Language Wars

Is English bound to remain the dominant global tongue?

Prior to 1990, intercultural interactions took place in a variety of languages. Diplomats might hold a meeting in the Middle East in French, a British tourist and a Polish hotel manager would negotiate the price of a room in broken German, an American working in the Philippines might resort to his high school Spanish to make himself understood by people whose native language contained many Spanish loan-words. Today all of these conversations would take place in English. Accelerated globalization has levelled linguistic diversity. Half the world’s 6,000 to 7,000 languages are forecast to disappear within the next generation as country people migrate to the cities; prestigious languages, such as French and German, have lost their former cross-cultural clout. English has become the working language of the European Union, the language of travel in Asia, the most popular language on the internet, the language of business and the default lingua franca of young people who meet almost anywhere on Earth. Latin America, where visitors are expected to muster sufficient Spanish or Portuguese to make themselves understood, and the countries carved out of the former Soviet Union, where the Cold War belief in Russian as the global tongue enjoys a mysterious persistence, are the only dams holding back this tidal wave. From numerous vantage points, the English language and the consolidation of post-1990 globalization appear inseparable.

In earlier eras English gained importance by being the language that the British Empire carried to its colonies, just as the French and Belgians, Spaniards and Portuguese brought their languages to the lands they controlled; after 1945, the emergence of the United States as the world’s most powerful country gave English an identifiable global anchor. Yet today, as U.S. power wanes in a multipolar world, its language continues to expand its range. Rising powers, whether global, such as China, or regional, such as Turkey, Brazil or Indonesia, have little success in parlaying their economic prowess into wider adoption of their tongues. For many of the contributors to this thoughtful volume, Language Policy and Political Economy: English in a Global Context, English has become the language not of a particular nation or history, but of the ideology of neoliberalism.

The book opens with tightly argued chapters by the book’s editor, Thomas Ricento, who holds the Canada Research Chair in English as an Additional Language at the University of Calgary, and Peter Ives of the University of Winnipeg. Ricento and Ives apply political theory to contemporary language dynamics, employing Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to dismantle the notion that an ideologically neutral “invisible hand” has spread English across the globe. Some theoretical chapters are excessively abstract; those that focus on case studies make the stakes clearer. One of the most subtle chapters is Selma K. Sonntag’s discussion of the failed attempt by the government of the Indian state of Karnataka, whose capital is the high-tech mecca of Bangalore, to enforce the local language, Kannada, as a medium of instruction in middle schools at a time when upwardly mobile parents were sending their children to private English-language academies. Not only did the government fail to quash the English-language schools; it was pressured by less prosperous parents, who wanted their children to compete, to introduce English-instruction schools in the public sector. Sonntag’s study illustrates the apparent inexorability of the English juggernaut. Yet she also underlines the mitigating impact public policy can have, pointing out that as a result of India’s federal system and the size of the internal state market, Kannada remains a widely used language in spheres from public administration to cellphone texting, and is in no danger of disappearing.

Sonntag also voices an insight that recurs throughout this volume: teaching in English to children who have not mastered their own language is pedagogically disastrous. While national elites, particularly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, rush to impose English-only instruction on impoverished rural populations in order to impress international lenders (and sometimes under the sincere illusion that this will create instant development), the results are massively counterproductive. In Pakistan, Rwanda, Zambia and Cameroon, among other countries, literacy rates declined and drop-out rates went through the ceiling when primary school instruction in the students’ mother tongue was replaced by English-only classrooms. As anyone who has taught language knows, students who do not have an educated grasp of their own language struggle to learn a second language. A number of contributors point out that the belief in English as a panacea leads to governmental neglect of basic problems such as failing agriculture, a lack of housing and clean water, and malnutrition.

The most destructive case of Anglomania documented here, and the chapter that makes for the most gripping reading, is the account by Australian scholars Ingrid Piller and Jinhyun Cho of the imposition of English on Korean universities at the behest of the International Monetary Fund in the aftermath of the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis, as part of a series of measures Koreans refer to as “National Humiliation Day.” The destruction of public institutions and the hewing-out of a large gap between rich and poor were consolidated by reserving Korea’s formerly competitive but equitable top universities for the children of the rich, in part through the implementation of English as the sole language of classroom instruction in many universities. The adoption of English coincided with the implementation of gag clauses that impose severe financial penalties on the parents of students who criticize or protest. Readers who wonder whether a similar debasement of national sovereignty awaits other countries will find a resounding affirmative in the contribution of Belgian scholar Philippe Van Parijs, who believes that every country in the world will soon become English speaking, and that countries that already use English should pay reparations to all the rest as the world undergoes a transition he sees as unavoidable.

Van Parijs claims that governments face a stark choice: either abandon national languages and cultures, or enforce a deeply unequal social order to dissuade ambitious professionals fluent in English from moving to the United States or the United Kingdom.

He not only fails to consider that not everyone wants to live in America or Britain, but suppresses cases such as Sweden and Finland, which, contrary to his assertions, combine widespread knowledge of English with strong cultures and social justice without fomenting substantial emigration. Exemplifying the outlook his colleagues argue against, Van Parijs writes that he became convinced that English would become the world language in a Beijing market when he “heard a Chinese and a Lithuanian trader bargain … not in Russian or Chinese … but … in broken English.” This summer, in Russia, I saw something different: crowds of Chinese tourists entering shops and restaurants, typing their orders into their iPhones in Mandarin, then pressing a button to translate them into Russian and holding up their screens for Russian clerks and waiters to read. Plenty of trading took place, yet no one uttered a word of English. Translation technology that dispenses with the burden of cross-cultural verbal communication at a basic level may yet rein in our language’s global ambitions.