Sacre bleu! English as a global lingua franca? Why English is rapidly achieving worldwide status

Sacre bleu! English as a global lingua franca? Why English is rapidly achieving worldwide status

Cynthia L. Kemper

Why English is rapidly achieving worldwide status

Most of us take language for granted. We use it every day – in spoken, written, auditory and electronic forms – while forgetting that it’s what makes human communication possible. Indeed, our ability to communicate – personally or professionally – is primarily based on the existence of language.

“From the point of view of the speakers, language is a symbolic system that they use to communicate,” explains Michael Agar, author of “Language Shock – Understanding the Culture of Conversation.” “Speakers don’t know or care that when they throw a word out in public it signals a relationship with an ancient language of India…they care about communicating with each other.”

In countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S., where English is the primary language, it’s even easier to dismiss the advantage of speaking a language that the rest of the world is now being forced to learn out of necessity.

More than two-thirds of the world’s population still does not use English. Yet, as the need to communicate globally increases, English is fast becoming the No. 1 choice for cross-border communication worldwide.

While increasing the ease of communication across borders, choosing a single global language also puts enormous pressure on those who do not speak the chosen language. Encouraging one particular tongue as a primary or secondary mode of communication in all countries also requires a serious.commitment, along with extensive resources and funding. This issue also raises critical questions around the importance of global intelligibility vs. a country’s identity, as there is no more sensitive symbol of individual and national identity than one’s language.

Still, to date, no official lingua franca has been chosen. And much can happen in the coming years to affect the final outcome. In the meantime, some very important questions continue to be discussed around the world today. Questions such as:

What makes a language a world language? Why is English the leading candidate and the one most often noted in this respect? And how did this state of affairs come to be?

What Makes for a World Language?

“A language achieves a genuinely global status when it develops a special role that is recognized in every country,” states David Crystal, British linguist and world authority on English in his book “English as a Global Language.” “But mother tongue use by itself cannot give a language global status… a language must be taken up by different countries around the world. They must decide to give it a special place within their communities, even though they may have few [or no] mother tongue speakers.”

Historically, a language can accomplish special status through being a country’s first language or being identified as an official language, or via its importance to foreign language speakers.

According to Crystal, English now has some kind of special status in more than 70 countries – far more than any other language. In addition, English is the language most widely taught as a foreign language – in more than 100 countries worldwide. Nearly a quarter of the world’s population – from 1.2 to 1.5 billion people – is already fluent or competent in English and the number is growing rapidly. No other language – Chinese included even comes close to this level of growth.

Crystal’s research also shows that there are several ways a language can be afforded “official status.” It may be the sole official language of a country [this may or may not be formally noted in their constitution]. It may share this status with other languages. Or it may be given a “semi-official” status for use only in certain.settings, or take second place to other languages while still performing certain official roles.

But there are many reasons for favoring a particular language over another. Historical tradition, politics, and commercial, cultural or technological incentives are a few.

But Crystal cautions that in reality, a language’s official status or “its perceived aesthetic qualities, clarity of expression, literary power, or religious standing” have little to do with its legitimacy as a world language. “Why a language becomes a world language has little to do with the number of people who speak it. It has much more to do with who the people are,” he explains.

For example, even though a quarter of the world’s population speaks Chinese, it has not attained the status of a world language.

Nor do a language’s intrinsic structural properties, size of vocabulary, literary status or association with religion or culture attain this level of status of their own accord. Rather, linguistic domination usually correlates with cultural power. Without the strength afforded by a strong political, military or economic power base, no language can become a truly international mode of communication.

“A language becomes an international language for one chief reason: the political power of its people – especially their military power,” observes Crystal. “The history of a global language can be traced through the successful expeditions of its soldier/sailor speakers.”

History supports this theory. The dominance of Greek, Latin, Arabic and French tongues was strongly influenced by political and military might.

Alastair Pennycook, in his book “The Cultural Politics of English as a Second Language,” offers added insight, “A review of critical work on English in the world has shown how it is linked to social and economic power both within and between nations, to the global diffusion of particular forms of culture and knowledge, and to the inequitable structures of international relations.”

In addition, linguists point out that it may require a militarily powerful nation to establish a global language, but it also takes economic power to maintain and expand it.

New communication technologies, such as the telephone, telegraph and radio, also have had an enormous influence on the expansion of English in particular. Add to this the growth of international business, the tremendous influence of mass marketing and advertising, the globalization of broadcast media, the recording and film industry, and it’s not difficult to see why the influence of English around the world has grown so rapidly.

Air transportation, communication technologies, the Internet, electronic mail and other technological advancements have all contributed greatly to mobilizing people and thus to the furthering of the English language over the last decade as well. “Any language at the center of such an explosion of international activity would suddenly have found itself with a global status,” notes Crystal. “And English…’a language on which the sun never sets’…was in the right place at the right time.”

Why English?

Linguists often say that the English language “has repeatedly found itself in the right place at the right time.” But, to add a bit more depth to the “Why English?” question, two reasons have been cited for the pre-eminence of the English language today. One is based on the history of world geography, the other on social/cultural factors.

History has provided us with a distinct trail of Britain’s colonial developments as the British Empire expanded around the world. “The English language is now represented in every continent and in the islands of three major oceans,” explains Crystal. “It is the spread of representation which makes the application of the label ‘global language’ a reality.”

A multitude of societies and cultures also have come to depend on English for their well-being. When a language has become well integrated into a country’s politics, business dealings, education and everyday lives, it becomes a necessary element for sustaining that society and its culture.

Further, English-centric global industries – such as communication, medicine, entertainment and media – by their very nature have created near-total dependence on English as the primary mode of communication in these fields. Computer technology and the computer software industry are prime examples. And, despite global efforts to the contrary, English also continues to be the primary language of the borderless Internet.

“By and large, the spread of English is considered to be natural, neutral and beneficial,” suggests Pennycook. “It is considered natural because, although there may be some critical reference to the colonial imposition of English, its subsequent expansion is seen as a result of inevitable global forces.”

He continues, “It is seen as neutral because it is assumed that once English has in some sense become detached from its original cultural contexts [particularly England and America], it is now a neutral and transparent medium of communication. And it is considered beneficial because a rather blandly optimistic view of international communication assumes that this occurs on a cooperative and equitable footing.”

The History of English

By the beginning of the 19th century, Britain had become the world’s leading industrial and trading nation. In Crystal’s book, pre-20th century commentator Isaac Pitman notes, “The British Empire covers nearly a third of the earth’s surface, and British subjects are self-evident that the civilizing influence of Britain was a desirable goal, anywhere in the world, and that the English language was an essential means of achieving this end.”

Old English, which entered England from northern Europe in the 5th century, spread quickly throughout Britain, although Celtic dominated in the north and west. Norman French altered the language irrevocably in the centuries following A.D. 1066, producing the hybrid tongue known as English. Toward the end of the 16th century, westward expeditions from England began the movement of English beyond Britain to the Americas.

As English spread across the United States and Canada, accents began to vary as masses of immigrants arrived from different parts of England, Ireland and Scotland. As time passed, new arrivals from France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Central Europe, Africa and The Netherlands added their own words, accents and style. Within a generation or two, most of these immigrant families had learned to speak English through the natural process of assimilation.

The English language continued to spread rapidly throughout the world as it piggybacked on British travels, conquests and colonization.

The West Indies developed a unique version of English influenced by the slave ships that traveled from Europe to West Africa and on to the Americas, according to Crystal. These voyages, for the purpose of exchanging slaves for commodities in the Caribbean, were behind the first black Creole language in the U.S. South.

Australia and New Zealand also derived their English language from their country’s strong historical connections to Britain. Other parts of the world, including South Africa, the Indian subcontinent, several West and East African nations, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea were all influenced greatly by the expansion of British colonial power, which peaked toward the end of the 19th century.

Rapid technological and scientific advancements – led primarily by Britain and the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution – also affected the spread of English. English terminology became the primary mode of expression with the rest of the world. The introduction of the high-speed rotary press, the Linotype machine and the telegraph expanded the English vocabulary even further.

At the end of the 19th century, the torch was picked up by the United States as it emerged to become the leading world economic power in the 20th century. The influence of American English shows up in places like the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

“The U.S. has nearly 70 percent of all English mother tongue speakers in the world [excluding Creole varieties],” notes Crystal. “Such dominance, with its political and economic underpinnings, currently gives the Americans a controlling interest in the way the language is likely to develop.”

By the end of the 19th century, “a climate of largely unspoken opinion had made English the natural choice,” according to Crystal. He stresses that there

had been very little conscious justification for the role of English as a language, even though the kind of English was an issue of debate at times. English was perceived as a “neutral” language.

Pennycook adds, “Many of the new nations which were once British colonies have realized the importance of English not only as a language of commerce, science and technology but also as an international language of communication.”

No Precedents, No Predictions “Within little more than a generation, we have moved from a situation where a world language was a theoretical possibility to one where it is rapidly approaching reality,” states Crystal. “We may well be approaching a critical moment in human linguistic history. It is possible that a global language will emerge only once.”

“There are no precedents in human history for what happens to languages in such circumstances of rapid change,” he continues. “There has never been a time when so many nations were needing to talk to each other so much. There has never been a time when so many people wished to travel to so many places. There has never been such a strain placed on the conventional resources of translating and interpreting. Never has the need for more widespread bilingualism been greater, to ease the burden placed on the professional few. And never has there been a more urgent need for a global language.”

Crystal and his peers caution that there are no precedents to help us see what happens to a language when it achieves genuine world status and that predictions about the future have a habit of being wrong.

He concludes, “It may well be the case… that the English language has already grown to be independent of any form of social control. There may be a critical number or critical distribution of speakers [analogous to the notion of critical mass in nuclear physics] beyond which it proves impossible for any single group or alliance to stop its growth, or even influence its future.”

Discussions and debates will continue, but only the passing of time will tell.

Cynthia L. Kemper is president of Edgewalkers International, an executive coaching and trend analysis firm focused on global issues in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at

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