English vs all other languages: and the winner is..

Monday, April 16, 2012


Freakonomics took a chance on a sensitive and very political subject: the future of English in our global world. The article gives us a thoughtful analysis on the potential hegemony of English.
The result is highly instructive and will make many of us feel better about the future of our native languages while it may have true English native speakers worried.


English is the dominant language.  It has the greatest number of speakers.  It is designed as the official language of more than 60 countries and is prevalent in the science world and any international organization. English is also the language that is most taught and omnipresent on the internet.


However, Mandarin and Spanish are the most spoken languages as mother tongue and English only comes in third. Less than half of all internet users speak English as a mother tongue.  With the spread of technology to less developed countries, this number is falling everyday.


The logic consequence of these two statements, or the illogical link between them tells us what is bound to happen: why do we all use English as a main vector of communication when it is not even the most spoken language as a mother tongue ?

History and many various influences built up English as the main language, but globalization is turning this little "language-osphere" of ours upside down.


"We are observing more and more that other languages are taking over the Internet," said Victor Montviloff, (Responsible for information policy in the communication and information sector at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization here).


Contrary to what we might think, globalization makes the necessity of knowing languages other than English more important than ever.


If you are worried about your local or endangered language, settle down.


Languages like French German, Russian and Spanish are spreading at exponential speed on the Web, Mr. Montviloff said. Less spread languages are also developing fast.

Internet helps bring together scattered nations and communities and reinforce their common language. Some researches have even shown that endangered languages are revived and increasingly used thanks to internet.

Any language can reach people anywhere and thus find new roots in the most remote places. Descendants of a nation might have lost touch with their language of origin but they remain forever sensible to it and could decide to resume its use when repetitively exposed.

With the spread of distance education and educative materials on the web, other languages are challenging the hegemony of English in education as well.


The economist took a closer look at tweets and came up with a very interesting analysis: with the emergence of  new ways of communication like micro-blogging and tweeter, people start choosing the language they use for a specific tool based on its restrictions and purpose.
Chinese is so succinct that most messages never reach that limit, says Shuo Tang, who studies social media at the University of Indiana.

Japanese is concise too: fans of haiku, poems in 17 syllables, can tweet them readily. Though Korean and Arabic require a little more space, tweeters routinely omit syllables in Korean words; written Arabic routinely omits vowels anyway. Arabic tweets mushroomed last year, though thanks to the uprisings across the Middle East rather than any linguistic features. It is now the eighth most-used language on Twitter with over 2m public tweets every day, according to Semiocast, a Paris-based company that analyses social-media trends. Romance tongues, among others, generally tend to be more verbose (see chart).
Twitter’s growth around the world has reduced the proportion of total global tweets in English to 39% from two-thirds in 2009

Though ubiquity and flexibility may give English hegemony, Twitter is also helping smaller and struggling languages. Basque- and Gaelic-speakers tweet to connect with other far-flung speakers.

Kevin Scannell, a professor at St Louis University, Missouri, has found 500 languages in use on Twitter and has set up a website to track them. Gamilaraay, an indigenous Australian language, is thought to have only three living speakers. One of them is tweeting—handy for revivalists.

Technology also gave us helpful tools: it is easy to use online programs or services to translate anything in most languages. As
"It is much easier for a few people to teach a computer how to speak a language than for the millions of speakers of that language to learn how to speak to a computer in another tongue. It is also easier for a few people to translate a movie into 2000 languages than for the billion people who speak those languages to learn the languages coming out of the actors' mouths"
If you want to resist English, be bilingual.

One academic paper pointed out "The paradox of the resistance to linguistic hegemony"

The idea is simple and logical, as Eriksen (1992: 313) states,
'perhaps paradoxically, cultural minorities may have to assimilate culturally in important respects in order to present their case effec- tively and thereby retain their minority identity'. 'any opposition against the use of dominant languages is inherently paradoxical. With no knowledge of these languages, one remains parochial and powerless'.
The true resistance lies in multilingualism: protestations against the hegemony of one language without being able to speak this language will find no echo. Having proficiency in both languages is the only viable way to defend one language over the other.



If you think you own your language because you are a native speaker, think again.
"One of the intriguing consequences of globalization is that English's center of gravity is moving. Its future is going to be defined not in America or Britain, but by the new economies of places like Bangalore, Chongqing, and Bratislava".
As globalization deepen and the number of people who speak English grow, the native speaker who used to naturally be in a strong position, will see his mastery loose value. When all we need is a simple or limited language ability, and when most of the speakers use a second language as way of communication, expectations are limited and even the mastery of a native speaker finds no audience.

"Nobody owns languages any more".

Native speakers whose language is widely used by non natives will suffer from this downgrade and might even start protesting against this trend.

After all, many communities have been protesting against globalization and the spread of English as a threat to their local language. Why English native speakers would not protest against the wide use of wrong English as a threat to the preservation of their heritage ?

If English has been used in places, like India, since historical events which gave the locals no choices, then places like northern Europe are consciously establishing English as an equal to their specific local language.
"Something like 70 percent of the Dutch population claim now that they can hold a conversation in English quite comfortably," Mr. Graddol said. "For them, it is not a textbook-based foreign exercise. They are already exposed to English in the environment. People have learned a little bit of it before they even get to school, and they can see immediately that it has some use in their lives. In countries like the Netherlands, Sweden or Denmark you need English to complete your education.


Even if you are a native English speaker, you might not understand "Glocal Englishes"
"At the same time we're going to see a proliferation of what are sometimes noticeably different forms of the global language that preserve their local roots".
"It's interesting that we think of nature conservation as something rather sexy, but language conservation on the whole gets dismissed as naïve and backward-looking."
In countries where English has been the official language for centuries,
"people use it in part to create their own social and even national identity," Mr. Graddol said. "When that happens, the language starts going its own way. The variety of English that proficient speakers in such countries are learning may not be terribly useful in an international context"
Language is a living thing, it evolves based on the influence of many factors and events. All languages we presently use and take as crystallized and finite products are in fact the result of many variations and modifications. French, Spanish, Italian and many more languages are only derivatives of the Latin language which was once uniformly used.

The exact same thing could happen to English.

Being in an international community I witness the living aspect of languages everyday. Depending on who I am with, I speak or hear unique combinations of languages: "Frenglish", "Spanglish", "Japenglish",as if they were completely natural. When we speak, we usually don't try to analyze whether our language is proper or correct, we just do whatever it takes to communicate efficiently. Without even going after other languages, this behavior is prevalent within a language itself: we don't speak to children, elders or people from different social classes in the same way.

We all witness the social function of language everyday: it goes its own way to serve communication within a particular group.

English speakers who have been in Japan long enough often mix Japanese words within sentences in English when talking to other people in the same situation. When family is visiting they naturally switch to proper English completely.

We all constantly adapt our language to our interlocutors. 
"The big loser? Grammar".  

Globalization is spreading English and mixing it with other languages, but most importantly, it also changes the way we use this language through technology.  With texts, tweets, emails, emoticons and all the tools technology gives us, the format and the content is much more important than grammar which in fact does not matter anymore. 


As Barry James notes in the New york Times: 
"The very reason for the rise of English — its guarantee of mutual intelligibility among people of different cultures — could dissolve if the language continues to fragment into a variety of 'Englishes."

9 comments:

  1. ah yes. grammar. all great writers stress on grammar... but strange, most native speakers' grammar is crap, whilst those of us who learn it as a second language, actually know what a gerund or a subjunctive is..
    Noch Noch

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    1. It's not important to know the names of grammatical structures, its important to be capable of using them properly. As English becomes more Global its grammatical structure has been hacked and fused with that of non-native speakers such as can be found in the Malaysian derivative of English. I don't care if a non-native speaker knows what a gerund is, I care if they speak in complete sentences and use proper tenses, even if they don't know what those tenses are called.

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    2. English is going to be a dying language reported by The Telegraph. Therefore why we learn that language ? Why not learn Esperanto ? Search Telegraph with Panglish to read the report.

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  2. If you are relocating to US, you must be able to understand the American accent and speak English fluently, otherwise it will become difficult for you to communicate with the local people in a rightful manner. Therefore, you must lose no time in joining an online English learning course for speeding up your learning process.

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  3. Very informative blog! By reading this blog I knew lots of information about different language and their statistics as well. So one thing very good to hear about that English is the top rather than any other language and I think it's very much true because English is a international language. So thanks for this good work.

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  4. I think English will win out personally, when you consider that TEFL is a multi-billion pound industry... there are hundreds of millions of English students around the world. Mandarin might have a higher number of native speakers, but it doesn't matter because there are so few second language speakers. That said it won't be British or American English that win, it will be English as a language for international communication, a standardised form for the world to share. I think that in 50 years or fewer, speaking English (or a second language in an English speaking country) will be on the same level as riding a bike or swimming - an essential skill that the vast majority of the population learn during childhood. Certainly my kids will be subjected to English and Russian.

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