Economies of Language

English learners must weigh economic pros against cultural cons

| July 7, 2005

Teaching and learning the English language has become a massive global industry. And it's not just grammar and vocabulary students learn. Teaching culture is part and parcel to language, Julie Traves writes for This Magazine.

Cultural context clarifies idioms and subtle meanings. 'Let's do lunch,' for example, does not mean show up at noon tomorrow. Speaking English means adopting the cultural codes embedded in it, and as English proliferates, other dialects and customs can get lost.

'We're trying to come to grips with the effect of globalization on language teaching,' Ian Martin, Professor of English at York University's Glendon College in Toronto, tells Traves. 'Do we want a globalization that is going to be assimilationist to Western models of communication only?'

English has an undeniable edge as a global language. 'If there is a shortcut to development, it is English; parents understand that, kids understand that,' Munh-Orgil Tsend, foreign minister of Mongolia, recently told the New York Times. Two billion people are expected to be learning it by 2010, Sean Coughlan reports for BBC News, and many countries are embedding English-language learning into their school systems. Venture capitalists are putting their money behind businesses moving into China, Katherine Heires reports in Business Week. These western companies hire locally, and multilingual candidates have a clear advantage.

So far, English has hitched a ride to prevalence on the backs of such western corporations based in leading economies. But it may have some competition soon. China's economy is expected to increase 30-fold by 2050, and for businesspeople worldwide, that could mean brushing up on Chinese too.

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