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Think Multilingually on English Language Day

April 13, 2021 by Maria Cleary

April 23rd is English Language Day, as well as the National Day of England, Saint George's Day, but it would feel appropriate to think of it as English 'Languages' Day. The English language has expanded both geographically and socially so widely that it is hard to grasp its global dimensions. It seems like a magical act to squeeze a language with so many varieties into a single classroom.

Questions asked by researchers and thinkers, such as Claire Kramsch (1997), Jennifer Jenkins (2007) and Barbara Sedilhofer (2011) concern the ownership of the English language as well as the variety of the language we teach and learn in the English classroom. Whose English is it? What kind of English language is it?

What’s correct?

In the classroom our students’ queries often echo these larger issues, asking which expression, grammar structure or pronunciation is 'more correct' to use. It’s time to stop and talk about the many possibilities of correct choices when using the language. In general, it is a good idea to explain to students that speaking a language is a continuous process of making choices: lexically, grammatically and so on.

Knowledge about language (KAL)

Another important point is that the question of 'ownership' might put some teachers in a difficult position, especially non-native speakers of the language. Sometimes non-native teachers feel less confident to 'represent' the English language in classroom discussions. This should NOT be the case. Any well-trained teacher (native or non-native) of a second or foreign language has a wide-ranging knowledge about language that typically exceeds that of the average native speaker. A language teacher will be familiar with different language varieties, dialects and know the grammatical system and changing nature of language very well.

Varieties of English

Today we would like to encourage you to simply shift your thinking of English as a single variety of language which should and can only be spoken as Standard English to a more multilingual concept, and take advantage of your own bilingual or multilingual background. Think of yourself as a mediator or facilitator who helps students become more aware of and sensitive to the languages spoken around them. The English language we teach, hear and read on a daily basis cannot and has not been approached as a single variety, and its diversity, variability and dynamic nature (Seidlhofer, 2011) are what make it such a playful and powerful language. 

In an English- language learning environment, it is essential to talk about these questions and accept that when we teach English, we also have to decide what our objective is, and teach the given variety, discourse and register accordingly. For example, it is essential to remind students of their target audience when they speak and write so that they become aware of the interpersonal meanings of the texts they produce. In other words, they will speak differently to a child, their friends, their teachers and colleagues. Just like that, they will write differently in a chat box, in the classroom or in an official situation.

English as a lingua franca

Even better, we can practise being reflective language users, whose language awareness expands to such dimensions that we think of English as a lingua franca, in which communication, interaction and negotiation and adaptation (not adoption) are the major norms, objectives and processes (Seidlhofer, 2011).

Here are some terms to consider before we go on to see some classroom discussion questions and activities you can use in a lesson to introduce a different understanding of English to your students.

Useful terms

English as a lingua franca: It is used among speakers of different first languages for whom English is a communicative medium of choice, and often the only option. (Seidlhofer, 2011)

ENL: English used as a native language

ESL: English as a second language

EFL: English as a foreign language

Variety: It is a specific form of a language, and it may include different registers, styles and dialects. It is hard to define varieties of English as language variation is also a naturally occurring adaptive process. 

The most common understanding of varieties of English includes the Englishes listed below. Remember that even within British or American English, we distinguish many different regional dialects. 

  • British English 
  • American English
  • Canadian English
  • Australian and New Zealand English
  • African English and South African English
  • Jamaican English
  • India-Pakistan English
  • Irish English
  • Hong Kong English
  • Jamaican English
  • Singapore English

Some activities for the class

We recommend these activities for B1/B1+  secondary school students and adults.

1 Discussions

Think about your own languages. How many different varieties can you think of? Is it spoken the same way in every region of your country? What are the most obvious differences? Is one variety 'more correct' than the other?

Now think about the English language. How many different varieties of English can you name?

2 Language quiz

We can see differences in vocabulary, grammar and language use in different varieties of English. Do you know which variety of English the phrases below are typical of? Can you think of more examples?

  • jandals, togs, chilly bin, dairy
  • pants, gas station, truck, French fries, movie theater
  • cinema, trousers, jumpers, rubbish, telly

(New Zealand - American - British)

3 Different books, different Englishes

When you read stories that have been written in English, you will notice how different the language of each book can be. Each author has a distinct voice and style which is informed by the genre they are writing in or the register they have chosen. There is an increasingly wide range of narratives written in different kinds of Englishes, often alternating local and more universal registers within the same book. Some of our favourites are Amy Tan (Mother Tongue talks about the joy and embarrassment of having a shared language), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah), Roddy Doyle (The Snapper) and Jhumpa Lahiri (The Interpreter of Maladies).

You can also see examples of linguistic variation (different registers and styles) in classic literature think, for example, of Mark Twain's use of English in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in comparison to Charles Dickens' in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

4 Different Englishes on the screen or on the radio

Have you ever noticed that funny or serious situations can arise from people speaking different Englishes in films or TV series? Can you think of examples? Here are some of our favourite series and films.

  • Brooklyn, 2015 - British-Irish-Canadian film
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016 - New Zealand film
  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, 2011 - British film about people moving to India
  • The Darjeeling Limited, 2009 - American film about brothers travelling in India
  • Slumdog Millionaire, 2009 - British film set in India
  • Lost in Translation, 2003 - American film about some people staying in Japan
  • East is East, 1999 - British film about a Pakistani family
  • Fargo, 1999 - American film set in Minnesota
  • The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain, 1995 - British film set in Wales
  • Flight of the Conchords - TV series about two New Zealanders in New York

It is a fun exercise to listen to different radio stations. For example, on BBC Sounds you can find various local radio channels, or you can listen to different channels on National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States.

5 Get creative in writing

This activity is suggested by Claire Kramsch in her essay 'The Privilege of the Nonnative Speaker' (1997). She describes different narratives and poems which use code-switching (the switch between different language variations or languages in your speech or writing), one of her examples is T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land', in which we can read some lines in German. Eliot frequently used phrases from other languages in his poetry.

Try a similar activity, and ask your students to write a short poem using their mother tongue and English. There might be some words they cannot express in English simply because there is not a perfect translation for it, and sometimes a certain word sounds more powerful in a different language. If your students become aware of their own multilingual potentials, they will become more confident about using and learning English. 

If you wish, send us your students' work, we'd love to share it.

For more ideas and activities, read this post:


  • Jenkins, J. (2012). English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kramsch, C. (1997). The privilege of the non-native speaker. PMLA, 112(3), 359-369.
  • Seidlhofer, B. (2011). Understanding English as a lingua franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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