Lingua Franca

If you have been to continental Europe, you know English isn't a local language there. Yet it's everywhere. When a Slovak and an Albanian converse, it is likely they will speak in English. When a Pole, an Italian, and a Dane go to lunch together: English!

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    English has become a global lingua franca. But hundreds of other languages are or have been lingua francas across regions, continents, or the whole planet.

    Meaning of Lingua Franca

    The original Lingua Franca ("Language of the Franks", ie., Western Europeans) was a Mediterranean trade language flourishing from the 1000s to 1800s AD. The term was later generalized.

    Lingua Franca: a common language allowing speakers of mutually unintelligible languages to communicate with each other, often for trade. It is typically used across a geographic region and may also be an official language, creole, or native language.

    Lingua Franca Characteristics

    A lingua franca is above all a trade language.

    Sogdian, spoken by the Sogdian people of central Asia, became a lingua franca of the Silk Road trade routes during the Tang Dynasty (600s-800s AD). Traders, scholars, and diplomats from hundreds of cultures could thus communicate with each in the exchange of goods and ideas.

    A lingua franca can also become a language of politics or culture. French was once the former in the realm of international diplomacy; Italian was the language of classical music; Arabic and Latin have been languages of religion.

    Lingua franca English map StudySmarterFig. 1 - English as a lingua franca: it is a native and official language in dark blue areas, official but native speakers not in the majority in light blue areas, and a lingua franca to some extent in every other country

    A lingua franca often gains its status by being the native language of a people who trade with multiple cultures in a region. The traders, who may visit dozens of different groups, are not likely to learn local vernacular languages. In their economic interests, the local groups learn the trade language to buy and sell goods.

    Trade, conquest, and colonization go together. States that have launched colonizing ventures in the last 600 years, such as Portugal, Spain, the UK, France, and Russia, spread their languages across continents and have often imposed them on local people.

    Lingua francas spread via relocation diffusion, hierarchical diffusion, contagious diffusion, expansion diffusion, or some combination. These concepts are important for understanding the place of lingua franca in AP Human Geography.

    In many cases, lingua francas diverge in vocabulary and structure through influences from vernacular (local) languages. English, for example, is spoken differently in the Philippines than in India or Ghana. (This is separate from the dialectical variation of English wherever it is a native language).

    Pidgins and Creoles

    A lingua franca can be subject to pidginization and creolization.

    A pidgin evolves as a simplified version of a trade language, invented and adopted quickly. Pidgins may die out or they may evolve into creoles. Creoles are full languages evolving over generations of speakers and combining characteristics of two or more languages. Creoles in regions colonized by Europe often combined lingua francas of colonizers and traders and added elements of vernacular languages as well. Creoles can become lingua francas if the group speaking the creole is engaged in trade or diplomacy across a region outside of where the creole is native; they also frequently become official languages.

    Importance of Lingua Franca

    Lingua francas are important to human culture because they allow groups that otherwise could not communicate with each other the ability to interact, often for mutual benefit. This benefit can be economic, cultural, political, or a combination.

    They allow (for better or for worse) the influence of a dominant culture to diffuse even where members of the culture itself are not present.

    Advantages of a Lingua Franca

    A lingua franca has several advantages over other means of communication.

    Fluency Not Required

    Particularly in the realm of trade, it may not be necessary to learn how to read and write a lingua franca. You may only have to speak it well enough to be understood.


    Cultural groups that don't get along may refuse to use each other's language to communicate. A lingua franca is often neutral, so it allows such groups to talk to each other. In this sense, it can make an excellent language of diplomacy.

    Cultural and Political Edge

    Speaking a lingua franca may confer prestige to the speaker. It might be perceived as a "ticket" to a better life by opening up more opportunities. For example, it might allow one to attain higher education or a better job.


    In some cases, a lingua franca may be easier to learn than local languages. This may be the case if the lingua franca is not tonal or does not have extremely difficult grammar. However, languages widely regarded as difficult, such as Russian, Chinese, and Arabic, have nevertheless all become lingua francas.

    Lingua Franca Examples

    Let's look at a small sample of the hundreds of lingua francas that have existed.


    French diffused worldwide as a lingua franca in step with the country's colonial expansion from the 1500s to the 1900s.

    Introduced by French fur trappers and priests to North America, it diffused rapidly as a trade language among Native American groups. Meanwhile, French spread as a native language by relocation diffusion from its hearth to places such as Quebec, Louisiana, and Haiti, where it was often creolized but attained limited lingua franca status.

    In the Old World, where French trading posts existed (e.g., coastal India), French became a local lingua franca, while in places that became French colonies or protectorates, French attained varying status, from a language of local urban elites to a lingua franca across an entire country. In former French territories where it has been supplanted by Arabic, such as North Africa and the Levant, the use of French has faded. In French West Africa, French Equatorial Africa, and Madagascar, however, it is typically both a lingua franca and an official language, though very few people there speak it as a native language.

    Why the difference between loss vs. maintenance of French as a lingua franca? Across the Muslim World, Arabic is more useful as a lingua franca since it has been in the region much longer than French, and is the language of Islam. In sub-Saharan Africa, people are as likely to belong to traditional religions or Christianity as Islam. Countries include numerous ethnic nations, often with mutual animosity. French is neutral and has the advantage of already having been spread by colonial administrators.


    Swahili (or Kiswahili) is the native Bantu language of the coastal Swahili peoples of Tanzania, Kenya, and neighboring areas. It originated as a creole of various trade languages, some lingua francas themselves. Around 20% of its vocabulary comes from Arabic, a long-time influential lingua franca on the Indian Ocean coast of Africa. Nowadays, Swahili is also adding a lot of English, and it incorporates elements of Malay, Hindi, and even German as well, reflecting the historical influx of settlers, traders, and colonizers to this region.

    Lingua Franca Swahili map StudySmarterFig. 2 - Swahili: darkest green is the native-language area; dark green is the official language region; light green: some use

    In modern times, the major independence figure, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, promoted Swahili as a lingua franca to unite the new country's more than 125 ethnic groups. He also promoted it more widely in East Africa and on the continent as a whole as an African, non-colonial alternative to French, English, and Portuguese. The practice caught on, and Swahili continues to spread, now promoted in schools as far away as South Sudan and South Africa.

    Tok Pisin

    Tok Pisin was formerly a pidgin that has become a creole, an official language, a lingua franca, and a native language in Papua New Guinea. It started as a trade language based on Australian English (Australia was a colonial power here) with the addition of some Underdeutsch (a German creole), Portuguese, Dutch, and local language contributions. Papua New Guinea, a country of 9 million, has the highest linguistic diversity on Earth, with ethnic groups speaking almost 850 distinct languages. A common language was most welcome!

    Lingua Franca Tok Pisin sign StudySmarterFig. 3 - Sign in English and Tok Pisin at a war cemetery in Lae, Papua New Guinea

    Tok Pisin is supplanting many of these local languages, particularly where parents speak distinct languages. This process is ages-old and often results in the extinction of vernacular languages as children favor widespread lingua francas over their parents' languages. Tok Pisin is so popular it is even supplanting Hini Motu, another creole derived from the Motu language of southern Papua New Guinea.

    English, Tok Pisin, and Hini Motu are all official languages of Papua New Guinea, but Tok Pisin is used the most, from the street to debates in parliament. Up to six million speak it, primarily in urban areas, while for around one million, it is the first language.


    A language in the Uto-Aztecan language family, Classical Nahuatl is best known as the former lingua franca of the Mexican Empire, which in English is often referred to as the Aztec Empire. It gained this status because it was spoken by the wealthy and powerful noble clans of the Mexica (pronounced May-SHEE-kuh) nation that settled in the Valley of Mexico. The groups had moved into the area from northern Mexico around 1250 AD, and as their city-states fused into an empire in 1428 AD, their language came to be used not only within colonies they administered but also by traders far beyond the borders. It was often influenced by vernacular languages.

    Lingua Franca Nahuatl StudySmarterFig. 4 - A leaf of the 1570s Florentine Codex, a classic account of the Nahuatl world, written in Classical Nahuatl using Roman script

    Spanish conquistadors after 1519 AD enlisted Nahuatl-speaking troops to conquer other parts of Mesoamerica and as a result awarded them political positions in colonies as distant as Guatemala and Honduras, where they often resettled. Nahuatl became a language of trade and government alongside Castilian Spanish in these colonies as well as across Mexico.

    Nahuatl's former influence is still felt. Many toponyms (place-names) across northern Central America are derived from Nahua even in areas that are predominantly Maya-speaking, like highland Guatemala, while hundreds of Nahua words have entered the Spanish vocabulary.

    Today, modern Nahuatl (Nahua), descended from Classical Nahuatl like modern English is from Middle English, is not a lingua franca, though in Mexico there are still hundreds of thousands of speakers of its various dialects as well as communication in Nahua between native speakers and speakers of unrelated languages.

    Lingua Franca - Key takeaways

    • A lingua franca is a common language used for economic, political, and/or cultural reasons that permits interactions between people whose native languages are mutually unintelligible.
    • English is the global lingua franca, but hundreds of others that have had regional, continental, or global significance exist now or have existed in the past.
    • Lingua francas can become official languages, pidgins, and creoles, and creoles can become lingua francas.
    • Examples of lingua francas are French, Swahili, Tok Pisin, and Nahuatl.


    1. Fig. 1 - English map ( by Canuckguy ( is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (
    2. Fig. 2 - Swahili ( by Kwamikagami ( is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (
    3. Fig. 3 - Tok Pisin ( by Phenss ( is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (
    4. Fig. 4 - Nahuatl ( by Gary Francisco Keller from The Digital Edition of the Florentine Codex and is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Lingua Franca

    What is a lingua franca? 

    A linga franca is a common language used for trade and other purposes by speakers of mutually unintelligible languages.

    Why is English a lingua franca? 

    English is a lingua franca because it is the main global language of trade and is the primary means by which people across the world communicate with each other when they have no other language in common.

    What are examples of lingua francas? 

    Examples of lingua francas are English, Sogdian, Classical Nahuatl, French, Swahili, and Tok Pisin; there are hundreds more.

    Is English the lingua franca of the world? 

    English is indeed the lingua franca for Planet Earth.

    What are the three top lingua francas? 

    The top three lingua francas are English, Spanish, and French.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Classical Nahuatl was the lingua franca of what empire?

    What is the primary impetus for the development of lingua francas?

    The original "lingua franca" was spoken in what area?


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