Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Side-Effects of English Domination.

The dominance of English in the world and in Europe is no news, and the current economic crisis and even the probable rise of nationalism won't change that.
This week The Economist gives another example of the rise of the English language in Europe :
The latest Anglo-surge comes from the European press, with a dramatic increase in the number of heavyweight publications launching English-language websites, offering translated news stories and opinion pieces [.../...] including big, established national journals and newspapers, whose bosses want to be more visible in English.
One of the great benefits of a common language is of course that you can read what other Europeans think about world events, and a Pole or a Czech certainly does not see things quite like a French or a Brit.
Should we deplore this and fear the risk of standardization of language and thought? We may but it won't change the reality of it :
Among Europeans born before the second world war, English, French and German are almost equally common. But according to a Eurobarometer survey, 15-to-24-year-olds are five times more likely to speak English as a foreign language than either German or French. Add native speakers to those who have learnt it, and some 60% of young Europeeans speak English “well or very well”.
Let's face it, what it comes down is 'practicality' :
Speakers at EU meetings automatically choose the language that excludes the fewest people in the room. They do not use the language best known, on average, by those present (which in some meetings will still be French). Instead, they seek the language that is understood, at least minimally, by all. Thanks to EU enlargement to the east (and poor language skills among British and Irish visitors to Brussels), this is almost always English.
It makes sense, doesn't it? So, are we in for more Anglo-Saxon domination? That has been the fear of the French since Napoleon which is why language has taken on such a nationalistic value in France.
The Economist's answer is 'no' - precisely because thanks a common language (i.e. English) and the internet, "a genuinely pan-European space for political debate is being created.". I tend to agree, especially if most Europeans become genuinely bilingual (which, by the way, most people in the world are! see footnote).

And that's precisely the problem of the Britons and, I would add, of Americans - ironically, the dominance of English is bad news for native English-speakers :
That means Britons find it ever harder to justify learning other languages. Even when they do, they have to speak other languages extremely well to avoid inflicting halting French, say, on rooms of fluent English-speakers.
One might think that Americans and Britons are at least in a favored position when it comes to speaking English. But they may actually need to un-learn their native English and learn World English (or even Globish) which is the new lingua franca of the world.
In Brussels, native English-speakers are notoriously hard for colleagues to understand: they talk too fast, or use obscure idioms.
Mr van Parijs [a economic, social and political sciences academic] has a prediction: Europeans will become bilingual, except for Anglophones, who are becoming monolingual. In other words, just when the British should be happy, some nasty storm clouds are gathering. You could say it sounds rather like a day at the British seaside.
This is something that all teachers of English have been aware of for years and it is a hot debate in the world of Academia? What variety of English should be taught?
It used to be (more or less) "American" vs. "British" English but now it is rather "Native English" v."World English". Of course there is also controversy as to what "World English" constitutes. It is growing, changing and absorbing aspects of cultures worldwide more rapidly than "traditional English" .
In recent years, there has been an emphasis on teaching the linguistic tools to communicate internationally as can be seen in international tests (such as the Cambridge ESOL General English exam) but a lot of teachers of EFL are reluctant to "simplify" their requirements and what they often see as a downgrading of quality standard. In the end though, they may have not have a choice and be a bit more Anglo-Saxon about it, (i.e. 'pratical') and adapt to the reality of a world of massive education and keep the native English to those few who choose to study it more thoroughly or show a greater interest in the English language.

NOTE : 1. : available data indicate that there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual. source here.


At 16:15, Blogger Bill Chapman said...

An interesting account, but curiously, for me at least, you make no reference to Esperanto and what it has to offer. Take a look at

I have used Esperanto on my travels for many years, in Paris, in Sofia, in Hamburg, Miilan and so on. I am currently in Cameroon. I'd welcome your observations.

At 17:00, Blogger Joker & Thief said...

You comment is quite interesting. In fact, you're the first person I know (well, sort of know) who actually speaks Esperanto. Your experience would be worth a post, if you want to write something about it.
The reason I didn't mention Esperanto is precisely that - it is spoken only by a handful of people (an estimation of between 100,000 and 2 million speakers, that's not much) and doesn't seem to be able to compete with other major languages.
In fact, while it is a remarkable idea, I suspect it didn't work because it is a constructed language, but that's just a hunch... Maybe it's political too... I must say I don't know enough about it to say anything of value. You sound like you can make a better judgement.
So why do so few people speak it?

At 11:58, Anonymous Brian Barker said...

In response to the comment about Esperanto may I add that I feel it's unfortunate that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

After a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

Further arguments can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator at the United Nations.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at


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