A man is holding hte world in his nads. Text: Word Stories - Lingua franca by English with Stephen

Word Stories: Lingua franca

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘lingua franca’.

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Hello and a big welcome back to English with Stephen. My name is Stephen Greene and I try to bring you everything you need to know about learning English in less than 10 minutes.

Today, I have a word story for you. For new listeners, in a word story episode, I talk about the origin of a word and how it has come to be used today. In other episodes, I talk about learning strategies or the history of English as a language.

Today’s word story is all about ‘lingua franca’. A lingua franca is any language that people use to communicate with each other when they don’t speak the same native language. These lingua franca languages can be divided into two parts: mixed languages or bridge languages. A mixed-language is where the speakers take words from two or more languages and mix them together to create something new. People all over the world have always done this and other names for a mixed language include pidgin or creole.

A bridge language is where two different language communities choose a third language to talk to each other. For example, maybe a Chinese person wants to talk to a Brazilian, but neither of them speaks the other person’s language. In this case, they would probably choose to use English to communicate, and so English could be described as a lingua franca.

So now we know what a lingua franca is. But what does the phrase actually mean and why is it so important today?

Find out, after this.

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And back to the origin of the term lingua franca.

The phrase literally means ‘the Frankish tongue’.  ‘Lingua’ is a Latin word that means ‘tongue’ or ‘language’. ‘Franka’ were the tribe of north Europeans who eventually took over and gave their name to the country of France and the French language. However, the original lingua franca was not French, but Italian. How on earth did this happen?

Well, in the medieval world, the Italians from city-states such as Florence and Venice dominated trade all over the eastern Mediterranean. Italian speakers were the main traders of sea routes in the Ottoman empire which was based around modern-day Turkey, Israel, and Palestine. They developed a simplified Italian to use when talking to people of different native languages. This simplified Italian also included loan words from Greek, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Turkish.

At this time, the word ‘Franks’ was used to describe any west European. So, although the language was actually based on Italian, it was called the Frankish, or ‘French’ language.

Over time, this idea of the lingua franca changed so that it could be applied to any language that is used for communication between different language communities.

Nowadays, the biggest and most commonly spoken lingua franca is English. There is a lot of research into how English is used differently between people who don’t speak English as a native language and there are even implications for how we should teach English. Indeed, in my next two episodes, I will look at these two topics. Next week, I will talk about how English came to be the lingua franca of the world. It involves politics, culture, economics, and quite a bit of war.

The following week, I will turn to the question of what having a lingua franca means for English students. There is still a lot of debate over this question, but there are some important insights that can help guide the learning strategies for a lot of students.

I hope you will join me over the next two weeks. To remind yourself of the new episodes, make sure you follow my social media or, better still, subscribe to this podcast on your podcast app on your phone. That way it will automatically download the app so you will never miss another episode.

Thanks for listening. I hope to speak to you again soon.


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