“English as a lingua franca: Fetishism and critique” by Dr John O’Regan

This post was contributed by Alexandra Shaitan, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalAs part of the ongoing events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck, Dr John O’Regan was invited to give a talk on “English as a lingua franca: fetishism and critique.” Dr. O’Regan is Senior Lecturer in Languages in Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is an alumnus of Birkbeck, where he graduated with an MA Applied Linguistics in 1994. It was a great opportunity for the students to get familiarized with Dr O’Regan’s research related to English as a lingua franca (ELF) and hear his arguments. The lecture was very interesting and generated a variety of diverse questions from the audience. As O’Brien admitted during the Q&A session, the study stirred a controversy among the academics in the field, where, at times, he was labeled a ‘Marxist’.

In this blog, I will attempt to present O’Brien’s (2014) study to make his arguments clear for my peers and the audience who is interested in the ‘ELF’ movement. I will thus refer to the actual study to provide the readers with the evidence from the article.

Dr O’Regan presented his recently published article in the journal of Applied Linguistics (2014) “English as a Lingua Franca: An immanent critique.” In his article he debunks the ELF movement from the perspectives of Marxism, globalization theory and postructuralism by means of an imminent critique. The main argument of the article is that the ELF movement is ideologically conservative, is inconsistent in its arguments and is lacking in theorization (O’Regan 2014: 2).

Furthermore, in this article both the theory of ‘ELF’ and the historical context for the claims of the ELF movement are closely examined with the purpose of showing not only how ‘ELF’, as presented by the ELF movement, is theoretically inadequate to its own concept but also how by allowing the social conditions of the historical context, that is globalized neoliberal capitalism, to ‘invade the inner logic’ of ELF theory, makes it possible to highlight several lacunae and problems within the ELF movement’s theorization of English in a globalized world (O’Regan 2014: 3).

Why is the immanent critique then? The author employs the immanent critique as a type of close reading whose purpose is to highlight the inconsistencies and contradictions issuing from the self-representations of an object of knowledge. It may take the form of a textual as well as philosophical argument, an ideology, a theoretical concept, a discourse, an individual text, or a combination of these.

By placing under the scrutiny the discourse and the texts of the ELF movement, the articles underscores that the ELF movement is inconsistent and misleading in the claims that it often falls into contradiction. Additionally, by utilizing the concept of ‘lingua franca fetishism’, the study highlights how ‘ELF’ can be conceived as a type of ‘false consciousness’ to which the ELF movement adheres for it claims.

Moreover, O’Regan masterfully debunks the myth of the ‘ELF’ as a thing-in-itself, meaning that users of English-of whatever stripe-in multicultural settings become speakers or users of an hypostasized ‘ELF’, one which projects ‘ELF’ into material existence, often by means of a noun phrase (p. 4). According to O’Regan,hypostatization…is a form of reification in which abstract concepts are artificially concretized and made real. The author thus clearly demonstrates that ‘ELF’ cannot be treated as a solid or systematized thing-in-itself.

As a rationale for using the immanent critique, the study utilizes Marxist and Foucauldian theoretical perspectives in highlighting the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the ELF project” (O’Regan 2014: 4). In particular, the thinking of Marx related to the nature of the commodity under capitalism. According to Marx, commodity is “the form of appearance’, it is the visible thing which appears to our senses…and the content which is distinguishable from it and obscured, i.e. making it ‘products of labor’ (p.128).  Thus, it exists as a ‘thing’ even as it obscures the social relations which produced it. Additionally, Marx refers to the commodity as being one off fetishism in which the physical commodity exists as a mystification of the real social relations which produced it, and from being the product of a definite social relation, the commodity becomes simply a ‘thing’ to be bought and sold (p. 165).

According to O’Regan (2014: 7), ‘ELF’, like the commodity, is a mysterious thing…here and yet not here, fluid and yet congealed, normative and yet hybrid – appears to exist in some reified and yet simultaneously liminal space in the circulation of Englishes in the world. The author further claims, rather than in its real form as Englishes of various kinds in contact, ‘ELF’ appears instead as an irreal and especial hypostasized form, or in Marx’s words – in the fetishism of English as a lingua franca the linguistic pragmatic interactions of speakers of different first languages assume the nature of a fantastic relation between speakers of an hypostasized universal code. The author makes a fundamental distinction between commodity fetishism and what he labels the lingua franca fetishism of the ELF movement is that where the commodity is a real entity in a fantastic relation with other commodities, the obverse is true of ‘ELF’, which is only artificially made real through the hypostatization of an abstraction. In a concluding remark, the author demonstrates that, “ the hypostatization and fetishism of ‘ELF’ as a thing-in-itself thus constitutes the irreal mystification, or projection, of a real content which is obscured, and so in classical Marxist sense maybe said to designate a ‘false consciousness’ or ‘abstract objectivism’ in relation of the circulation of Englishes in the world” (p. 8).

A very important point highlighted by O’Regan is related to the access to social, cultural, linguistic and economic capital, which plays a decisive role in determining where users of ELF are located on the cline (p. 16).

From a diachronic historico-social perspective, the ELF movement neglects the history and reality of capitalism – and more recently -neoliberalism – and the unequal manner in which it allocated economic and linguistic resources across social classes, and gendered and racial groups, within nations and within the world-system (p. 16).


Marx, K. 1976/1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. Penguin.

O’Regan, J. P. 2014. English as a lingua franca: An immanent critique. Applied Linguistics; doi: 10.1093/applin/amt045. First published online: January 15, 2014.

O’Regan, J. P. 2014. Intercultural communication and the possibility of English as a lingua franca. In Holmes, P. and F. Dervin (eds.).  The cultural and intercultural dimensions of English as a lingua franca. Clevedon: Channel View Publications. (Forthcoming)

You can view a recording of the lecture online.


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