Globalisation of the english language - no dictionaries requiredLast year Jacques Chirac pledged to fight the spread of the English language across the world after walking out of an EU summit because a French business leader committed the grave offence of speaking in English. He said at the time:

“We fight for our language… I was profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself in English at the table.”

This provided a vivid illustration of French sensitivity about the decline of the language, which used to dominate the EU. English has overtaken French in Brussels after the arrival of Sweden and Finland in 1995 and the “big bang” expansion of the EU to eastern Europe in 2004. With the internet fast turning English into the world’s first language, Mr Chirac insisted that he would continue to promote French, which is spoken as a mother tongue by 100 million people, a relatively small number. He said:

“You cannot base a future world on just one language, just one culture”

This invariably leads us to question the extent that globalisation has impacted on languages: some languages are increasingly used in international communication while others lose their prominence and even disappear for lack of speakers. Researchers at the Globalisation Research Center at the University of Hawaii have identified five key variables that influence the globalization of languages:

  1. Number of languages: The declining number of languages in different parts of the world points to the strengthening of homogenizing cultural forces.
  2. Movements of people: People carry their languages with them when they migrate and travel. Migration patterns affect the spread of languages.
  3. Foreign language learning and tourism: Foreign language learning and tourism facilitate the spread of languages beyond national or cultural boundaries.
  4. Internet languages: The Internet has become a global medium for instant communication and quick access to information.
  5. International scientific publications: International scientific publications contain the languages of global intellectual discourse, thus critically impacting intellectual communities involved in the production, reproduction, and circulation of knowledge around the world.

Given these highly complex interactions, research in this area frequently yields contradictory conclusions. Unable to reach a general agreement, experts in the field have developed several different hypotheses. One model posits a clear correlation between the growing global significance of a few languages – particularly English and Chinese – and the declining number of other languages around the world. Another model suggests that the globalisation of language does not necessarily mean that our descendants are destined to utilize only a few tongues. Still another thesis emphasizes the power of the Anglo-American culture industry to make English the global lingua franca of the 21st century.

To be sure, the rising significance of the English language has a long history, reaching back to the birth of British colonialism in the late 16th century. At that time, only approximately 7 million people used English as their mother tongue. By the 1990s, this number had swollen to over 350 million native speakers, with 400 million more using English as a second language. Today, more than 80% of the content posted on the Internet is in English. Almost half of the world’s growing population of foreign students are enrolled at institutions in Anglo-American countries.

At the same time, however, the number of spoken languages in the world has dropped from about 14,500 in 1500 to less than 7,000 in 2000. Given the current rate of decline, some linguists predict that 50-90% of the currently existing languages will have disappeared by the end of the 21st century. Perhaps Chirac is right to be worried after all?

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