December 4, 2019

One of my first English students was a Pole who wanted to communicate with his Chinese business partners. “Why English?” I asked, “Why not Mandarin?” Well, he said, what if they did business with Indians, Italians or Azerbaijanis? What are they likelier to know? English or Mandarin? I suspect it helped that he didn’t have to struggle with Standard Chinese Phonology this way, too.

English is indisputably the global language. More than three times as many people speak English as a second tongue than speak it as a first. It is, as my student knew, the language of international business, and multinationals increasingly use it as a common corporate language to improve communication across diverse and complex organisations.

English is the main language of international tourism, being a required skill for employees in the hospitality sectors of nations from Thailand to Argentina. It is the language of international gaming. Once, when I was having Easter breakfast at a Polish friend’s house, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and his 11-year-old brother, who had said nothing up to that point, blurted out, “Good luck, we’re all behind you”, learned from playing online. The only other English word he knew was “headshot”.

With its ubiquity stemming from British imperialism and American popular culture, and its relative simplicity, the pre-eminence of English does not seem likely to change. Learning Chinese as a foreign language is becoming more popular but it is neither as common nor as widespread, and there seems to be no institutional drive towards challenging the status of English as the lingua franca. Even China’s neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have English as their working language.

What native English speakers will see, however, is the diversification of the language as non-native speakers from different countries communicate and form patterns of speech. Young French, German and Italian people, for example, might have “Euro-English”, where shared misconceptions are baked into the language, like the overuse of the present continuous (“I am coming from France”). Indians already have “Hinglish”, a stew of Hindi and English which might become more widely spoken than English itself.

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Millions of non-native speakers will add this local spice to a stripped-down form of the language along the lines of what Jean Paul Nerriere calls “Globish”. Globish is simplified English, reduced to its most functional elements. This, Nerriere says, is important to “bridge the communication gap” between different non-native speakers but also to ensure that English does not supplant their native languages. Globish can therefore be useful in business and tourism spheres without excessively diminishing the cultural importance of native tongues.

A cheap response to this is that Nerriere is French, and the French are not delighted with the spread of English. But he has a point. Imagine, if you are an English speaker, how you would feel if your employment chances and your social status were dependent on your fluency in French.

You could appreciate, if French was the global language, the economic and social opportunities that you were gaining, and the intrinsic charm of written and spoken French, but you might feel a bit resentful. In a Harvard Business Review report on how all global firms now use English as standard, a French woman recalls “…walking into [a] meeting with a lot of energy — until she noticed the translator headsets. ‘They’re humiliating,’ she says. ‘I felt like an observer rather than a participant at my own company.'”

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But as well as being a burden on individuals, English proficiency can be a driver of polarisation within societies. English skills are much higher in urban than rural areas, and much higher among the children of middle class families than working-class ones. This affects their life outcomes, and in Korea, for example, commentators speak of an “English divide” between those who can work for international businesses, or work in tourism, or successfully migrate, and those who cannot.

Last year the Korea Herald reported on an enterprising charitable effort by Bruce Lee (no relation) to teach underprivileged kids. The enrolment policy is guided by the organisation’s vision of narrowing the “English divide” in South Korea by helping underprivileged children practise English. According to Lee, the divide stems from unequal opportunities in studying English, which reduces access to jobs and further education, ultimately widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

In India, even greater concern has been raised about the gap between the masses and the “English-speaking elite”. There, wealthy families can value the economic and cultural potential of English proficiency to such an extent that it is the language families speak at home. Sajith Pai called “affluent, urban, highly educated” Indians such as his family “Indo-Anglians”, describing them as being “clustered in certain pockets” of the nation’s larger cities and falling “well within the top 1% of India economically”. Sunil Bhatia has said that English proficiency has “emerged as one of the most crucial determinants of social status, income, prestige, and employment.”

As well as economic disparities, this exaggerates cultural stratification. First, English speakers consume Western media, which can foster “Western” values. A study of television viewing in Russia, for example, found that the more Russians watch American TV shows the more they adopt Western liberal norms, while a study of urban residents of China found that the more Chinese people are exposed to Western media the more enthusiastic they become about consumerism. English speaking also functions as a status symbol. A draft National Education Policy prepared by Indian scientists has claimed that one’s fluency in English is used as a “test for entry into the elite class and for the jobs that they control”.

This policy statement, an article in Business Today reports, argues that “large sections of society are marginalised” and insists: A major effort… must be taken by the elite and the educated to make increased use of languages native to India, and give these languages the space and respect that they deserve.

On the other hand, the British-born, Indian-raised writer Aatish Taseer — son of the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated for defending Pakistani Christians — has argued that this campaign against the “English-speaking elite” is symptomatic of the “Chavezian” populism of Prime Minister Modi.

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Certainly, there is potential for English speaking to be a scapegoat for deeper structural problems, while English-speakers are not necessarily members of an “elite”. Indeed in Cameroon English-speakers are a minority fighting for separatism from their more numerous French-speaking compatriots, a decades-old conflict known as the Anglophone Problem, one which still rages today.

Still, while we should be aware that complaints about English-speaking could be based on xenophobic opportunism — the construction, in other words, of an outgroup on which to project grievances — that does not mean significant inequalities do not exist.

The adoption of English as the global language has had many advantages. It enables business deals, political dialogue, tourism, academic work, friendships and romances. Yet we should be aware of its second order consequences. Native speakers must accept, if we have not already, that English has escaped our absolute authority and will be twisted, truncated and transformed in different ways that will make the American insistence on calling crisps “chips” and trousers “pants” look like trivialities.

People from non-English speaking countries, meanwhile, should be aware that English is not always a neutral tool but can divide people along class and cultural lines. If it is not to be a force for stratification and resentment then it should be integrated into societies in a manner that makes it accessible for different kinds of people, and does not subordinate their own linguistic heritage. Otherwise the world’s language will prove itself to be yet another dividing force within societies separating the elites from the people.