements such as the results of English proficiency tests or their final academic degree. To illustrate them in a single measure, this study applies CEFR (Council of Europe, 2018), in which the agencies of other English proficiency tests show their equivalent scores (MEXT, 2018). As to academic degree, this study adopts CEFR which is based on the required score for academic instruction. The result is summarised in Table 1. (As C2 is not defined by most English proficiency tests, this study simply shows C without a specific categorisation between C1 and C2).  

Table 1 Participant's English Proficiency

Table 1. Participants' English Proficiency

Table 2 shows how the participants use English in their life. The purposes of each item are to discover1) do they use English as their main occupation or for supplementary uses in business, and 2) do they frequently use of English because of business or not, and 3) do they actively use English on a daily basis or not?

Table 2. Usage of English in Participants' Life

Table 3 depicts how much each participant knows or does not know about the concept of ELF. Like ‘hate speech’, some technical terms become common vocabulary in dynamic social movements, and English study as a social movement seems to be a factor aiding in distributing this concept. However, most of the participants, particularly minimally proficient users, have never heard of ELF, even though many English schools have introduced the new term as part of their advanced teaching techniques.

Table 3. Participants’ familiarity with the term ELF

Figure 1 shows keywords taken from Q5, which includes 1) the grammar or non-speaking aspect of English, 2) a subject in schools and thereby relating to entrance examination, and 3) English study through Japanese schools has a great limitation in practical uses.

Figure 1. Key words from Q5

Figure 2 illustrates keywords derived from Q6. Since ELF is a concept in which people will communicate with a shared understanding of the variety of English, people’s attention naturally goes to communication. In addition, the fact of being a common language or broken English (which means not grammatically correct but communicable) is an image entailed in ELF.

Figure 2. Key words from Q6

Figure 3 shows the keywords based on Q7. This is a free comment section for English study broadly, but in summary, the comments are categorised into policy- based comment (opinions of the English curriculum in school etc.) and learning (how they study). Some consider their first language of Japanese in relation to the emphasis on English education.

Figure 3. Key words from Q7

Table 4. Relationship between CEFR, ELF familiarity, and Q5 key words.

Table 5. Relationship between CEFR, ELF familiarity, and Q6 key words.

Table 6. Relationship between CEFR, ELF familiarity, and Q7 key words.

Tables 4 to 6 exhibit a relationship between CEFR and keywords from each open question. Firstly, English proficiency and familiarity with ELF are in a positive proportion. This can indicate that the term ELF is still uncommon. In other words, those who pay a lot of attention to English study know the concept of ELF. There are three wide-spread impressions of English language education in Japan: grammar, entrance examinations, and impracticality. The participants in CEFR A1 level show they have an impression of English study as grammar learning and the purpose of their study is to pass entrance examinations. Put simply, they may have an image they learned in their time at school. Conversely, participants who have a higher proficiency argue the uselessness of English education in schools. They may study more advanced skills including extensive communication after leaving school, and would feel dissatisfaction when they face communication barriers even after having studied English for many years. More minor opinions also show a relatively negative outlook on English study in Japan and this is a major reason why current English study and education emphasise communication and practical uses.

For English as a Lingua Franca, or a new system of English education, the participants expect “communication”, particularly those who did not engage in English use. This suggests that people are willing to use English for communication, or that the still current English education system in Japan is not regarded as having a sufficiently communication-based curriculum. At the same time, it is a positive insight that people have an optimistic outlook on English as a useful tool for communication.

ELF also gives an image of English being a common language used in diversified global settings. In addition to just communication as a means of speaking practices, some people have a sense of how they communicate in diversity, which is different from the Japanese basic environment of monolingualism. Therefore, an ELF program would also be expected to cultivate skills in intercultural awareness as an essential schema in real use. One participant, who is an expert, shows opposition to ELF itself. ELF is a controversial idea and such opposition brings to light that ELF needs to be handled effectively, otherwise such educational and practical objectives are easily deadlocked. Therefore, professionals should not regard ELF as a simple cure-all for English education and learning—careful planning and consideration are important.  

The free comment section showed an interesting insight. Firstly, people tend to have expectations of those who teach English. Later, when people have improved their English skills, they will consider how they study to be of central interest. Then the main focus of English study returns to the educational system that they will receive, and afterwards people change their focus of their learning style again. B2 level who are good users of English still pursue how they can improve their skills and this suggests that deeper learning motivates them and that they tend not to stop study at this level but try to become more proficient users. people in C level look like professionals who educate and lead others, and they show high regard for education, not as a learner but as a professional.



This study surveyed how commonly disseminated is the term ELF among Japanese people, and how they have different images of EFL as an English education system currently widely used in Japan and ELF, or English as a common language.

This study interprets a small number of data, and is based on the results of study such as keywords; further grounded theory-based approach or firm psychological analysis such as factor analysis or regression would describe a more detailed and accurate picture of the reality of English learning and uses among Japanese people as well as their expectations of ELF.  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I would like to extend my thanks to Emeritus Professor Nanette Gottlieb, the University of Queensland, for proofreading this work.


Council of Europe. 2018. Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR). Online, available: https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages/ [Accessed November 1, 2018]

Kirkpatrick, A. 2011. English as an Asian Lingua Franca and the multilingual model of ELT. Language Teaching 44(2), 212-224. doi:10.1017/S0261444810000145

Matsuura, H., Rilling, S., Chiba, R., Kim J E-Y & Rini, N. 2017. Intelligibility and comprehensibility in English as a lingua franca: nativized English in Japanese, Asian Englishes, 19(1), 2-21. doi: 10.1080/13488678.2016.1234359

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MEXT (Ministry of Education, culture, Sports, Science and Technology-Japan).  2018. 各資格・検定試験とCEFRとの対照表 [CEFR and English proficiency tests]. (Accessed November 1, 2018) Online, available: http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/houdou/30/03/ __icsFiles/afieldfile/2018/03/26/1402610.pdf [Accessed November 1, 2018]

Saracheni, M. 2008. English as a Lingua Franca: Between form and function. English Today 94(2), 20-26. doi: 10.1017/S0266078408000163

Tamagawa Academy and University. 2018. About a Center for English as a Lingua Franca. Online, available: http://www.tamagawa.ac.jp/celf/about/ [Accessed November 1, 2018]

About the Author

Noboru Sakai is an adjunct lecturer at the Center for English as a Lingua Franca, Tamagawa University, Japan. He holds a PhD (Language studies) from the University of Queensland, an MA (Applied Linguistics) from the University of Queensland, and BS (Information systems) from Soka University, Japan. His research interest is communication in society from a holistic view, including its related multidisciplinary research fields. In particular, he studies computer mediated communication (particularly among young people) based on sociolinguistic perspectives. He also researches in applied linguistics, emphasising computer assisted language learning and Japanese translation.

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