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.