English: Becoming the Global Language?

From: Grant Callaghan (grantc4@hotmail.com)
Date: Thu 21 Nov 2002 - 03:08:13 GMT

  • Next message: Jeremy Bradley: "Re: virus: From Mouth to Mind"

    Thursday, November 21, 2002

    No reason to fear the global rise of English

    It is commonplace to speak of English as the only world language. A less quantifiable notion, and one that influences attitudes, is the damage this domination does to other languages and associated cultures. As linguist Robert Phillipson put it: ''Once we sent gunboats: now we send English teachers.''

    There is much debate on the subject, but The English Language author David Crystal estimates the number of people who can get by in English globally is about 1.68 billion, with about 380 million of those native speakers. According to Crystal, this exceeds the number of speakers of all Chinese languages. Far behind comes Hindi at 500 million, then Spanish about 420 million, followed by Bengali and Arabic.

    For many, English carries the glamour of being the economic ''language of success'', as Dr Phillipson described it. The unspoken rule is that speakers of powerful English are willing to provide access to knowledge and money only if non-native speakers invest in learning that language, and to some degree identifying with the English-language community.

    This is the subtle war that Dr Phillipson is talking about. It involves capturing ambitious people's loyalties and part of their identity to the exclusion of other avenues of progress. This is particularly the case for citizens of floundering or aspiring capitalist countries, who are drawn to buy into one of the main capitalist languages, such as English, German or Japanese - perhaps soon Russian - if they wish to catch up or keep up with the competition.

    However, this use of English as an economic lever has stirred opposition. Another can be seen in how English has been able to penetrate only so far into world markets such as satellite television station programming. English language dominates in this medium and even Japanese corporations broadcast Hollywood movies.

    Both governments and market forces work against this tendency, as Global English, Global Culture author David Graddol points out.

    Graddol believes that outside the English-dominated international news, Western pop music and sports coverage, satellite television will be increasingly a vehicle for reaching diverse television markets using minority languages.

    This suggests that English is more likely to be seen and used as a tool associated with certain functions and used alongside other languages. And even in this capacity, the trend is by no means ubiquitous. For example, Spanish still far outruns English in Central and South America. And it is unclear to what extent organisations such as the United States cable TV network CNN penetrate significantly beyond the realm of international travellers and expensive hotels.

    English is associated with capitalism. And, as noted by The Economist, ambivalence towards the values that are seen to go along with this system, particularly in Asia, serves to defuse some of the language's power and attraction.

    The rise of English has also raised political hackles, claims linguist Joceline Tan. For instance, the political unification of Europe would appear to be one of the most obvious contexts in which English would dominate. But, partly because of its history of changing linguistic supremacy, the speakers of other European languages have negotiated a degree of linguistic plurality in the European Union.

    Practically speaking, there is a reduced role for smaller languages such as Dutch, Italian and Danish. But the EU also has ''strengthened'' the other two European giants, French and German, according to Dr Phillipson. German is the most widely spoken native tongue and also represents the dominant economy. French continues to hold sway in international forums, such as the United Nations. So, in Europe English does not yet carry the weight that its international reputation would suggest.

    Many see English as imposing itself through popular culture, particularly among the young. This, they reason, will lead to an adoption of this language and an abandonment of smaller local languages. Linguist Cay Dollerup believes entertainment is having a much greater influence on the spread of English in Europe than technology or political alignments.

    However, though the status of smaller languages undoubtedly can suffer because they are less associated with what is ''cool'', we are talking about a precise variety of English, which is adopted according to interests and context. A certain repertoire of words or phrases extends a young person's native tongue and any other languages they speak. Indeed, this form of adaptive adoption is evident in Hong Kong's Cantonese-speaking youth.

    English, for many, invades their world through advertising. Cultures increasingly communicate in English in non-Anglophone contexts. But, again, this is a fairly non-threatening, isolated use of the language. In Hong Kong, for instance, it is often more form than content that is being communicated.

    The response is more to the symbolic use of the language than the actual meaning of the words - which many potential customers may not even understand. The same happens with French words used in Australian or US advertising to suggest sophistication or sexiness. Perhaps the ultimate in language displays are miscopied or nonsense English slogans on T-shirts.

    Although this illustrates a literal increase in the use of English in foreign cultural contexts, its actual significance as an expression of the reader's cultural self is minimal.

    English seems set to grow but not always at the expense of other languages and their associated cultures. Neither will it fragment into ''mutually unintelligible'' languages, as Webster of dictionary fame predicted American and British English would necessarily and unavoidably do a century ago.

    It is more likely that English will retain its relatively slowly evolving inner circle of native speakers, as Crystal put it. The outer circle, and more so the expanding circle, will contain a range of varieties for special purposes, such as science and technology, traffic control and academia.

    It is true that many languages and their attendant cultures are disappearing and probably will continue to do so. Whether this is a loss of diversity or a nostalgically sad but natural side-effect of progress is debatable. In eithercase, this change is less the fault of English than of a broader trend of homogenisation that forces the selection of a global lingua franca, which just happens to be English.

    Overall, English will add to as well as take away from the global communicative repertoire in a shrinking, but incurably multilingual and multicultural world.

    Reprinted from the South China Morning Post.

    _________________________________________________________________ Protect your PC - get McAfee.com VirusScan Online http://clinic.mcafee.com/clinic/ibuy/campaign.asp?cid=3963

    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Thu 21 Nov 2002 - 03:11:35 GMT