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Today, the world has shrunk to the size of a handheld electronic device. In nanoseconds we can stream through cyberspace and reach the other side of the earth. More and more, we are becoming a global economy, interdependent upon each other for trade and commerce. That means interacting with people in foreign lands we may never visit. It would only make sense that we all learn to communicate in one language to save time and effort, to reduce the possible miscommunication diluted through translation, and to streamline transactions. But is it feasible, and if so, is it really the best course of action?
The concept of a global language is hardly new. Throughout the centuries, to the conquerors went the spoils, which means they became economically superior. In order to trade with those in power, one had to speak their language. Colonization became the norm, first by Rome, then Spain, then France, then England. That is how the US was settled. In the 19th and even into the 20th century, the English speaking powers of Great Britain and the United States ruled the world of commerce, power and trade. Both World Wars were won largely due to the efforts of these allies. Though communism was on the rise at the end of World War II, within forty years it was no longer deemed a threat. Capitalism ruled, and so did the language of the capitalists – English.
The fact is this: English is present worldwide and is spoken on every continent. As of 1995, it was deemed to be the official language in sixty countries and was prominent in twenty more [i] . Approximately 500 million to 1.8 billion people are estimated to speak English, or at least be able to successfully carry on a conversation in it according to an article by Debateopedia. [ii] David Crystal estimated in his Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995) that the number of English as a second language speakers (i.e. people who lived in a country where English was the assumed official language but not their native tongue) in the world equaled close to 98 million while those who spoke it as a foreign language was estimated to be, ” as low as 100 million and as high as 1,000 million”. [iii]
So, the concept that English should become the new global and internet language seems logical to many people. But is it? Or is that an antiquated, narrow world view left over from the British colonization era that both globalization and Internet communication has begun to dissolve?
In order to analyze this in a neutral light, it is necessary to look at both sides of the argument and weigh it against the global economic and population trends of today and for the next forty or fifty years. It is, however, necessary to note that this article is originally written in English – Americanized English, which many website providers today prefer to use because of its universal appeal. That being said, it is hard to remain totally unbiased.
The Argument For English as a Global Language
One cannot argue that English has dominated many forms of literary expression in the last seventy years thanks to the silver screen, radio and television. In literary works, from poetry to scientific research papers, English continues to be dominant if the author wishes his or her work to get international recognition, according to MÃ¨litz (2004). [iv] He states, in an internet article published by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR),
“If you want to reach a world audience, write in English… those who strive to make a mark in their discipline strive to publish in English. By and large, the ones who stick to their home language – English accepted of course – have lower ambitions and do less significant work.” [v]
The article goes on to state that –
“with the advances in telecommunications in the last thirty years, the dominance of English in auditory and audiovisual entertainment has become far greater than books.”
In 1960, English represented about a quarter of the world publishing market, yet translations into English equaled about 50%, according to the CEPR. Twenty years later, while the share of English publishing had dropped to only 17%, translations still remained at or over 50%. If their facts are accurate, it shows English was, at that time, still the academically preferred language. This was written long before the introduction of Kindle and I Pads which to date cannot yet handle the characters of Hebrew, Russian, Chinese, Japanese or Arabic and have limited downloadable options in French, Italian or Spanish. Whether or not these two inventions will increase English domination of the written word or not remains to be seen.
Still, English appears to be the most dominant language into which others are translated. If you want to reach the world, even on the web, your website needs to be in English. After all, English has been the official language of the UNO since 1945 as well as NAFTA, NATO and other international trade and diplomatic organizations. It is the official language of the Council of Europe even though there are a total of eleven languages represented. In the Olympics, English shares dominance with French. Athletes are expected to know English in order to be interviewed by television reporters. English is the language of Microsoft, Coca-Cola, MacDonald’s and Hollywood.” English is the language of pop-culture, or tourism, of markets and trade, of the Internet.” [vi]
In a blog offered by Ronald Hilton of the Hoover Institution in Stanford, CA, Madhukar N. Goagte of India points out English is the language all pilots must use no matter what airport they are communicating with in which country. In international airports, in fact, all announcements are in three languages – the universal picture symbols, the native tongue and in English if it is not the native tongue. [vii]
Dr. Ali S.M. Al-lssa states that –
“English language teaching (ELT) has been a global activity and a large business and industry for the past five decades or so. This has been concurrent with the international role English language has been playing on the world arena in the postcolonial/neocolonial age dominated by the USA.” [viii]
He goes on to reference his point by stating what Dua (1994) said, i.e. that “British promotion of English as a second language was solely in an effort to protect and promote capitalism, an effort that the US took over in the postwar era.” [ix] Despite the rise of manufacturing in China, Mexico and elsewhere, the majority of commercial buyers remain those from the USA and other English speaking countries. Therefore, it is only natural to speak, advertise and trade in that language.
One could argue, therefore, since the trend to make English the universal internet language is already established out of popular demand and commercial dominance, it should be allowed to continue. But will this always be the case? Will the decline in recent years of the European and American economic markets versus the rise of the Chinese markets tip the scales in favor of everyone learning Mandarin? Is it arrogant to state that reading and speaking English is the only way to achieve economic success on a global level?
Barbara Wallraff (What Global Language, 2000) reported what an international information technology expert she interviewed named Michael Dertouzos relayed about the mood at a conference he attended in Taipei. Chinese traders were grousing about the fact they had to use English in order to make money on the Internet. Ten years later, they still do.
The Argument Against – The Tower of Babel
The ancient story of the Tower of Babel exists in the Torah, the Koran and the Bible. It tells of a time when all people spoke the same language and became so arrogant that they decided to build a tower up to God, in essence to become equals. As a result, the tower was sent tumbling to the ground. As a punishment for this audacity, the people began babbling in incomprehensible languages. Since they could not intercommunicate, they were rendered powerless.
Is the same thing happening today? Goethe is quoted to have said, “Wer keine andreren Sprachen kennt, weiss nichts von seiner eigenen.” (“He who knows no other languages, knows nothing of his own.”) Just because an American business person or tourist is monolingual, to assume that everyone else he meets should speak English borders on the same arrogance as the people of Babel, does it not?
Over 70% of Europeans are at least bilingual. In fact, most of the world outside of the USA speaks more than one tongue. It is not uncommon for a country to have several native languages within its borders. Throughout history, as tribes and villages were conquered, the dominating victor’s language become predominant, but native tongues were not eliminated.
The predominance of one universal language was first proposed as far back as 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof in his treatise on Esperanto. This was a language he created to facilitate international trade communications. It is a blending of many European based languages and is supposedly designed to be learned quickly. Over 120 years later, it is a viable international language and is spoken by many people, but because it has no culture attached to it, it is lifeless. It hasn’t really grown in vocabulary. There are few idioms or colloquialisms. It lacks color and culture, which language is designed to express.
Does English domination thwart the creative development of other cultures? Language is one of the cornerstones of a civilization’s culture. The more you use that tongue, the more you become absorbed into the society’s mores and customs. Even MÃ¨litz does go onto argue that having English as the dominating factor, is as limiting as having all music written for a cello (English Language Dominance, 1999). Translations cannot pick up all the idioms, nuances and beauty of a language or the culture to which it belongs.
Scholars such as Rasool (1999) agree. She sees language is a developmental feature of a culture.
“. . . people must be provided with the skills, knowledges and expertise to shape their own development priorities. Literacy defined within the framework of sustainable development would therefore include a broad and critical knowledge base, an understanding of how societies function. . .” [x]
Language is the fabric that interweaves a culture together. To take that away and make one language a universal one would be like diluting a teaspoon of sugar in a gallon of water. The hint of the sweetness may remain, but it is not very noticeable. The result is a watered down version that loses its heart and soul. The flavor of the culture is absorbed and almost disappears in the common denominator of a universal language.
One may point out that is what the colonization mentality of the British empire was in essence all about, and American commerce has become the offspring of that concept. Alistair Pennycook would be the first to agree. In his article, Development, Culture and Language (1999), he showed how parental demand for learning English can backfire –
“Hong Kong has been a good example of this: parental demand produced extensive schooling in English, which did not have an effect of giving people greater access to resources; rather, it gave people an inadequate education both of and through their first language.” [xi]
Parents want their children to succeed and have all the advantages they did not have. But, does that mean learning a new language and absorbing another culture? Along with English comes Western culture, which has not always been proven to be a wonderful improvement. Japan is evidence of this. Obesity, once rare, is now rampant among younger Japanese who have developed a taste for hamburgers, chocolate candy, pizza and fries. Smoking related diseases continues to be on the rise. Acne plague the faces of the youth. A generation is being lost as young Japanese in their twenties and thirties literally bow out of society unable to reconcile their thirst for Western ways with the traditions of their parents. Known as the “dead children”, they literally lock themselves away in their rooms for years on end. Depression and suicidal rates are escalating among this age group.
Is English the Official Language in the US?
Few people realize that the US federal government has never established an official language of the country, and only twenty-five out of the fifty states have. [xii] Perhaps because the Founding Fathers all spoke English it was never considered an issue. However, today, that is not the case. According to the United States Census Bureau, between 1980-1990 the number of Spanish speaking people residing in the US rose by 50% and Chinese speakers grew by 98%. [xiii] Hispanics make up almost 1/3 of that population, and where as English is becoming the preferred language of the younger generations born there, many still claim it as a second language. Spanish is still the primary one of the home among a majority of Hispanics living in the US. It is estimated that 2.4 million Chinese now live in the US and most speak their native tongue as a first language. Add to that Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese and Arabic nation immigrants, and this melting pot becomes more like a mixed salad. Everything blends, but little cross culture is absorbed. It is just saturated by the dressing called Americanism.
What’s more, the trend is world-wide. David Graddol, of the English Company, a British based firm that deals in international commerce, has written extensively on this subject of English and its decline as a global language. He states, “. . . the globalization of English isn’t going to happen the way people expect it to.” [xiv] In another paper called Decline of the Native Speaker(1999), he explains that the percentage of native English speaking people in the world will shrink dramatically by the year 2050 to 5%. Chinese Mandarin will be the primary language with 1,384million speakers. Hindu and Urdu will be the next most popular as will Arabic. English will run fourth or fifth, followed closely by Spanish. [xv]
However, others like linguist K David Harrison believe English will continue to rise globally as more and more people become literate through the internet despite the fact it is declining as the primary language. [xvi] Yale linguist, Stephen Anderson, in the same AP article, pointed out that all over the world, being multilingual is more of the norm than the exception. Therefore, learning is English easier for them? Will that make English as a global language more doable?
David Crystal, in Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language(1995), states that two thirds of the world’s children are multilingual, yet only 98 million know English as a second language. That would include children in the USA. Graddol puts the estimate even higher to more than 350 million. It is hard to tell because census questions do not necessarily ask that, nor are they conducted worldwide. The point is, English as a language is becoming less and less dominant, even in English speaking countries like England and the US. It is only a matter of time before knowing English will become less and less a necessity in the world market. Today, it is estimated that over 1.6 billion people are non-English speaking.
Commerce and trade are the main factors in establishing the universality of a language, as Pennycook and Dua have expounded, as well as the main factor in governmental and educational dominance.
Pennycook (1994) states –
“In some way, it might be said that the English language class may be less about the spread of English than the spread of certain forms of culture and knowledge. . . through the very practices of English language teaching.” (pp.178-179) [xvii]
Phillipson (1990,1992) concurs. He says –
“ELT (English language training) was seen as a means towards a political and economic goals, a means of securing ties of all kinds with Third World Countries. ” [xviii]
As those countries continue to become rich off American and European commerce, will the balance of power shift? And if so, will the need to speak English topple as well?
Surely, anyone who listens to the evening news realizes how precarious the economy is in the US and Europe. The Federal government now owes trillions of dollars to China alone, especially after the recent bailouts of banks and mortgage companies. The US is now beginning to feel the full wake of the economic tsunami of 9/11 and the military response to that attack. The more we become economically dependent on Asian loans and Arabic oil, the more diluted our dollar and possibly our global influence will become.
Couple that with the population decline of native English speakers juxtaposed with the rise in Hispanic, Chinese and Arabic ones in so called English countries, and it seems the future remains wide one for determining which language, if any, will reign supreme.
Will History Be Repeated?
In conclusion, it seems that man has an instinctual desire to communicate. Whomever dominates is the one who speaks while others listen. In order to listen, they must learn the language. If international commerce, fueled by the internet, is to continue, there must be a common economical language in order to buy, sell and trade. Pictures may be better than a thousand words, but words are an intricate part of deal making and economics, much less culture. If we are truly moving towards being a global culture, religion and society, then it follows that a global language is a natural development.
At this point in our history, it is English. It is doubtful it will ever be Esperanto. Still, students of economics have longed learned that knowing a foreign language can be the key to higher salaries. Up until the mid1800’s it was Latin, the language of science, medicine and culture. Then it became German. Next, especially after the world wars, it became popular to learn French. In the 1960’s, particularly in the Southwestern US, Spanish became the language to learn. In the 1970’s, it was Russian. When the USSR splintered, college and high school students began to clamor to learn Japanese. Today, Mandarin Chinese is on the rise as the language to master.
Will visual pictures replace words? Will sign language become the universal, non verbal form of communication as more and more of us become visually orientated instead of literate? Whatever the future is, one thing is for certain. If history serves as an example, man will always strive to regain the elusive power he lost centuries ago at the Tower of Babel.
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