English Only?

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.

Rather than forcing the rest of the world into an English-or-perish scenario, Fishman suggests that a wiser step may be for English speakers to adopt and encourage regional languages suited for distinctive social functions. Many Americans already do this to a certain extent: Consider ebonics, Spanglish, and other hybrids.

‘The language characteristically used with intimate family and friends, the language generally used with co-workers or neighbors, and the language used with one’s bosses or government need not be the same,’ Fishman explains. ‘Many West Africans, for example, are trilingual on a fully functional basis: They use local mother tongues when they’re among ‘their own,’ Hausa for regional trade and secular literacy, and Arabic for prayer and Koranic study.’

And most of all, the linguistic dominance of English depends largely on the continued economic dominance of the United States. Language use is, Fishman reminds us, largely mercurial. The popularity of a tongue may wane if its ‘sponsor’ loses its influence.

‘If anything were to disestablish the military or economic power of the USA, there would be inevitable consequences for the global status of the language,’ Crystal says in Whole Earth. ‘The millions of people learning English in order to have access to this power would begin looking elsewhere.’

So you might want to look around for a Chinese phrase book. If American tech stocks keep taking a beating, it might serve you well to learn a few good Mandarin pick-up lines.

Top Ten Languages
(millions of native speakers)

Chinese (Mandarin) 885
English 322
Spanish 266
Bengali 189
Hindi 182
Portuguese 170

Russia 170
Japanese 125
German 98
Chinese (Wu) 77

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