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What Global Language?

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

English isn't managing to sweep all else before it -- and if it ever does become the universal language, many of those who speak it won't understand one another

by Barbara Wallraff

BECAUSE I am interested in what happens to the English language, over the past year or so I've been asking people, at dinner parties and professional gatherings and so on, whether they think that English is well on its way to being the global language. Typically, they look puzzled about why I would even bother to ask such an obvious question. They say firmly, Of course. Then they start talking about the Internet. We're just having a conversation, so I refrain from launching into everything I'm about to tell you. It's not that I believe they're actually wrong. But the idea of English as a global language doesn't mean what they think it does -- at least, not according to people I've interviewed whose professions are bound up especially closely in what happens to the English language.
Join a discussion of this article in a special forum on the globalization of English.

More on foreign affairs in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

More on technology and digital culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Should English Be the Law?," by Robert D. King (April 1997)
Language is tearing apart countries around the world, and the proponents of "Official English" may be ready to add America to the list.

"A War That Never Ends," by Mark Halpern (March 1997)
The laws of grammar may be arbitrary, as those who would simply dismiss them assert. But arbitrary laws are just the ones that need enforcement.

"The Spirit of Cotonou," by Cullen Murphy (January 1997)
Finally, some helpful advice to the French on how to enhance the role of their language in the world.

"Elegant Variation and All That," by Jesse Sheidlower (December 1996)
A modernized edition of a venerable classic of English usage brings changes that are vast and controversial -- and almost always sensible.

"The Decline of Grammar," by Geoffrey Nunberg (December 1983)
"Is the English language -- or to put it less apocalyptically, English prose writing -- really in a bad way? How would one tell?"


Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"English: 1 Tongue for the New Global Village," by Ted Anthony (The Associated Press)
"Nearly a quarter of the human population are using what is fast becoming the world's first global language. And the language they are speaking is the one you speak: English."

"English in Action: How the Language Changes People," by Ted Anthony
"One country with 110 million Africans. More than 300 distinct ethnic groups, each with its own language. And because of this, an unexpected twist: English, a tongue Nigerians never wanted, has become the glue their nation needs to survive." An Associated Press article.

The Future of English?
A report assessing "the likely world popularity of English in the 21st century." An overview, ordering information, and a free newsletter. Published by The English Company (UK) Ltd.

History of the English Language
An index of sites pertaining to the history of the English language. Links are grouped by time-period.

English has inarguably achieved some sort of global status. Whenever we turn on the news to find out what's happening in East Asia, or the Balkans, or Africa, or South America, or practically anyplace, local people are being interviewed and telling us about it in English. This past April the journalist Ted Anthony, in one of two articles about global English that he wrote for the Associated Press, observed, "When Pope John Paul II arrived in the Middle East last month to retrace Christ's footsteps and addressed Christians, Muslims and Jews, the pontiff spoke not Latin, not Arabic, not Hebrew, not his native Polish. He spoke in English."


WEB ONLY

INTERVIEW
Being Multilingual
An e-mail exchange between Barbara Wallraff and The English Company U.K.'s David Graddol.

INTERVIEW
A Richly Capable Mother Tongue
An e-mail exchange between Barbara Wallraff and Anne Soukhanov, the U.S. general editor of the Encarta World English Dictionary.

FORUM
Global English?
Has the globalization of English affected your work -- or your life? Join readers from around the world for a special forum in Post & Riposte.


Indeed, by now lists of facts about the amazing reach of our language may have begun to sound awfully familiar. Have we heard these particular facts before, or only others like them? English is the working language of the Asian trade group ASEAN. It is the de facto working language of 98 percent of German research physicists and 83 percent of German research chemists. It is the official language of the European Central Bank, even though the bank is in Frankfurt and neither Britain nor any other predominantly English-speaking country is a member of the European Monetary Union. It is the language in which black parents in South Africa overwhelmingly wish their children to be educated. This little list of facts comes from British sources: a report, The Future of English?, and a follow-up newsletter that David Graddol, a language researcher at The Open University, and his consulting firm, The English Company U.K., wrote in 1997 and 1998 for the British Council, whose mission is to promote British culture worldwide; and English as a Global Language (1997), a book by David Crystal, who is a professor at the University of Wales.

And yet, of course, English is not sweeping all before it, not even in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, ten years ago about one in seven people in this country spoke a language other than English at home -- and since then the proportion of immigrants in the population has grown and grown. Ever-wider swaths of Florida, California, and the Southwest are heavily Spanish-speaking. Hispanic people make up 30 percent of the population of New York City, and a television station there that is affiliated with a Spanish-language network has been known to draw a larger daily audience than at least one of the city's English-language network affiliates. Even Sioux City, Iowa, now has a Spanish-language newspaper. According to the census, from 1980 to 1990 the number of Spanish-speakers in the United States grew by 50 percent.

Over the same decade the number of speakers of Chinese in the United States grew by 98 percent. Today approximately 2.4 million Chinese-speakers live in America, and more than four out of five of them prefer to speak Chinese at home. The rate of growth of certain other languages in the United States has been higher still. From 1980 to 1990 the number of speakers of Korean increased by 127 percent and of speakers of Vietnamese by 150 percent. Small American towns from Huntsville, Alabama, to Meriden, Connecticut, to Wausau, Wisconsin, to El Cenizo, Texas -- all sites of linguistic controversy in recent years -- have been alarmed to find that many new arrivals do not speak English well and some may not even see the point of going to the trouble of learning it.

How can all of this, simultaneously, be true? How can it be that English is conquering the globe if it can't even hold its own in parts of our traditionally English-speaking country?

A perhaps less familiar paradox is that the typical English-speaker's experience of the language is becoming increasingly simplified, even as English as a whole grows more complex. If these two trends are occurring, and they are, then the globalization of English will never deliver the tantalizing result we might hope for: that is, we monolingual English-speakers may never be able to communicate fluently with everyone everywhere. If we want to exchange anything beyond rudimentary messages with many of our future fellow English-speakers, we may well need help from something other than English.

The evidence strongly suggests that the range of realistic hopes and fears about the English language is narrower than some may suppose. Much discussion of what is likely to happen to English is colored, sometimes luridly, by what people dread or desire -- for their children, their neighborhoods, their nations, their world. Human aspirations, of course, have a great deal to do with what comes to pass. And language is very much tied up with aspirations.

Last fall I visited David Graddol at The English Company's headquarters, in Milton Keynes, England. Graddol has a rumpled appearance somewhat at odds with the crisp publications, replete with graphs and pie charts and executive summaries, for which he is responsible. Similarly, the appearance of The English Company's offices, located in the ground-floor flat of a Victorian house and sparsely furnished with good Arts and Crafts antiques together with some flea-market stuff, is amiably out of keeping with the sophisticated, high-tech nature of the consultancy's work. Stuck on the wall above the stove, in the kitchen, were four clocks, each captioned with a big letter hand-drawn on a piece of paper: M, K, M, A. This was to help the staff remember what time it was in Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Mozambique, and Argentina, the four sites where officials and advisers on how to teach English throughout those countries were taking part in an online seminar moderated by The English Company.

"The main message," Graddol told me, "is that the globalization of English isn't going to happen the way people expect it to." He ticked off a dizzying array of eventualities that could transform the world language picture: political alliances that have yet to be formed; the probable rise of regional trading blocs, in such places as Asia; the Arab world, and Latin America, in which the United States and other primarily English-speaking countries will be little involved; the possibility that world-changing technological innovations will arise out of nations where English is little spoken; a backlash against American values and culture in the Middle East or Asia; or the triumph of our values and culture in those places.

To understand the fundamental paradoxes of global English, though, we should focus on two realms of possibility: demographics and technology -- yes, the Internet, but much else that's technological besides.

First, Second, or Foreign Language

PEOPLE who expect English to triumph over all other languages are sometimes surprised to learn that the world today holds three times as many native speakers of Chinese as native speakers of English. "Chinese," as language scholars use the word, refers to a family of languages and dialects the most widely spoken of which is Mandarin, and which share a written language although they are not all mutually intelligible when spoken. "English" refers to a family of languages and dialects the most widely spoken of which is standard American English, and which have a common origin in England -- though not all varieties of English, either, are mutually intelligible. The versions of English used by educated speakers practically anywhere can be understood by most Americans, but pidgins, creoles, and diverse dialects belong to the same family, and these are not always so generally intelligible. To hear for yourself how far English now ranges from what we Americans are used to, you need only rent a video of the 1998 Scottish film My Name Is Joe, which, though in English, comes fully subtitled.

Illustration by Christoph Niemann"Native speaker" is no easier to define with any precision than "Chinese" or "English," although it means roughly what you'd think: a person who grew up using the language as his or her first. In terms of how demographic patterns of language use are changing, native speakers are not where the action is. And the difference between native speakers and second- or foreign-language speakers is an important one subjectively as well as demographically. The subjective distinction I mean will be painfully familiar to anyone who, like me, spent years in school studying a foreign language and is now barely able to summon enough of it to order dinner in a restaurant.

In any case, the numerical gap is impressive: about 1,113 million people speak Chinese as their mother tongue, whereas about 372 million speak English. And yet English is still the world's second most common native language, though it is likely to cede second place within fifty years to the South Asian linguistic group whose leading members are Hindi and Urdu. In 2050, according to a model of language use that The English Company developed and named "engco" after itself, the world will hold 1,384 million native speakers of Chinese, 556 million of Hindi and Urdu, and 508 million of English. As native languages Spanish and Arabic will be almost as common as English, with 486 million and 482 million speakers respectively. And among young people aged fifteen to twenty-four English is expected to be in fourth place, behind not only Chinese and the Hindi-Urdu languages but also Arabic, and just ahead of Spanish.

Certainly, projections of all kinds perch atop teetering stacks of assumptions. But assuming that the tallies of native languages in use today are roughly accurate, the footing for projections of who will speak what as a first language fifty years from now is relatively sturdy. That's because many of the people who will be alive in fifty years are alive now; a majority of the parents of people who will be here then are already here; and most people's first language is, of course, the first language of their parents.

Prod at this last idea, to see how it takes into account such things as immigration and bilingual or multilingual places, and you'll find that it is not rock-solid. By David Crystal's estimate, for example, two thirds of the world's children grow up in bilingual environments and develop competence in two languages -- so it is an open question what the native language of a good many of those children is. Then, too, a range of population projections exists, and demographers keep tinkering with them all.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)


Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of the book Word Court (2000), which grew out of her bimonthly Atlantic column of the same name.

Illustrations by Christoph Niemann.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; What Global Language? - 00.11; Volume 286, No. 5; page 52-66.