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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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Too many choices!Economic libertarians are wedded to choice believing that people should be given free rein to make bad choices as well as good – by smoking, for example, or failing to take out a pension plan. Once they have had time to rationally calibrate the costs and benefits, they will realise that bid choices lead to suffering, and change their behaviour. But this is wishful thinking. Generally, I believe human beings consistently underestimate the future costs of their actions, choosing instant gratification instead. Self control is especially hard in affluent societies, where temptation abounds. Hence the obesity epidemic we are faced with so much cheap, tasty food that it becomes impossible to resist, even when we know it will make us fat. This is why, increasingly, people are looking to the state to help them make better decisions. Smokers have willingly submitted to greater and greater regulation, now consumers want the Government to rein in the junk food industry. Libertarians duly rage against the nanny state, but we increasingly run to it for protection – from ourselves.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK where we have a worldwide reputation for poor health, thanks to our well publicised fondness for warm beer, cigarettes and deep fried fish and chips. But according to an extensive survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, us Brits are actually in better shape than the Americans. Among US citizens aged 55 or over, the likes of cancer, diabetes and heart disease are almost double those in Britain. Even more galling is the the fact that Americans spend $5,200 per capita for health care every year – whereas the British spend just $2,100.

The question is why as some may be tempted to interpret this study as a vindication of socialised medicine, since Britain provides health care free of charge to all its citizens. But that conclusion is debatable when you look more closely at the data. The study actually shows that the wealthiest and best educated Americans – those with access to the best health care – have rates of disease that are comparable to the poorest Britons. The problem, in other words, is not lack of access to doctors. It may be, however, that Britain’s universal health care system puts more of an emphasis on public health and early detection, whereas the profit-driven US system tends to treat diseases without systematically looking to prevent what causes them. Americans need to figure out what they’re doing wrong, otherwise the human and economic costs of their failing health could burden them for decades.

The answer may lie outside the medical care system altogether. Americans exercise less than us Brits and get more nutrition from heavily processed foods – but even after adjusting for differences in rates of obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption between the two nations, the disparities were still stunning. A plausible culprit is different attitudes towards work in our two cultures. The British are far less obsessed with their careers, reserving much more of their time for leisure, their friends at the pub, and family. Americans work harder and longer and take greater risks in switching jobs and starting companies. The benefit of such a vigorous culture is obvious: a more dynamic economy. But the price is relentless, grinding stress means Americans are literally be working themselves to death.

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Yummy pork sausages - 83% fatWe all know that drinking alcohol is both big and clever but it does sometime provoke a wee bit of violence, which doesn’t matter as long as you can fight, but it ultimately leads to weight problems. Think darts player. Fat people can’t catch a break these days in a society that prizes thinness above all. We make the obese the butt of our jokes, berate them for running up health care costs and treat them like modern-day lepers. And we’re even blaming them for global warming. A new study estimates that America‘s cars burn a billion gallons of extra petrol a year, just to lug around the extra pounds of their lardy bodies. Another study estimates that commercial planes burn another 350 million gallons of fuel for the same reason. People will apparently seize on any ammunition, however tenuous, to scapegoat the fat and get them to change their dissolute ways. Subjecting the obese to a non-stop diet of criticism is not just cruel – it’s also counter-productive. A researcher recently asked 3,000 fat people how they responded to stigmatisation and discrimination. Almost everyone said they ate more. Perhaps they should jog more, mind you look at what happened to Jim Fixx.

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