German comedian and broadcaster Henning Wehn explores the fast-growing use of ELF - English as a lingua franca. Around the world there are an estimated 800m non-native speakers of English and the number is growing all the time.

Through talking to French, German, Brazilian and even American expats based in the UK, Henning discovers that just having the English vocabulary and grasping of grammar doesn't really help foreigners understand the nuanced, elliptical way that the British speak their own language.

From Japanese estate agents to French web entrepreneurs, non-native English speakers are baffled by the way the natives communicate using humour, obscure idioms based on cricket or rugby, and the understated codes of class and status.

Henning talks to academics and consultants in the fast-growing field of ELF and learns that it is rapidly developing a grammar and structure of its own - often not understood by those who have grown up speaking English.


Producer: Keith Wheatley
A Terrier production for BBC Radio 4.


In a recent speech outlining Britain’s anti-extremism strategy entitled A Stronger Britain, Built On Our Values, the home secretary, Theresa May, identified five “British values” that “are the means by which we have made our multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society succeed”.

It is telling that nowhere in the speech did she acknowledge that Britain is, always has been and is likely to remain a multilingual society.

May returned to a well-rehearsed trope for politicians from across the political spectrum that to be British is to speak English. She now joins former Labour home secretary David Blunkett – who famously equated not speaking English at home with “the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships” – in putting language at the centre of the debate about the role of language in modern Britain.


In the last couple of years public services in the UK have been under an increasing pressure to review their procedures for language support they offer to speakers of other languages. A few organisations have limited their use of translators and interpreters and some organisations have even gone as far as translating their website with machine translation tools. This year Google has also launched its electronic image translator on mobile phones. Does it work or does it present more risks than advantages to both public sector and commercial companies who endeavour to use it in their work? Is there still a market for professional language services?



How times change... I remember this article in the Daily Telegraph in February 2013 when a company was fined and convicted of breaching health and safety laws by using Google Translate. In February 2015 I see a tweet that a Google translated text was handed as evidence to a judge.


Tweet Google translate



Daily Telegraph 16.02.2013


The Iranian sports ministry has been accused of favoring men in athletic competitions. With the power of social media and translators who specialize in professional Persian translation women from Iran can voice their complaints for a global audience. Athletes do not have to be fluent in English to communicate their views with fans around the world. For instance, Iranian authorities have refused to acknowledge the accomplishment of Elham Asghari because they considered her swimsuit “too revealing”. She made a statement about her difficulty in obtaining permission to swim in the Caspian Sea. Her remarks have been translated from Farsi and posted on news articles online. Professionals in the field of Persian translation services have been influential in spreading her words to non-Farsi speakers outside of Iran.

In a video she has thanked supporters who have praised her for breaking a record despite authorities’ decision. This piece was initially uploaded on Facebook in the original language and later subtitled in English and posted on Youtube. The video with translated subtitles has garnered thousands of viewers on social media websites. In another video she stated that individuals who are not capable of swimming 20 meters have disqualified her from her record breaking swim. Since her words have been translated by translators who offer professional Persian translation many people around the world have heard her voice and sent her encouraging messages. Asghari has waived off the criticism, pointing to seven witnesses who confirmed that her outfit followed the Islamic dress code and that she had swam in the absence of men observers. Her friend has also expressed her disappointment with the decision to letting Asghari’s record-setting swim go unrecorded.