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Global English is a force for division – not unity

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November 9, 2018   3 mins

Britain is hardly the only country in the world to have experienced a populist revolt – but Brexit is arguably the hardest blow so far to the globalist order. In voting to quit the European Union, the British demonstrated that there is nothing inevitable in the trend towards an ever more ‘open’ and borderless world.

The irony is that the single greatest enabler of globalisation is not the EU or the WTO or any other political institution, but something that no one controls or organises – the English language.

Nothing would do more to dissolve distinctions of nationhood and culture than the spread of a universal language. Artificial languages, such as Esperanto, were invented with this purpose in mind; but it is English, the maddeningly eccentric language of an insular people, that has come closest to achieving the dream.

In a report from the Netherlands for the BBC, Anna Holligan provides a startling example of how English is “besieging” non-Anglophone cultures.

Of course, one could argue that Dutch culture is Anglophone:

“The Netherlands has one of the world’s highest levels of English proficiency among non-native speaking countries, second only to Sweden, according to the latest EF English Proficiency Index.”

Impressive, but is it going too far? A contentious issue is the use of English in the country’s higher education system:

“So extensive is the spread of English in Dutch universities, a group of lecturers has predicted a looming ‘linguicide’ and demanded the government in The Hague impose a moratorium banning universities from creating any additional English language courses until an official impact analysis has been conducted.

“Sixty per cent of masters programmes offered at Utrecht University are in English. At the highest honours level, virtually no courses are taught in Dutch.”

Some Dutch academics fear for the future:

“‘It’s our identity, Dutch,’ complains Annette de Groot, professor of linguistics at the University of Amsterdam.

“‘What happens to the identity of a people of a country where the native language is no longer the main language of higher education?’”

Of course, much of this is a matter of necessity. Scholars need a command of English to access and contribute to leading academic journals and conferences. Furthermore, there’s nothing new about an international language of scholarship. The universities of medieval Europe taught in Latin and the great thinkers of the age used the language to exchange ideas – and continued to do so into the modern age. That didn’t erase national languages or identities – quite the opposite, in fact.

There is, however, a big difference between the academic use of English now and Latin back then. Higher education is no longer the preserve of a tiny band of ecclesiastical specialists. Today, entry to the professions and a growing range of trades depends on a degree. Therefore the anglicisation of higher education affects a substantial part of society, not just a scholarly elite.

The emergence of an “over-class” that literally speaks a foreign language (for professional purposes) can only exacerbate divisions between the ‘somewheres’ versus ‘anywheres’, nationalists versus globalists. Even in countries like the Netherlands, where most people speak some English, there’s a much wider range of proficiency (and, therefore, potential for social exclusion) than in a nation where English is the mother tongue.

Fortunately, two things are now working against the trend towards global English: Firstly, Brexit – which may stop the slide towards English as the language of the European Union; and, more importantly, technology. Translation software is getting better all the time – and, with any luck, it will make a command of any language, other than one’s own, unnecessary (except for language scholars, of course).

It is very much in the globalist way of thinking to ‘celebrate’ diversity. However, by definition, there can be no diversity without difference and no differences without a degree of separation. Different languages help to give nations their own ‘headspace’, a distinct cultural environment from which they can make their own unique contributions to the wealth of human civilisation. 

Forcing the world’s most fertile minds to express themselves in the same language may aid communication, but at the cost of originality.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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