How should English be taught in the future?

Have you ever wondered whether you will really be able to communicate fluently in English after school? Do you think your English teacher is doing a good job? Have you been abroad and were you able to communicate well in English? Do you sometimes have the feeling that English lessons should be different in order to prepare you better for the “real” world and “real” communication? Do you think that in your future job, you will have to use English? And do you think that you will mostly speak to native speakers or do you believe that your working environment will be multicultural?


 © Featured image “Talking in Languages 2.0” by Markus Koljonen is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

In this blog post, we are going to introduce you to the topic of foreign language teaching and learning from a linguistics perspective. We will equip you with some basic knowledge about the topic and in the end argue why we think that English lessons in school should actually change. So if you are interested in this, read on and enjoy!

First of all: Who actually speaks English in Germany today?

As you probably already realized, English plays a big role in your everyday life today. Since 2005, English is already being taught in German primary schools1, so probably you, too, started to learn it at the age of 6 or 8. Furthermore, English is increasingly used as a lingua franca worldwide, i.e. for communication between speakers of different mother tongues.

So maybe you already have the feeling that it is important for you to learn English and further languages. One option that you might think about is going abroad. Or maybe you have already been abroad? If you do or have already done this, you are not alone: Every year, roughly 20,000 German teenagers decide to spend some time abroad in a foreign country, most of them in the United States of America, mainly because it is an English-speaking country and they want to become native-like speakers2.

Only 3.1 percent of 20- to 29-year-old Germans do not speak English, whereas it is 56.9 percent of Germans that are more than 70 years of age3. You might note that while you and everyone your age speaks English fairly well, your grandparents or older people that you encounter on the streets might have more trouble with that.

What is more, online tools and apps such as Leo, Duolingo and Babbel increasingly play a role in language learning. Babbel recently counted more than one million paying customers. One reason for this is that today many students feel the need to improve their English, as it is a highly valuable skill on the job market4. Maybe you already tried some of these applications yourself? In case you have never tried them, we provided some links to free trial sessions at the bottom of this post.

Furthermore, bilingual classes are taught more often today in Germany than ten years ago. They are taught most often in the German school form Gymnasium. However, politicians think about introducing the teaching of bilingual classes even in primary school because research revealed that pupils in primary schools improve their English especially fast and later have a higher overall language competency than pupils that started learning English at a later age5. What do you think about this? Have you had bilingual classes? Would you like to have them included in the normal curriculum?


Age Factor in Foreign Language Learning: What is the ‘Critical Period’?                   

The critical period hypothesis (CPH) claims that first language acquisition must occur in an ideal time window which ends at about the age of puberty. While first language acquisition typically occurs in infancy and early childhood and the first language is, thus, acquired easily, in the sense of subconsciously and automatically, second and foreign language learning at an older age becomes more difficult and less automatic. If a child has not acquired language during the critical period, it will probably never fully acquire or learn it after that.6

Famous cases of failed language acquisition after the critical period: Kaspar Hauser, Victor of Aveyron


So, start learning foreign languages as soon as possible –
it will be a lot easier than doing so while sitting in your rocking chair with grey hair!

A recent study revealed that the English competency of students has improved all over Germany in recent years. Reasons for that could be the new focus in school lessons on communicative skills, the younger age for starting with English as a foreign language (see #Infobox1), bilingual classes (e.g. classes such as Biology and History taught in English leading to a bilingual Abitur/IB) and the anglicization of everyday life (TV series, books, computer games). All of this contributes to the development that English is more and more becoming a second (see #Infobox2: outer circle of English) as opposed to a foreign language (see #Infobox2: expanding circle of English)7.


The Kachruvian Circles of English

File:Kachru's three circles of English.jpgPD-icon.svg
Adapted from Kachru’s Concentric Circles of the English Language89

The Indian linguist Kachru has developed a model of World Englishes represented in three circles.

The inner circle refers to countries in which English is acquired as a first language (L1) (e.g. the USA, UK and Canada). The outer circle represents countries in which English plays an important role and is usually learned as a second language (L2) due to historical reasons like colonization (e.g. India). The expanding circle represents countries in which English is learned as a foreign language (e.g. Germany).

A further reason could also be the higher English competency of teachers. According to a ranking of the language learning organization EF, Germans rank 11 out of 70 countries in English competency (taking the whole population into account)10.

Distinctions and Concepts in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching

In foreign language teaching and learning as a research area of Applied Linguistics, different learning methods and approaches can be distinguished. Classic “face-to-face education” like in kindergartens, schools and language schools (Goethe-Institut, Berlitz, Carl Duisberg,…), digital/online learning via tools like the apps mentioned above or CDs, and learning via the immersion into another culture (being abroad for studies, an au pair job or a gap year). The latter one is what linguists call “acquisition” rather than “learning”.


What is the Difference between Language Learning and Language Acquisition?

Language Learning refers to learning a language via teaching of some sort, whereas language acquisition refers to acquiring language without explicit teaching, for example in a native speaker environment. The most common form of language acquisition is first language acquisition that happens to all mentally healthy children with their mother tongue at a very young age.11

Furthermore, one can distinguish teaching of English of a Second Language (ESL) vs. English as a Foreign Language (EFL) vs. English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)/English as an International Language (EIL). According to linguist Seidlhofer, “ELF is part of the more general phenomenon of ‘English as an international language’ (EIL) or ‘World Englishes’”.12 EIL thus means the use of English within or across all of the Kachruvian circles of English. ELF in contrast is preferably used to denote communication between people with different mother tongues.


What is special about English as a Lingua Franca?

A basic definition of lingua franca that can be adopted here is that lingua franca is a language shared by language users in contexts where it is the only language shared by everyone. Most often, in those contexts the lingua franca is the mother tongue of none of the interacting language users.

When English is used/taught as a lingua franca, it has certain unique features. For example, there is not so much weight placed on adopting a perfect ‘standard English accent’. What is more, this form of English does not adopt the norms of just one standard variety. Rather, the focus of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is one of meaning negotiation, and teaching ELF therefore aims at enabling the learners to ‘get their message across’ and understand what other people are saying. The function is more important than the form here, the message more important than the medium.

“English as a lingua franca, is so widespread that its non-native users far outnumber the native users.”13

With English being the biggest lingua franca nowadays14, teaching of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is becoming increasingly more important and the first and foremost form of teaching.

Out of all the people in the world who speak English today, few are native speakers. Furthermore, a huge part of interaction taking place in English does happen between people from various cultures and it might be that none of them actually is a native speaker. Therefore, it is important to teach people that are experiencing intercultural encounters how to speak English in a way that is easily understandable for everyone participating in these interactions.

Teaching English as an International Language places emphasis on intelligibility, interaction strategies, textual competence, cultural content, teacher reflexivity and local culture15. So, in ELF teaching not only language competency, but very importantly also intercultural awareness and knowledge about other cultures are put into focus.

Why should rather the use of English as a Lingua Franca be taught in German classrooms nowadays?

A study by Urszula Clark shows “that people are increasingly and deliberately using English in a way that identifies them with a particular place”.16 While in today’s English classroom, the main emphasis in teaching is put on British English and American English, other varieties, such as Australian English and Canadian English, are also being looked at. This does not only include differences in grammar and pronunciation but also cultural knowledge.

However, there is a debate about whether the main focus should be put on teaching ELF/EIL, a non-native variety of English:


“It is quite apparent that most people do not learn English to speak to native speakers.”17

When speaking in English – do you talk to native speakers of English? Or are the people you talk to ELF users as well? Advocates of teaching ELF emphasize the positive side of a common international language of communication. While the differences in British English and American English (e.g. litre vs. liter, colour vs. color, catalogue vs. catalog) already provide obstacles in learning either of the varieties, teaching of English as a Lingua Franca would avoid such problems – there simply would not be a ‘right or wrong’. Different approaches to ELF in form of simplified English have already been made: Basic English, EasyEnglish and Easy Global English serve as examples. They usually consist of a reduced vocabulary focused on a rapid acquisition as well as “grammar rules and (…) pronunciation rules reduced to a minimum”18.

Moreover, teaching ELF could help to raise intercultural awareness and knowledge. According to linguist Rattanaphuma, the focus of English as a Lingua Franca lies on mutual intelligibility, because it is most important in (international) communication.19 Very few of us learn English only in order to read Shakespeare’s sonnets. The main goal is the ability to communicate with people who do not have the same mother tongue. Rattanaphuma also says that one crucial characteristic of ELF is much repetition in what speakers say, and another the avoidance of local colloquial language and special idioms. Through meaning negotiation the participants create a shared understanding.

Furthermore, most foreign language teachers are not native speakers themselves, yet students are able to learn English successfully. One good example is: You! Most of you probably never have had a native speaker as an English teacher in school. As the linguist Seidlhofer also argues, there are a lot of “fine nuances of native speaker language use that are communicatively redundant or even counter-productive in lingua franca settings, and which may anyway not be teachable in advance, but only learnable by subsequent experience of the language”. 20 In other words, you only learn to speak like a native speaker if you go abroad for a longer period of time.


“English is being shaped at least as much by its nonnative speakers as by its native speakers.”21

However, opponents see a difficulty in the aspects outlined above. While teaching ELF in form of Basic English, other standard varieties of English, such as British English, might be lost completely. This raises the question whether native speakers of a variety of ‘standard English’ will still exist after some generations – or will only the Lingua Franca, English, exist? Will it contribute to the disappearance of (minority) languages22? Think about non-English languages as well, for example Denglish: Some people say there are already too many English words in the German language. This process would also have a great impact on the world’s cultures since, according to Trudgill, “losing a language equals losing identity (…) [as] language is much more than just a tool for communication”23. Linguist Albl-Mikasa is also worried about this aspect as she fears that the beauty of language and “a wide range of appropriate means of expression”24 will be lost – sooner or later.

Opponents also argue that teaching English as ELF will deteriorate the competency and proficiency that speakers of a standard variety of English have. This would ruin the lingua franca in the long run, because as for example Rattanaphuma argues, some model standard in school teaching is needed (so the focus on one variety) for orientation, so that the language stays recognizable and in order to preserve the unique features of the varieties.

So, how should English be taught nowadays? Will ELF dominate English classrooms?


© Featured image “Native Tongue” by Chris Brown is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

We have looked at different aspects of language acquisition, learning and teaching as well as the different varieties the English language has to offer – including the recent debate about teaching ELF instead of one standard variety of English.

As you might have already guessed, there is no simple answer to the question of how exactly English should be taught in the English classroom. One try to answer the question could be the following:

Whether you want to learn English as a Lingua Franca or one variety of English such as British or American English depends on the purpose you have in mind:

If your aim is to live in one particular culture (e.g. in Great Britain), you should rather learn British English.
If you want to work with people from one particular culture (e.g. your company has a partner company in the United States), you should learn American English.
If you want to work in a multilingual, multicultural environment, you should learn English as a Lingua Franca.

Because the latter is what most people strive for nowadays, this is what should in our eyes constitute the baseline for the English classroom in Germany in the future. But one should always keep in mind that both, native varieties of English as well as English as a Lingua Franca, have a right to be taught and learnt.

Maybe the outcome of our thoughts during writing this blog could best be described with the help of a quote by famous linguist Ferdinand de Saussure:

“Time changes all things; there is no reason that language should escape this universal law.”25

Although originally meant by him to take people’s fears concerning language change away, we believe that it fits well here to remind us that change in general, language change and also changes in language teaching and its aims and methods are part of a very natural process that we should not be scared of.

So… what do YOU think?


Test your English competency: Cambridge self-assessment online
Try out some online tools for language learning (free trial courses): Babbel, Leo
Learn vocabulary online and/or on your phone: Quizlet
Test your ELF pronunciation: ELF Blog
Discover what you as later linguists could be working with: ELFA corpus ((ELFA=English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings)), TELF corpus
Want to see some talks about ELF? Visit the British Council’s YouTube Channel.
Will English prevail its status as a Lingua Franca or vanish like Latin? Find out in the video below:

“The ongoing spread of English is unparalleled in world history.
English dominates – in scholarship, business and international relations –
but not all Englishes are created equal.”

Cite this article as: carmen&laura, "How should English be taught in the future?" [blog post]. In: Language Matters!, December 12, 2016,

(NOTE: If the authors have indicated their real names at the beginning or end of the post, please substitute the pseudonyms accordingly.)

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  6. Birdsong, David (1999). Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. London: Erlbaum. []
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  8. Kachru, Braij (1992). The Other Tongue: English across cultures. University of Illinois Press. []
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  12. Seidlhofer, Barbara (2005). “Key concepts in ELT – English as a Lingua Franca”. ELT Journal 59(4), 339. []
  13. Albl-Mikasa, Michael (2009). “Who’s afraid of ELF: “failed” natives or non-native speakers struggling to express themselves?”. In: Dimensionen der Zweitsprachenforschung. Dimensions of Second Language Research. Festschrift für Kurt Kohn) M. Albl-Mikasa, S. Braun & Kalina, (eds.). 109. Tübingen: Narr. []
  14. Ahmad, Saeed (2015). Fostering Intercultural Communication Skills among Learners through Teaching English as an International Language. . []
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  17. Rattanaphumma, Ratchaporn (2011). English as a lingua franca: Implications for English language teaching. Galaxy. 74. []
  18. Grzega, Joachim (2010). Basic Global English (BGE). Accessed: 29.11.2016. []
  19. Rattanaphumma (2011). []
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  22. Crystal, David (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 15. []
  23. Trudgill, P. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. Penguin UK. Quoted in: Accessed: 22.11.2016. []
  24. Albl-Mikasa, M. 2009. Who’s afraid of ELF: ‘failed’ natives or non-native speakers struggling to express themselves? In Albl-Mikasa et al. (eds.). Dimensions of Second Language Research. Narr, 109-129. []
  25. Accessed: 21.11.2016 []
  26. Mufwene, Salikoko S. Picture description of the ‘English Tongue’. Accessed: 27.11.2016. []


Laura and Carmen are both first-year students in the M.A. program 'Applied Linguistics' at the University of Bonn. Laura holds a B.A. in Linguistics and Literature from RWTH Aachen, Carmen received her B.A. in Linguistics & Phonetics and Philosophy at the University of Cologne. Both share research interests in psycholinguistics (language acquisition, FLT/FLL).

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4 Responses

  1. Spannender Beitrag! Die Thematik ist gerade sehr Up-To-Date und wird es auch in der Zukunft weiterhin bleiben.

  2. Großartiger Beitrag! Die Thematik ist gerade ziemlich Up-To-Date und wird es auch in der Zukunft weiterhin bleiben.

  3. Friederike says:

    I can only agree with Susanne, this is a very interesting and informative post! The topic is a challenging one and no doubt an important one.

    It seems to me like you welcome an ELF or more ELF-like variety as a target variety for teaching. Given that ELF will vary around the world, depending on the region and first languages of non-native speakers interacting, what do you make of the possibility that this might result in an infinite amount of different ELF-varieties? In other words, since there is no *one* ELF standard, would you say it doesn’t matter if people in different countries learn very different forms of English? Or do you think that wouldn’t happen because there is enough exchange all over the world to ensure that these varieties stay similar enough?
    Curious to hear what you think!

  4. Susanne says:

    Congrats on a really nice post! I especially like that it is very balanced in its opinions, discussing pros and cons of native speaker targets in German classrooms. I definitely think that this debate will become even more important in the light of recent political events in the US and the UK. Should we maybe look at other Englishes (what about Irish English? Maltese English? To mention but a few) in terms of reference varieties…? Just putting this out there. 🙂 – Again, great, informative post!

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