English Only?

Our linguistic domination of the world may be a passing fancy

| November/December 2000


Any North American who's ever stepped foot off the continent has probably had a similar experience: You're far away from home, surrounded by crowds of people speaking an unfamiliar language. Maybe you're wandering around a Turkish market, or--like me--dancing in a Chinese disco. It's thrilling, in a foreign kind of way, until suddenly a stranger starts speaking to you in English (like the Chinese lounge lizard who hustled my way and said, 'Disco, baby!'). Just like that, the spell is broken.

Face it--it's getting harder and harder to escape the tyranny of English-as-a-global-language. Technology, the force that's making our world smaller and more accessible, is largely to blame: satellites beam English-language TV to all corners of creation; bigger, faster airplanes carry hordes of money-wielding (and English-speaking) tourists to even the remotest of villages; and popular American music and movies (complete with their corny pick-up lines) are everywhere.

Fast becoming the worldwide language of entertainment, commerce, and diplomacy, English may eventually usurp all other languages, establishing itself as the global mother tongue.

'Many of the world's languages are disappearing, but English is spreading,' reports The Futurist (May/June 2000), suggesting the need for a standardized set of rules concerning English-language vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. 'No language has ever had such global exposure as English has,' says linguist David Crystal, 'so there are no precedents for what is currently taking place.'

Not so fast, says linguist Joshua A. Fishman in Whole Earth (Spring 2000). While the global use of English is undoubtedly on the rise, its popularity may still be just a passing phase. 'There are reasons to believe that the English language will eventually wane in influence,' Fishman writes. 'For one, English actually reaches and then is utilized by only a small, atypically fortunate minority. Furthermore, globalization has also encouraged regionalization, and with it the spread of regional languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hausa, Spanish. Finally, the spread of English and these regional languages collectively has created a squeeze effect on small communities, producing pockets of anxious localization and local-language revival resistant to global change.'



In many cases, Fishman argues, language use continues to be driven by regional custom. In Africa, home to 13 percent of the world's population, for instance, 'English is neither the only nor even the best means of communication.' In this part of the world, regional interactions such as trade, travel, interethnic marriages, and the spread of religion--conducted not in English but in one of the thousands of regional languages that still thrive in Africa today--are what affect most people's lives.

And, despite what you may have been led to believe, English is by no means the most widely spoken language in the world today. As the first language of 322 million people, it still runs a distant second to Mandarin Chinese, the mother tongue of nearly one in six human beings, or 885 million people.