From: Grant Callaghan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Thu 21 Nov 2002 - 03:08:13 GMT
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Reprinted from the South China Morning Post.
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