Communicating in airports; the moment when people realize the power of language (by Emmanouela Tisizi)

Over the past two weeks, I found myself in four big airports. Though I did not have a chance to actually visit the cities in which these airports are located (I was merely there to catch connecting flights), I did have the chance to observe how people communicate when they find themselves in settings where there are thousands of people from different ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It is in such instances that people realize the power of language, which can either help them communicate or become a barrier and stall them from achieving an immediate and practical goal. Whether they need to find their gate, communicate with an officer or ask information about delayed or cancelled flights, language becomes vital.

Evidently, English is by and large the most utilized language for people’s communication in airports (at least the ones I have been to). It is, arguably, the most well known lingua franca, that is, the most well known common or bridge language that allows people who do not share the same first language to communicate. Indeed, if you take the time to observe how people express themselves, you will see that people use English in unique ways. Very often you can tell from people’s pronunciation that English is not their first language, but that doesn’t stop them from being perfectly intelligible. Others are more hesitant to use the language and only do so when they need assistance. Interestingly, they also use body language or a mixture of languages, both of which can be extremely effective in getting their message across. There are, of course those who are perfectly proficient in English and who speak with great confidence; they too use English to get information about their flights or other important information, but contrary to less confident speakers, they also use the language to make jokes and have friendly chit-chats with other travelers. Not only that, they also appear to always assume that the person sitting beside them speaks English and is in a position to communicate with them.

Of course, English is not the only lingua franca. Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, French, German, Hindi-Urdu, Hebrew, Bengali are only a few other examples of languages that have served or still serve as lingua francas (or, linguae francae). Perhaps what is unique about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is the vast number of people that use the language in today’s globalized world, which inevitably has resulted in a plethora of English varieties. There have been many attempts to map the great many Englishes, such as Braj Kachru’s (1992) famous inner, outer and expanding circles of English, which was later further expanded by numerous academics. At the heart of this need to map out, categorize and label all the different varieties of English lies the issue of the ownership of English.

Whose English is better? Which is the standard variety of English? Is there a ‘proper’ way to speak English? Do all native speakers of English speak in the same manner? Should non-native speakers of English be expected to sound like native speakers? All these questions have been posed and arguments have been put forth by both sides of this debate. Some scholars still perceive the native speaker as the person to whom we turn to with regard to the ‘truth’ about a language (Davies, 2003; Scheuer, 2005), and as such a proper model for the acquisition of English. Others acknowledge the reality that non-native English users far outnumber native speakers – the ratio between non-native speakers and native speakers of English is believed to be three to one (Crystal, 2003). Evidently, this creates new sets of questions. Why should non-native speakers be expected to sound like native speakers? Which is more important, native likeness or intelligibility? Are all Englishes equally valid? Previous posts from BILD members Sumanthra Govender and Lauren Godfrey-Smith have also addressed such issues.

These questions, that often come up when discussing Second Language Acquisition, came to my mind while watching travellers from all over the world employ all their resources in order to communicate. To my mind, emphasis should be placed on these communicative and linguistic resources as opposed to allegedly fixed and bounded languages and varieties. Where do you stand on this debate?


Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language, (2nd Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, A. (2003). The Native Speaker: Myth and Reality. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Kachru, B. (1992). The Other Tongue: English across cultures. University of Illinois Press.

Scheuer, S. (2005). Why native speakers are (still) relevant. In K. Dziubalska- Kolaczyk & J. Przedlacka (Eds.), English pronunciation models: A changing scene. Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 111-130.

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