English Everywhere: It's the universal, global, one-size-fits-all language. Eric Lucas says it's not enough.
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jan 13 15:04:29 UTC 2009
Speaker's Corner: It's the universal, global, one-size-fits-all
language. Eric Lucas says it's not enough.
01.12.09 | 8:55 AM ET
Do you speak English?" The impeccably dressed young man behind the
hotel counter in Dresden looked at me as if I'd asked whether he ever
takes a shower. "Of course," he replied, briskly. Oxford-style accent.
"Sorry, of course you do," I apologized, moving on to my question
about how to find a restaurant. That night at dinner, as I was having
a conversation with our waitress, I mulled my language provincialism.
I know a smattering of German—hello, please, thanks, good morning,
etc.—but have not gone much beyond the basics in Deutsch. My lack of
knowledge was no impediment whatsoever to the purple-tressed
22-year-old Goth who brought a Saxon-style meal and easily answered my
questions about it. In English.
"Danke," I said. I might have said, "Masha danki," or "Mil gracias,"
or "Tack så mycket," or "Dziekuje," or "Hsieh-hsieh," had I been in
Bonaire, Mexico, Sweden, Poland or Beijing. Most everyone in those
places could have looked me up and down, determined my provenance, and
replied "You're welcome." In English.
English is everywhere these days. It has become the universal, global,
one-size-fits-all language. Estimates place its worldwide use among
1.5 billion people—quite a preponderance, considering native speakers
of English number around 450 million. Almost any human working in the
travel industry, Earth's biggest economic arena, speaks some English.
Commercial pilots are expected to do so. Bankers, customs and
immigration officials, police officers, corporate managers, food
servers, retail clerks—are all largely English-speaking, around the
world. The language that was once an imperial weapon has been utterly
transformed into a peaceable necklace embracing all. No matter where
we go, we Americans, people speak our language, willfully. The
question is: What should those of us who grow up speaking English do
as the rest of the world adopts our language?
The irony, of course, is that much of the land in which we English
speakers reside has been stubbornly pulling the linguistic shades shut
in order to impose a monolingual culture. More than half the U.S.
states have made English the official language. Got that, pilgrim? No
furrin' jabbering around here. By contrast, almost half the world's
190 or so countries have at least two official languages.
Once upon a time only boorish Americans who somehow found their way
outside the U.S. (usually to Mexico) expected that everyone should
speak English. I recall sitting next to a gang of drunk Texans on a
plane home from the Yucatan in 1980: "Great beer," one enthused. "But
can you believe they don't speak English!" his wife complained, though
she used a cruder term than "they."
Today it is rude to presume that residents of foreign countries are so
uneducated they don't speak English. Elementary school students learn
it. High school students practice it. It's as important to business as
presentable clothing—one California company, Global English, offers
instruction to workers at 450 locations in 140 countries. My wife and
I hosted a Finnish exchange student for three months one spring. Her
assignment? Improve her English. Every Finn is expected to be
conversant in English.
How did this happen? Though academics trot out theories laden with
terms such as "linguistic imperialism" and "subcultural authenticity"
(in English, of course) it seems clear one can credit the British
Empire, which had colonies around the globe; the Wright Brothers, who
invented aviation and spurred its global spread using English;
Microsoft, which created PC software that was initially English. Who
knows? Maybe one should include the world's most visible brand,
Coca-Cola, which wanted to teach the world to sing ... in English.
As a lifelong writer and editor, I can verify that English didn't rise
to the top on merit alone—it's confusing and clunky compared to, say,
However it happened, the fact is that now, when you visit Beijing, all
official signs, and many unofficial ones, are in Mandarin and English.
When Poles and Swiss wish to converse, they use English. When 200
business executives from around the world gather for a conference in
Frankfurt, the common language is English, which also happens to be
the dual-language choice at Frankfurt airport, which happens to be the
world's most international air terminal. The term for this is lingua
franca, a phrase English borrowed from Italian. I'm not sure which
language should be aggrieved about that.
The English epidemic has led to great variation, which often yields
entertaining novelties. I have a harder time conversing with someone
from particular parts of Britain or the Caribbean, in English, than I
do in Spanish (my sort-of second language) with Mexicans. And anyone
who travels overseas collects what are perhaps rudely known as
"Engrishisms," such as this sign in an Eastern Europe hotel: "The lift
is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you
will be unbearable."
Although it may seem the spread of English is good for those who grow
up speaking it, a British study commission concluded just the opposite
a few years back. Most of the world's business people are bilingual,
pointed out the British Council in 2006. Most native English speakers
are not. If you run a global business, are you going to hire someone
who speaks only one language?
But what does this mean for those of us saddled with this universal
language since birth? Turnabout is fair play, goes the old playground
saying: We should all be learning a second language.
I bet that'll happen.
I just hope the universality of English spurs more members of the
largest English-speaking as-a-native-language society—the United
States—to get out of our rather large but provincial box and travel
the world. Maybe the ease and comfort of global English will help
create respect and appreciation for the world's 6,000 other languages
and the customs of the people who speak them. Maybe
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