Kachru’s Circles: What’s Changed 35 Years Later?


In 1982, Professor Braj Kachru made a model of English language use in the world. His model – three simple circles (see a simulacrum above) – became enormously influential. The Inner Circle represented nations in which English is the native language; the Outer Circle was for nations in which English is the second language; and the Expanding Circle was for nations in which English is a foreign language. The model sparked a fiery debate within the Applied Linguistics establishment, led to the ugly but apposite term “World Englishes,” and provided a springboard for a discussion about native and non-native English speakers which has been going on for three decades.

As with all great models, the beauty of Kachru’s is its simplicity. Think of the Eiffel Tower. Think of Britain’s red telephone box. A child could draw an outline of these in 10 seconds. The same goes for Kachru’s circles. And it’s the simplicity which has also elicited criticism. Several writer/researchers, such as Barbara Seidlhofer and Paul Bruthiaux, have taken issue with the model.


In 1921, the linguist Edward Sapir wrote, “All grammars leak.” So do theoretical models. Some critics focused on the misleading simplicity of Kachru’s model: it lacked information on dialects and proficiency. Others said it was more about power than language. Part of the problem is that “inner circle” has a metaphorical meaning: it’s used to describe those at the heart of power. While Kachru saw his framework as “liberatory” in that it went against hegemonic ideas of the UK and the U.S. as “owners” of English, critics said the model reinforces rather than resists the prevailing power structure.

Another criticism concerns its accuracy. In Kachru’s model, India is in the Outer Circle. But English has been spoken in India since the 1700’s. English-medium universities were founded in Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta, and Madras as far back as the 1800’s. And considering millions of Indians speak English as a first language, to what extent can we say India is in the Outer Circle?


Kachru’s most intractable opponent was Randolph Quirk. The two did battle in a series of assertions and counter-assertions in the journal English Today. Quirk opposed what he called “liberation linguistics.” He believed that ESL speakers needed to learn the English spoken by the Inner Circle because “it is neither liberal nor liberating to permit learners to settle for lower standards than the best.” (My italics.) Kachru responded by labeling Quirk’s ideas as “deficit linguistics.”

Quirk’s intentions may have been good-to afford opportunities to people in developing countries through mastery of prestigious Standard English-but his ideas come across as neo-colonial, and his insistence that foreign students learn predominantly from Native Speakers is totally impractical as well as discriminatory.

These days, few involved in Applied Linguistics would take Quirk’s side. Non-native speaker English is neither a transitional dialect striving for perfection, nor a pidgin used in limited circumstances. English is pluricentric. It’s used on every continent (including Antarctica, where scientists work primarily in the language) and has taken on the linguistic and cultural values of those who use it (hence Chinglish, Spanglish, etc.).


The lines of Kachru’s circles are becoming more and more blurred. Geopolitical forces have led to increased international movement: economic migration and vast numbers of refugees from wars and other conflicts. When people move, languages move with them. And hybrids emerge. English has gone from being a “distributed” commodity to being a “spread” commodity. Its producers and gatekeepers are no longer those in the Inner Circle, but everyone who uses the language. As David Graddol writes, “native-speaker norms are becoming less relevant as English becomes a component of basic education in many countries.”

And so, is it time to ditch Kachru’s circles? To consign them to the trashcan of Linguistics history, along with syntactical tree diagrams (I wish)? Definitely not. The circles are still stunningly clear and evocative. We simply need to recognize that their contents are constantly changing, just like language itself.


The ELF in the room


What’s wrong with this sentence?


That man, which is researcher called Peter, find an information and use it to discuss about interesting topics, isn’t it?


Absolutely nothing if you’re a hard-core advocate of ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). Why? Because this is how ELF works. The most important thing, by far, is communicative competence. And mistakes aren’t mistakes; they’re aspects of an emergent, dynamic set of linguistic resources. In other words, if you can convey your message, it doesn’t matter if you say “find an information” or if the only question tag you use is “isn’t it”.


The main idea behind English as a Lingua Franca is that English is spoken around the world by non-native speakers in order to communicate with one another. ESL speakers now outnumber native speakers, and consequently, native speakers no longer “own” the language. It is everyone’s, and people can do with it what they choose, as long as other people can understand them.


For ELF advocates, the types of English being spoken in different countries – Chinglish, Spanglish, Turklish – are seen as ‘different’ not ‘deficient’. Non-standard uses of the language, which used to be regarded as mistakes, are seen as emerging or potential features of ELF.



Here are some of the most common linguistic features of ELF:

*the third person s is omitted;

*uncountable words (information, advice, luggage) become countable;

*which and who are interchangeable;

*prepositions might be added or subtracted (“listen music”, “let’s study about fish”);

*isn’t it becomes a handy catch-all question tag;

*articles may be omitted if their omission doesn’t cause confusion.

This list comes to us through the findings of VOICE (the Vienna Oxford International Corpus of English). VOICE involved recording thousands of hours of non-native speaker interactions in English and sorting through the data. (See a description here.) By doing this, researchers were able to find out how non-native speakers really use the language. This in turn allows them to guess which non-standard features – features not found in grammar books – may become standard in future.



With the rise of ELF, the influential TESOL organization asserted in a 2008 paper that one monolithic model of English is no longer tenable for teaching the language. This begs the question: what is the place of native speaker models of language use?


Your answer largely determines whether you are an ELF or an ELF-sceptic.


Dr.s Barbara Seidlhofer and Jennifer Jenkins state that: “[D]escriptions of spoken English offered to [European learners] should not be grounded in British or American uses of English but in ELFE [English as a Lingua Franca in Europe] or other non-native contexts (depending on where the particular learners intend to use their English in future)”.


This is problematic. As far as I’m aware, there are no ELFE teaching materials or even consensus about exactly what ELFE is. What are its rules? Who decides? Does it mean that native speakers cannot teach in Europe because they don’t speak ELFE? What happens to assessment? Are students downgraded if they adhere to native speaker norms instead of ELFE?


As for students learning a type of English “depending on where the particular learners intend to use their English in future”, you may as well consult a crystal ball. If you’re a 13-year-old Spaniard enrolled in an English class, how on earth can you know how and with whom you’ll use the language?



On the other side of the fence, peering with scepticism at the ELFs next door, writer/researchers such as Péter Medgyes and Luke Prodromou argue that the problem with ELF is that it can’t and shouldn’t be taught. It’s emergent. Would anyone seriously consider teaching the third person with no s on the end of the verb just because many non-native speakers omit it?


In any case, what type of English would we want to teach throughout our careers? Which type could provide an adequate model? Jamaican creole? Not if you judge by the road signs in Jamaica: NO TON RAIT (Don’t turn right.); NO PAAK BITWIIN DEM SAIN YA (Don’t park between those signs): NO ENTA.


How about Spanglish? You could go parquear the car, buy el ticket, and then walk to the marqueta to hacer the shopping.


Maybe Chinglish? Its public signs are famously amusing. They’re all over the internet (see here). In one bootleg version of Star Wars, the Chinese subtitle of Darth Vader’s scream “Noooooo!” reads “Do not want!” Sure, it communicates the message, but even the biggest devotees to ELF might question this.



To teach language, you need some kind of model, not muddle. While native-speaker-like facility with the language may be out of reach for most learners, at least there are standard rules to adhere to.


Besides learning the language, maybe students need an awareness of commonly used non-standard forms. But I’m not sure the ELT industry is ready for this. While working on an early draft of an Advanced textbook, I suggested including a note saying that native speakers commonly get the Third Conditional wrong. In other words, they don’t know the rules either. My editor said she thought the note was “unhelpful”. It was cut from the manuscript.