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What is a lingua franca and what is it used for ?

Learning a foreign language means acquiring a new communication tool that allows us to interact with people from all over the world. When two people with different mother tongues use a third language to communicate, it is called a lingua franca (a vehicular language as opposed to vernacular). From lingua franca to English, these ‘universal’ languages have always enabled people to understand each other. Let’s see how things are today…

Vehicular or vernacular: what are the differences ?

Definition of a vehicular language

A vehicular language (lingua franca) is a language used as a means of communication between people with different mother tongues. This is especially true when the language of communication is a third language. This is the case, for example, when a French and a Spanish person communicate in English.

Vehicular languages are particularly important :

  • in countries with multiple communities with different native languages ;
  • in multinational organisations, such as the UN ;
  • in areas where there is a high degree of international collaboration (economics, science, culture, etc.).

Definition of a vernacular language

On the other hand, a vernacular language is one that is used within the same community of speakers. With some exceptions, languages can be both vernacular and vehicular. It all depends on the context in which they are used.

When two Americans speak to each other, English is vernacular. On the other hand, it becomes vehicular if it is used by a German and a Japanese.

Some vernacular languages have such few speakers that they are now considered ‘endangered’. These include regional languages, such as Languedoc.

🔎 You may also be interested in this article: How many languages are there in the world?

Vehicular languages: timeless tools of communication

An example of the lingua franca

The now extinct lingua franca was what linguists called Sabir. It was a simplified language, with little or no grammar or conjugation, used by speakers of different origins to communicate with each other.

From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, the lingua franca comprised a blend of French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and other Mediterranean languages. It was used as a means of communication by sailors, merchants, slaves, prisoners and convicts of all nationalities.

Closer to home: Esperanto

Esperanto was a language invented at the end of the 19th century by a Polish ophthalmologist: Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof. He wanted Esperanto to become a universal language that would allow communication between people of all nationalities. Just like the lingua franca, the grammar is simplified and the vocabulary is mainly based on that of European languages.

 Today, there are about 2 million Esperanto speakers in the world. However, it is not the official language of any country and is said to be the mother tongue of less than 1,000 individuals.

💡 Read also: Esperanto: an international language just like English?

English, the international language par excellence

Nowadays, English has become the new lingua franca. It is the language used for international communication in many fields. Whether it’s publishing the results of a scientific study, drawing up a contract for a foreign client or asking for directions when travelling: the language of Shakespeare is everywhere !

Did you know that 63% of content on the Internet is published in English, while only 25.9% of Internet users are English speakers ?

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Other universal languages to learn in 2022


French is the official language of around thirty countries and is also the working language of a number of international organisations (UN, African Union, European Union, Red Cross, International Olympic Committee, etc.). It is said to be the 5th most widely spoken language in the world with almost 320 million speakers.


Like French, Arabic is a lingua franca spoken in many countries, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. Modern Arabic is the official language of 25 countries and several major international organisations, such as the Arab League and the UN.

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin is a lingua franca particularly present in Asia. It is widely spoken in China and is also used in Taiwan and Singapore. It is one of the official languages of the UN, along with Arabic and French. It is also the second most spoken language in the world after English.


Russian is not only spoken in Russia, far from it ! It is still used in most of the former Soviet republics and is still the official language of some of them. The Russian language is a major geopolitical language. It is also widely used in the scientific world, particularly in space exploration.

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