Karen's Linguistics Issues, October 2001 | This Month's Articles | Previous Months  


English as a Lingua Franca in the Brazilian Academic World

 by Jane Godwin Coury, Sao Carlos, Brazil, October 2001


The importance of English

‘English is now the dominant or official language in over 60 countries and is represented in every continent’ (Crystal, 1997:106). From this fact, it can be understood that the English language is a vital means of communication for millions of people around the world. During the twentieth century, numerous technological inventions and developments, such as the telephone, fax, electronic mail, internet, etc have facilitated communication between people from all walks of life and the language that is used most is English, as the following quote proves. ‘Most of the scientific, technological and academic information in the world is expressed in English and over 80% of all the information stored in electronic retrieval systems is in English’ (Crystal, 1997:106).  

Brazil is no exception to this statistic as many Brazilians in various fields of work use English to correspond with other nationalities.  The English language is neither the first or second language in this immense country, which is twice the size of Europe and has a population of 160 million inhabitants.  However, millions of Brazilians use English as a foreign language and the country is considered in Crystal’s ‘expanding circle’ involving nations which recognise the importance of English as an international language. ‘Brazil at the end of the millennium is adjusting to the world trend of keeping pace with technological, economic and social advances. It, therefore has opted for globalisation’ (Manchete, 1996:95). This quote seems to sum up the current situation of Brazil – in order to survive in this fast-moving globalised world in which we live in today, Brazil is endeavouring to be on an equal par with the leading countries of the world, and in order to be effective in this way communication has to be efficient.  As Crystal writes (1997:106), ‘organisations wishing to develop international markets are under considerable pressure to work with English’. 

Aims of this paper

Taking into consideration the points mentioned above related to the importance of English both in Brazil and in the rest of the world, this paper will focus on which circumstances Brazilian academics use English in their work and which problems and misunderstandings they may have using this foreign language as a lingua franca. 

A theoretical section will be dedicated to defining what a lingua franca is, the difference between standard English and ‘changing’ English and what loan words are. 

This will be followed by the discussion of the data collected in relation to the theory and then a section will be dedicated to how these issues can be addressed in remedial work.  A questionnaire was compiled with the objective of discovering for what reasons Brazilian university lecturers and researchers use English for, to find out whether they resent the fact of having to use English in their daily work, to analyse which kind of English loan words they may have integrated into their mother tongue, Portuguese and to discover whether they have had any misunderstandings in English. The questionnaire was given to 20 English speaking Brazilian academics who work in various departments as university lecturers and researchers at two important universities, the University of São Paulo and the Federal University of São Carlos in São Carlos, the state of São Paulo, Brazil. 

It should be mentioned that the data sample is limited and therefore it is difficult to make generalisations about the topic.  It is also necessary to mention that due to the constraints of this study and the fact that as the main focus of the paper is on the circumstances in which Brazilian academics use English and the misunderstandings they have had using the language, questions 3,4,5 and 6 will be not be addressed (see appendix 2). These questions refer to English proficiency tests that the interviewees had to take for different reasons and whether they resented the fact that they have to use English in their work in order to be recognised in their field. The original aim was to discover if the interviewees felt that the English language was taking over and they were losing their identity as well as to discover whether they were inconvenienced by possible linguistic imperialism from the English language.   The result was that 6 people out of 20 resented the fact and therefore the sample is insufficient to carry out analysis.


What is a lingua franca?

As mentioned in the first section, in order to make contacts with people from other countries, Brazilians in many different fields of work need a language to communicate.  It was previously stated that the most common language to communicate relating to scientific, technological and academic information is English.  This common language is referred to as a ‘lingua franca’. According to Richards et al (1996:214) ‘the term lingua franca originated in the Mediterranean region in the Middle Ages among crusaders and traders of different language backgrounds’. Holmes (1997:86) writes that ‘the term lingua franca describes a language serving as a regular means of communication between different linguistic groups in a multilingual speech community’. The author also states that ‘when academics and experts meet at international conferences, ...... a world language such as English, French or Spanish is often used’. 

Standard English vs ‘changing’ English

‘Although there are at least 360 million native speakers of English world-wide, Sir Randolph Quirk, writing in the Sunday Times on 17 April, 1994, estimates that on a global basis non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers’ (Firth, 1996:240).  The fact that so many people are using English all over the world inevitably means that the language is changing, as individuals communicate with each other in the way that they find the easiest.  Crystal (1996:15) states that ‘the reason why linguistic change is so unpredictable is that it is in the hands of so many people. In their minds, rather.’  There is much controversy as to the changes that are happening in English. Furthermore, the more traditional prescriptive grammarians argue that there should be a standard in terms of grammar, lexis, orthography and pronunciation in English. 

However, it is difficult to define exactly what standard English (SE) is. Crystal (1997:110) attempts to define the idea by summarising five essential characteristics: ‘that SE is a variety of English, like a dialect; that the linguistic features of SE are chiefly matters of grammar, vocabulary and orthography, not a matter of pronunciation; that SE is the variety of English which carries most prestige within a country; that the prestige attached to SE is recognised by adult members of the community and it is the norm of leading institutions such as the government, law courts and the media; and that although SE is widely understood, it is not widely produced.’ 

Radical prescriptive linguists and language academies may argue with Crystal about the points above stating, that the definitions are too flexible. For example, it could be argued that the notion that pronunciation is not important is too lenient, as English speakers should aim for Received Pronunciation.   Although as Medgyes (1994:5) writes ‘Received Pronunciation is unlikely ever to have been spoken by more than three or four percent of the British population’. On the other hand, descriptive grammarians may accept the author’s arguments and go even further by saying that if two foreigners using English as a lingua franca can make themselves understood, even though they are grammatically incorrect according to SE, there is no problem and that is how the language is actually spoken or written.  Firth (1996:242) argues that ‘the dominant impression is that lingua franca talk is not only meaningful, it is also normal and indeed ordinary.  Furthermore, Medgyes (1994:5) reports that ‘ordinary native speakers do not expect foreigners to speak a standard variety and any accent is accepted as long as it is understandable without undue effort.’

What are loan words?

‘When one language takes lexemes from another, the new items are usually called loan words or borrowings’ (Crystal, 1997:126). Words from a language or various languages can be integrated into the vocabulary of a particular language because of numerous explanations. The reasons which follow relate to the main focus in this paper: the development of technological advances such as computers may have created a jargon which is understood and used by computer users all over the world; a word may not be found in the particular language to express exactly the meaning of a term or expression; words may have been acquired while making contact with other people in a lingua franca.  Fantini (1985) describes two types of borrowing:

1)  pure borrowing where a word retains all its native features

2)  adjusted borrowing where the item is adapted phonologically and/or morphologically.

In the case of Brazil and in many other countries, the second type is much more common as the word is adapted to the phonetic system of the language and a native English speaker or English speaker may not always recognise the word in its new form when heard in the other language.  Words may also change their meaning as they become adapted to the new culture. It should be mentioned that some languages have been more open to accepting loan words than others.  The English language has been flexible in this way. As Crystal states (1997:126) ‘whereas the speakers of some languages take pains to exclude foreign words from their lexicons, English seems always to have welcomed them’.  Quite often, the matter whether to accept foreign words into a language depends on the government of a country or an authority, which wants to preserve its identity in terms of language. 

Discussion of data

Circumstances in which Brazilian academics use English

As was mentioned previously, the main focus of this paper is to analyse in which circumstances 20 Brazilian academics use English and to discover whether they have had misunderstandings using the language as a lingua franca. A discussion of the data collected will follow. 

As can be seen in figure 1 and the key (pp8-9), all of the interviewees, who are university lecturers as well as researchers, use English to communicate with people around the world by electronic mail, do research from books written in English and write papers for conferences.  Nineteen people said they use English to do research on the Internet and eighteen of the interviewees said they use English to talk to people at international conferences. 

Within academic institutions, Brazil is advanced in terms of information technology and all university lecturers have access to Internet and electronic mail.  Most of the books that the lecturers use for further study or for planning lectures and seminars are written in English. 

It should be mentioned at this point that in most departments of the two universities, which are in focus there is an annual policy in which all lecturers who also work as researchers must produce a certain number of papers for conferences presenting them either in a talk or on a poster and/or they must write articles for journals.  The international conferences and journals are more recognised by Brazilian governmental sponsors than the national ones and there is pressure on these academics to produce work in English.  If they fail to fulfil the requirements of the department, which receives funding from the aforementioned sponsors, they will be penalised by not receiving money to buy equipment or books for their research, not being able to climb the career ladder or by other means – each department has its own policy.

It is interesting to note that sixteen people said they use English as a lingua franca to communicate with people around the world by fax and by letter. Although these means of communication are still popular, it seems that electronic mail is much more convenient to these academics. 

Fifteen of the twenty lecturers stated that they talk to English speaking visitors who visit the university.  It is very common for visiting professors from other countries to come to the two universities and give talks or seminars to the students in English. 

Concerning translating papers from Portuguese into English, thirteen of the people interviewed said they do this, while twelve reported that they translate papers from English into Portuguese.  It is often the case that academics write a paper in their mother tongue first and then translate it into English.  Many of those interviewed stated that sometimes their paper was sent back to them for correction after having been reviewed by a referee.  Many of the academics translate papers from English into Portuguese so that they can use the material for their lectures and seminars. 

Twelve of the twenty academics interviewed reported that they speak in English to people around the world by telephone.  This is not such a popular means of communication as the electronic mail. 

Half of the academics said they talk to people in English at national conferences. Nowadays, most Brazilian conferences are attended by foreigners and some national conferences are even held in English. Only one person said that English is also used for editing papers for conferences.  By this, the academic means that he checks other people’s work before it is sent to the referee.


According to the results of Question 8 in the questionnaire, twelve of the twenty academics have had misunderstandings in the following three areas: writing in English, speaking to an English speaker face to face and on the telephone. The next section is divided into these three areas.

Writing in English

As can be seen from the previous section, the academics who were interviewed write in English in the following circumstances:  to communicate with people around the world by electronic mail, by fax, by letter, to write papers for conferences, to translate papers from Portuguese into English and vice versa and to edit other people’s papers.  

When they were asked question 9 (see appendix 2), the following misunderstandings in terms of writing arose:  problems with false cognates, e.g. to intend in English is the verb pretender in Portuguese, therefore a typical error is I pretend to discuss .... instead of intend, e.g. currently in English is atualmente in Portuguese, therefore many Brazilians would write I am actually studying ....; problems with English loan words that have changed morphologically e.g. one person reported that in Portuguese the disk drive of a computer is called a Winchester and he wrote this in a paper for a conference. The referee who reviewed it said he was not able to understand this term. In fact, Winchester disk exists, meaning an inflexible disk in which the storage capacity varies according to the disk size, but in Portuguese it has changed its meaning; problems with register, e.g. one academic said that after having an article corrected by a referee, he discovered he was being too direct when writing certain phrases because of L1 interference. He had written phrases such as Note that, instead of It is worth noting that ... or Now look at figure 1, instead of Please refer to figure 1.

Face to face

According to the questionnaire the academics who were interviewed speak English face to face with other people in the following situations: to talk to English speaking visitors who visit the universities and to talk to people at both international and national conferences.  When question 9 (see appendix 2) was asked, the interviewees reported that most misunderstandings arise from pronunciation errors.  To follow are some examples: in Portuguese /r/ is usually pronounced /h/.  One Brazilian said he had a communication breakdown when he was trying to say the colour red, but the listener understood head; many Brazilians pronounce /ed/ endings in regular past simple verbs as /id/. Another academic said he has had various problems in making himself understood because he pronounces these final syllables incorrectly. Other misunderstandings concerning pronunciation included English loan words which have been incorporated into the Portuguese language and then mispronounced in the English language. 

Besides pronunciation problems, another academic seemed to have had misunderstandings related to cross-cultural pragmatics.  The misinterpretations appeared to have arisen from offending the Brazilians’ ‘positive face’.  Brown & Levinson (1987:13) define positive face as ‘the desire to be approved of.’ The lecturer said he had problems when entertaining a British visiting professor as he had planned a full programme for the visitor, giving lectures, going out for two meals a day, taking him out in the evening for entertainment, going on excursions, etc and the British man did not seem to appreciate the programme.  Instead of the visitor expressing enjoyment through facial expressions, the Brazilian said the British man only seemed to find negative points and it appeared as if he wanted to be left alone.  We could argue that the British man’s negative face was offended, (Brown & Levinson (1987:13) define negative face as ‘the desire to be unimpeded in one’s actions’), as he probably felt that the programme was too full and he needed to have some time on his own.  


When question 9 (see appendix 2) was asked to the interviewees, very few people responded to misunderstandings that they had on the telephone, probably because the results in figure 1 show that only twelve people talk to people around the world by telephone in English.  However, one person stated that he often has problems when he goes to an international conference and has to use the telephone in the country where he is, whether it be an English speaking country or not.  He normally uses English as a lingua franca in whichever country he is. He said that usually the accent of the person impedes communication and that sometimes he pretends he understands what the other person is saying. This action of pretence is quite common among people using a lingua franca and Cicourel (1973) describes it as the ‘let it pass’ concept (Firth, 1996:243).  Firth enhances Cicourel’s concept by saying that ‘the hearer lets the unknown or unclear action, word or utterance ‘pass’ on the (common sense) assumption that it will either become clear or redundant as talk progresses.’ It seems that many people would rather pretend, than lose face when they do not understand a speaker’s utterances.

Remedial work

Although some of the misunderstandings mentioned in this paper can more favourably be learnt through life experiences, there are teaching techniques that can be carried out in the classroom in which English teachers can prepare students for future misinterpretations.  This section will be divided into the following four sub-headings: false cognates and loan words; formal and informal language; pronunciation and cross-cultural pragmatics.  In each part remedial work for students will be suggested.

False cognates and loan words

As was analysed in the data, some of the academics in question said they had experienced problems concerning false cognates and loan words when speaking English as a lingua franca.  With the aim of helping Portuguese speakers, an exercise concerning this area is suggested in appendix 3.  Ideally, the teacher should observe the students’ speech and writing over a period of time and take note of any errors they are making. Then various sentences similar to the exercise in appendix 3 can be produced for the students.  The teacher can also give the students a list of false cognates such as the one in appendix 3 for reference.  The students are given the sentences and asked to discuss them in pairs and correct anything they believe is incorrect.  A feedback session then follows.  A chart can even be put on the wall of the classroom of incorrect and correct sentences, which the students can refer to throughout the term.

Formal and informal language

As was seen from the questionnaire, all of the academics interviewed write papers for conferences, therefore they should be aware of how to compile a formal piece of writing, which is also technical.  Usually the technical terms are not a problem as they have acquired jargon while studying, however the difference between informal and formal language can cause difficulties and they should be aware of the differences. In appendix 4, an exercise to find formal synonyms for everyday words is suggested.  After the students have found the synonyms, individuals can make up 5 sentences using the formal words. The sentences are then checked by the teacher. The student erases the formal word he/she used in the sentence and draws a line, so that the sentence becomes a cloze exercise. He/She then gives it to his/her partner to solve and the partner tries to remember the informal word as well.


One of the people who was interviewed reported he had problems with /ed/ final syllables in past simple regular verbs.  A technique than can be used throughout the term is shown in appendix 5. A chart similar to the one in appendix 5 is put on the wall and a copy of the chart in the form of a handout is given to the students as well. The teacher should observe which verbs students have problems with in terms of /ed/ final syllables.  The teacher elicits from the students under which column (/d/ /t/  /id/) the verb should go and writes them on the chart.  The students write the verbs in the correct columns on their handout and they have this for future reference.

Cross cultural pragmatics

From the data collected, it can be noticed that one lecturer had misunderstandings in terms of cross-cultural communication.  Although teachers cannot prepare a student for every individual situation the learner is going to encounter in another country or when talking to a foreigner, discussions can be held in class as to cultural differences. Of course, it is beneficial for the teacher to know something about other cultures, to have experienced life in another country/other countries or to have had contact with people from other cultures. Students can discuss the exercise in appendix 6 first and then the class comes together to talk about the situations together.


Appendix 1    

Source: Crystal, D (1997), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge: CUP, p107 (The Three Circles).

Appendix 2 



As you may know, I am doing a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics. At present, I am doing some research in the area of English as a lingua franca.  I would be grateful if you could answer the following questions:

1.     Which department do you work in?

2.      In which of the following circumstances at work do you use English? Please tick the relevant box(es).

q      to communicate with people around the world by e-mail

q      to communicate with people around the world by fax

q      to communicate with people around the world by telephone

q      to communicate with people around the world by letter

q      to do research on the internet

q      to do research from books written in English

q      to write papers for conferences

q      to talk to English speaking visitors who visit your university

q      to talk to people at national conferences

q      to talk to people at international conferences

q      to translate papers from Portuguese into English

q      to translate papers from English into Portuguese

q      other (please specify)

3.     Have you ever taken any of the following English tests?  Please tick the relevant box(es).

q      IELTS

q      TOEFL

q      an English test arranged by your department

q      a Cambridge exam

q      other (please specify)

4.     If you have done an English test, why did you take it?  Please tick the relevant box(es).

q      to receive a grant from a Brazilian sponsor

q      to be accepted in a university abroad

q      to continue with your post-graduate studies

q      to improve in the language

q      for pleasure

q      other (please specify)


5.     If you were obliged to take an English test, did you resent the fact that you needed a certain grade in order to do what you wanted to achieve?  Please tick the relevant box.

q      yes

q      no


6.     If you answered yes to the previous question, why did you resent the fact?

7.     Do you use any English words/terms in your area of work which you have incorporated into your Portuguese vocabulary? For example, marketing, delete, etc. If so which ones?  Please state below.

8.     Have you ever had any misunderstandings with other English speakers because of the English language?  Please          tick the relevant box.

q      yes

q      no


9.     If you would like to, please state below which misunderstandings you have had.

Thank you for your co-operation. Jane Godwin Coury.


Appendix 3

Exercise on false cognates and loan words

Discuss the following sentences with a partner.  Find the mistakes in each sentence and correct them.

1.        I pretend to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using e-mail.

2.       I am actually studying mechanical engineering. I will finish next year.

3.       It’s necessary to pass in a concourse to be an employee at USP.

4.       Course notes must be decorated in order to prepare for exams.

5.       The Indians in the Amazon are being explored and treated badly.

6.       Histories such as Little Red Riding Hood are valuable material for teaching children morals.

7.       You can buy technical books in the library.

8.       In order to buy this medicine, you need a doctor’s recipe.

9.       A Winchester is part of a computer.

10.    Did you see that outdoor advertising the English school?  It’s very attractive.

Appendix 4

Exercise to practise formal and informal language

Can you think of formal words to replace these everyday words?

Everyday words

Formal words

e.g. to get

to help

to stop

to begin

to finish

to think

to want

to try


to ask for


e.g. to obtain



An example of student’s work

Ø   Sentence invented using formal word.

1.    Having obtained material to carry out the experiment, the results can then be analysed.

Ø   Sentence given to partner

1.    Having ___________________ material to carry out the experiment, the results can then be analysed.

Ø   The partner guesses which word fits in the gap and then gives the informal synonym, i.e. Having got ....

Appendix 5

Exercise to practise pronunciation of /ed/ final syllables in past simple regular verbs. Example of the chart. 












Appendix 6

Source: Jones & Alexander (1989) International Business English, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,  pp9-10


Brown, P & Levinson, S.C (1987), Politeness, Some Universals in Language Usage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Crystal, D (1996), Reflecting Linguistic Change, The Teacher Trainer, 10/1:15-16. 

Crystal, D (1997), The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Fasold, R (1990), The Sociolinguistics of Language, Oxford: Blackwell. 

Firth, A (1996), The discursive accomplishment of normality:  On ‘lingua franca English and conversation analysis, Journal of Pragmatics, 26:237 – 259. 

Holmes, J (1997), An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, London: Longman. 

Medgyes, P (1994), The non-native teacher, London: MacMillan. 

Richards, J.C, Platt, J & Platt, H,The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics, Harlow: Longman. 


©Jane Godwin Coury 2001. All rights reserved.