what lies ahead?

Global American

English is spreading, changing other languages and being changed by them – in Internet time.

Global English
As English spreads, speakers morph it into a world tongue.

Born in the USA
American slang has become a worldwide code.

World Wide Web Of Words
Technology continues to be a petri dish for culturing and spreading language.

crowd gathered on new york city street

We are the world. Not everyone is thrilled.  Paul Johnson, Forbes Magazine columnist explains:

The French educational world is convulsed by a report on the future of its school system. A commission headed by education expert Claude Thélot has recommended that the teaching of English be mandatory in all French schools and that it be accorded the same importance as the French language and mathematics. The commission takes the position that English is now the "language of international communication" and that French young people must be taught to speak and write it fluently.

Another report on the level of knowledge of English attained by youngsters in eight European countries gives France the lowest rating, claiming the French actually regressed between 1996 and 2002. The Spanish, traditionally the least polyglot of western European nationalities, are now doing better than the French. Under a 1990 law, all Spanish schoolchildren are now taught a foreign language (98% choose English) from the age of 8 and in some regions start at 6. In the Madrid region there are 26 bilingual schools and colleges in which courses--with the exception of Spanish literature and mathematics--are taught in English; by 2007 there will be 110.

Unlike the Americans and British, who simply allow the spread of English to take its course, the French have spent billions on promoting their language in French-speaking territories in Africa and the Pacific. Pushed by the Académie Française, the French government has imposed sanctions on officials or agencies financed by taxes that are found using Americanisms or English phrases where a French equivalent exists. Some French parliamentarians have raised an angry fuss over the Olympic Games' press conferences being held in English and over a recent report by the European Central Bank to the European Parliament given in English. It was not so long ago that the EU Secretary-General, when asked why he invariably gave press conferences in French (with no translation), replied: "Because French is the language of diplomacy," adding, under his breath, "and civilization." Recently the academician Maurice Druon, together with a group of elderly French lawyers, demanded that French be made the judicial language of Europe.

Professor Claude Hagège of the Collège de France has come to agree with the idea of teaching English in French primary schools but only if another language is taught at the same time. Both Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Minister of Education François Fillon support the proposal to make teaching English mandatory. However, Jacques Chirac--who hates the spread of English--has made what he sees as a high-minded plea for cultural diversity and the richness of language. "Nothing," he says, "would be worse for humanity than to move toward a situation where we speak only one language." That's an odd statement coming from a man committed to an EU in which the harmonization process is being extended to all laws and administration that have the slightest impact on economies and whose aim is the "United States of Europe."

Must not a superstate of a score of nations have a common language? The Germans, the principal allies of the French in the EU, have allowed English to replace French as their country's second language in schools and in business. Indeed, some German firms with big export interests already hold board meetings in English. They find it "more convenient." That is also an increasing practice in Sweden and the Netherlands.

The Inevitable Spread

As the author of more than 40 books--most of which have been translated, some into as many as 30 languages--I have some insight into the process whereby English spreads. The Dutch and the Swedes no longer bother to bring out local-language editions of my books. However, some languages present particular problems. There have to be two Portuguese-language editions, one translation done in Lisbon for Portugal proper, another in Rio de Janeiro for Brazil, evidence of strong linguistic bifurcation. The same happens with Spanish--one translation in Madrid for Spain, another in Buenos Aires for Latin America. For China there have to be three editions: one Big Letter, one Small Letter and one for Hong Kong.

Languages are things of beauty. But linguistics students know perfectly well that language cannot be dictated by elites ruling from above. It is the one naturally democratic force in the world--surging up from below. That is why French schoolchildren, no matter what the Académie Française orders, say "Yeah" instead of "Oui." As for the further spread of English, much will depend on what happens in India, a subcontinent of countless languages and dialects. The British promoted Hindi as a common language for India. But under mid-19th-century reforms, English was promulgated as the language of administration. Educated Indians today speak and write English fluently, and it is spreading faster in India than in any other country. Indians, even those from poor families, recognize English to be their passport to affluence, not least through telephonic outsourcing. Today millions earn their living by speaking English.

India will soon be the world's most populous country. By 2050 India, with a population of 1.6 billion, will have overtaken China (1.4 billion). If India becomes a predominantly English-speaking country, as I expect will happen, China will have to follow suit or risk relegation. There are high stakes in the global language game. But there's not much we can do about it. Events will take their course. Everyone should calm down--and learn English.

Reprinted courtesy, Forbes Magazine

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett


Rosalind P.

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Corporation of New York