ELFlandia – living in an ELF context


“When you think about it, Dubai is basically ELFlandia”, a friend once joked.

“But ELF is defined precisely by its lack of correlation to any one geographical location”, I objected.

There’s always one.

But if ELFlandia is a mythical entity, perhaps the fantastical city of Dubai could be crowned its capital . There are no official statistics about the number of nationalities represented in the UAE, but newspapers vary in their estimates between 100 and 200. It is hardly surprising then that English, as the world language of today (Seidlhofer, 2011:3), is the lingua franca. Expatriates make up around 88% of the 7m population of the UAE, and of the 225,000 Emiratis who have jobs, less than 10% are employed in the private sector (figures from The National newspaper here and here).

The role of English in Dubai

Although the official language is Arabic, it is almost impossible to get a job in Dubai without English. In fact you can’t do much in Dubai without English, as Randall and Samimi (2010:44) point out:

“there can be few societies in the world where a second language is necessary to carry out basic shopping tasks from buying food in supermarkets to clothes in shopping malls

View of Dubai

View of Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road (author’s own picture)

Can you imagine the outrage of Brits or Americans if they couldn’t get a job in England or the US because they only spoke English? Yet I’ve been teaching in Dubai for nearly two years and have never come across resentment towards English because of it being considered ‘someone else’s’ language. Surely this is testament to the status of ELF, as a language without borders?

But this raises another important question: why hasn’t there been more research into ELF in this part of the world? Randall and Samimi’s study is one of the few focusing on the role of English in Dubai, but they encourage more to be done (2010:44) :

“the necessity of English as a means of communication in daily life makes Dubai a highly pertinent site for the study of ELF”

Outer circle or expanding circle?

Indeed, Dubai is in a unique position. English in the UAE, I would argue, cannot be defined as a separate variety like, for example, English in Singapore. Countries such as Singapore are positioned in what Kachru (1985) termed the Outer Circle, and “are, in effect different Englishes in their own right” (Seidlhofer, 2011: 3). There has yet to be any work done in codifying any distinctive linguistics features of English in the UAE, but it seems unlikely to ever become stable enough to be codified, given the transient nature of the expatriate population and the large number of different nationalities. From this perspective, English in Dubai seems to be an example of what Seidlhofer (2011) refers to as “globalized EIL” (English as an International Language) as opposed to “localized EIL”, which she suggests is a distinction that cannot be captured by Kachru’s model (2011:4). She defines globalized EIL as “something that people engage in across all three ‘concentric circles’” (2011:4), which accounts for the situation in Dubai, where there is a large Inner Circle population (e.g. from the UK, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand), an even larger Outer Circle population (e.g. from India, Pakistan and the Phillipines), as well as an Expanding Circle population (e.g. other Middle Eastern countries). Yet, the UAE is unique as an ELF context in the sense that we are not talking about one group of people, like in business or academia, or in one city like London. We are talking about an entire ELF country.

So what’s it like to live in ‘ELFlandia’?

As an English teacher, I may be more aware of grading my language when hopping in a taxi or ordering take-out. But I also see other native-speaker friends instinctively adapting their language to their ELF surroundings. Examples I’ve noticed include:

  • Using ‘zero’ instead of ‘oh’ when giving their telephone number
  • Avoiding British time-telling like ‘ten past five’ and ‘twenty to seven’, and sticking to a more American style ‘five ten’ and ‘six forty’
  • Using American words even if they’re not American because those are more commonly understood (e.g. elevator, trash, and washrooms)
  • Being more direct in ways which can sound impolite, but which prioritise clarity (e.g. using more imperatives and fewer structures like ‘would you mind….’, ‘is it possible to…’, ‘could I…’)

That said, I’ve heard plenty of native speakers failing to grade their language, and getting frustrated when their Pakistani taxi driver doesn’t understand requests such as:

“if you could just swing by the petrol station which is on the way to where we’re going, that would be great,  because I could really do with getting some cash out”.

Naturally, it is the taxi driver who is to blame when they arrive at the destination without having stopped at an ATM. When we talk about communication breakdown as teachers, it is often non-native speakers who are implicated. However, when communication breaks down in an ELF context, it seems to me that native speakers are often equally at fault, if not more so.

Accommodation theory

If we make adjustments to our speech based on who we are speaking to, then we are accommodating to our interlocutor. Native speakers often seem to assume the non-native speaker is to blame if communication breaks down. But accommodation is a two-way street. Regardless of who is a native or non-native speaker, both interlocutors have a part to play in facilitating communication. (For more on native speakers and accommodation, see Chris Ozog’s blog).

Even if you’re aware of this, it’s not always easy to do. I experienced communication breakdown just the other day because of my own inability to accommodate to my interlocutor effectively. I was at the metro station, speaking to a Filipino cashier, and the conversation went something like this:

            “A hundred and fifty dirhams, please”, I said, handing over my metro card to be topped up with credit. I placed the stress on a hundred, no doubt reduced ‘and’ to a schwa, and promptly saw the number 100 appear on the till.

            “No, sorry – a hundred and fifty dirhams please”, I corrected, with the stress on fifty. He deleted the number 100. The number 50 appeared on the till instead. “No, no, sorry I mean a hundred and fifty” I repeated, trying to place the stress as evenly as possible.

            “You want one fifty?” he offered, somewhat pityingly.

I chuckled at my failed repair strategies in a way that only an ELF enthusiast and English teacher can (!), and was reminded of what Jenkins says about accommodation:

“Speakers who find themselves together in an attempt to accomplish a particular task, the successful accomplishment of which is to their mutual advantage, will be instrumentally motivated to facilitate communication in order to achieve a successful outcome ”   

(Jenkins, 2000:170)

The cashier was motivated to serve me because there was a queue building behind, and I was highly motivated because I wanted my credit before I missed the next train. We were both trying to achieve a successful outcome, but I was relying too heavily on repair strategies perhaps more relevant to a native speaker context than an ELF context.

Smiling apologetically at the scowling commuters behind me, I relished a true sense of living in an ELF context – being judged only by your ability to make yourself understood and whether or not this is holding up the queue. Not judged by your passport, skin colour, or accent, but on your intelligibility alone. If this is what ELFlandia looks like, then I feel lucky to live in the capital .


Jenkins. J (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. OUP

Kachru, B (1985) Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: the English language in the outer circle. In R.Quirk and H.G. Widdowson (eds.): English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures. CUP

Mahboob. A (2011) Middle Eastern Englishes: A focus on Saudi Arabia. In R. Akbari and C. Coombe (Eds). Middle East Handbook of Applied Linguistics. Dubai: TESOL Arabia Publications.

Randall.M and Samimi.M (2010) The status of English in Dubai in English Today, 26, pp43-50

Seidlhofer.B (2011) Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. OUP

post author banners-Katy


One thought on “ELFlandia – living in an ELF context

  1. Pingback: Peer pressure, practicalities and Pad Thai | ELF Pronunciation

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