Globalisation and English

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26 February 2016

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According to the researchers from the Levin Institute, globalisation is defined as “a process of interaction and integration among the people, companies, and governments of different nations, a process driven by international trade and investment and aided by information technology. This process has effects on the environment, on culture, on political systems, on economic development and prosperity, and on human physical well-being in societies around the world.”1 Coleman (2006: 2) considers that globalization is characterized by the compression of time and geographical distance, the reduction of diversity through intensified trade and communication, and new social relationships marked by reduced local power and influence.

Gray (2002: 152) considers that a series of factors are associated with this phenomenon, including the rise of transnational corporations (which challenge the autonomy of the nation-state), the interconnection which goes beyond national boundaries, the development of technologies which compress space and time and make communication instantaneous and increasing cultural hybridization. The combination of these factors generates two visions on the present and future, an apocalyptical dystopia or the image of the humanity at the beginning of a new era of civilisation. Berger (2003: 2) describes the utopian perspective as the promise of an international civil society, conducive to a new era of peace and democratization. The dystopian nightmare implies “the threat of an American economic and political hegemony, with its cultural consequence being a homogenized world resembling a sort of metastasized Disneyland (charmingly called a “cultural Chernobyl” by a French government official).”

As Berger and many others rightfully notice, there is indeed an emerging global culture, with an American origin and content, which Berger describes using a phrase belonging to the Chilean historian Claudio Veliz: “the Hellenistic phase of Anglo-American civilization”. The formulation is clearly dissociated from any interpretation in terms of imperialism, as Greece had no imperial power by the time the civilized world was described as Hellenistic. Even though the United States have today a great deal of power, its culture is not imposed globally be means of force.

During the Hellenistic times, the main vehicle for cultural propagation was language, the basic and vulgar Greek, Koine. The nowadays koine seems to be English, that new lingua franca for the new emerging global culture, which the world population learn for practical reasons. English has become the medium of international, economic, technological and scientific communication, however much this may enrage intellectuals in certain places or the world, such as France or Quebec. Millions of people all over the world learn English because they want to take part in this global communication, not because they want to read Shakespeare in the original. As Fishman puts it, “whether we consider English a “killer language” or not, whether we regard its spread as benign globalization or linguistic imperialism, its expansive reach is undeniable and, for the time being, unstoppable. Never before in human history has one language been spoken (let alone semi-spoken) so widely and by so many.”(cf. Fishman, 1999: 26)

Crystal (1997: 13) notices that the reason why a language becomes a global language does not have much to do with the number of people who use it. It is much more important who those speakers are. Latin became an international language throughout the Roman Empire, but this was not because the Romans were more numerous than the peoples they subjugated. The writer goes on arguing that language has no independent existence, living in some sort of mystical space apart from the people who speak it. Language exists only in the brains and mouths and ears and hands and eyes of its users. Consequently, when they succeed, on the international stage, their language succeeds. When they fail, their language fails with them. A language does not become a global language as it possesses special intrinsic structural properties, or because of the size of its vocabulary, or because it has been a vehicle of a great literature in the past, or because it was once associated with a great culture or religion. These factors can motivate someone to learn a language, of course, but none of them alone, or their combination can ensure a language’s world spread. A language has traditionally become an international language for one chief reason: the power of its people – especially their political and military power.

Still, according to Crystal, the international language dominance is not entirely the result of military might. It may take a militarily powerful nation to establish a language, but it takes an economically powerful one to maintain and expand it. This was the case in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, when economic developments began to operate on a global scale and supported the new communication technologies – telegraph, telephone, radio – and fostered the emergence of massive multinational organizations. The development of a competitive industry and business led to an explosion of international marketing and advertising. Also, the technology, chiefly in the form of movies and records, fuelled new mass entertainment industries which had a worldwide impact. As Crystal rightfully underlines it, any language at the centre of such an explosion of international activity would suddenly have found itself with a global status.

English, he sustains, was in the right place at the right time. During the nineteenth century, Britain had become the world’s leading industrial and trading country. At the end of the century, the population of the USA was larger than that of any of the countries of Europe, and its economy was the most productive and the fastest growing in the world. During the twentieth century, this world presence was maintained and promoted through the economic supremacy of the American superpower. Politics was replaced by economics the chief driving force. And the language behind the US dollar was English. The American English, as any other language, carries with it a cultural freight of cognitive, normative and emotional connotations which insinuate themselves in the consciousness of those who speak it. According to Berger (2000: 427), it makes sense to assume that the attractiveness of English, especially of its American form, is due at least in part to its capacity to express the sensibilities of a dynamic, pluralistic and rationally innovative world.

The prospect that a lingua franca is needed for the entire world emerged powerfully during the twentieth century, when various international bodies (such as United Nations, UNESCO or UNICEF) came into being. The need to adopt a unique lingua franca in order to facilitate communication in such contexts is obvious, as the alternative would be expensive and impracticable multi-way translation facilities. The need for a global language is particularly appreciated by the international academic and business communities, composed of members with a large variety of mother tongues, as well as in the thousands of individual contacts being made daily around the world, as people nowadays have become more mobile, both physically and electronically, due to the invention of the Internet. There are many considerable benefits which would flow from the existence of a global language; but several commentators have pointed to possible risks which may emerge from the existence of a unique lingua franca. Johnson (2009: 132) has identified three paradoxes of thought regarding the status of English as a so-called lingua franca, each of these conflicts being interlinked with the others. The first paradox is an illustration of the widespread disagreement on whether English should be considered a powerful economic tool for development and commerce, or its rise is a dangerous mechanism which reinforces and creates new inequalities based on English-proficiency.

There is also a risk that that those who speak English as their mother tongue will automatically be in a position of power compared with those who have to learn it as an official or foreign language. For example, a scientist with another native language than English will need more time to assimilate a report in English and consequently, less time to carry out his or her own scientific research. Moreover, if his or her work is written in other language than English, there is a chance that he or she will have his or her work ignored by the international scientific community. A different scenario could be that of the senior managers who do not have English as their mother tongue and find themselves working for English-language companies; these persons could find themselves at a disadvantage compared with their mother-tongue colleagues, especially when meetings involve the use of informal speech. Crystal (2007: 16) claims that there is already anecdotal evidence to suggest that these things happen.

Knowledge of English is a powerful tool for development and advancement throughout the world and fluency in English is seen as a step forward in the people’s struggle for self-sufficiency and success. The increase in global interactions has stimulated demand for more efficient communication across lingual borders. A second reason for the popularity of English among the world population is the language’s association with all things “modern”, most likely thanks to American pop culture. But recently, observers of the spread of English have pointed that English is not only helpful but is becoming increasingly necessary for success in the nowadays world, leaving those who do not speak it behind.

Researchers have noted that publications written in languages other than English have a considerably lower impact, being less cited than English-language works. Various advertising companies make intensive use of the lingual imagery, using English when they want to express globality, modernism, and progressivism. In this manner, the English language continues its growth, owing its popularity to the financial benefits of those using it and to the attractive lifestyle images attached to it. For many, from rich business executives to low-income students, English and its command has been constructed as “language power of opportunity, free of the limitations that the ambitious attribute to their native languages” (cf. Johnson, 2009: 134). The English-only systems are accused of violation of the equality of opportunity and lingual rights should be protected like other human rights, instead of being left to market forces, but on the other hand, the role of English in bringing prosperity to those who use it cannot be ignored. English, like any other economic tool, is not equally and universally available and may function as a new dividing line in the quest for progress. Fishman argues that “spreading languages often come to be hated because they can disadvantage many as they provide advantages for some.” (1999: 28).

The analysis devoted recently to the spread of English has got precisely to the point that English is not only helpful but is becoming increasingly necessary for success in the working world, leaving those who do not speak it behind. This system which rewards English-speakers and leaves the rest outside is highly questionable. On the one hand, all skills, including lingual ability, should be awarded; on the other hand, the ability in a language which is native to some and the educational access to which is nor fairly spread should not count for more than one’s field-related expertise.

A second conflict Johnson draws attention upon has emerged with regard to culture. There are voices claiming that English language is an imperialist and homogenizing force detrimental to the world’s diversity of cultures, while others consider that the English language is separating from its culture of origin and actually facilitating cross-cultural dialogue. English is considered the carrier of the images of globalization, threatening not only to make those who speak it more alike, but to mould them in the culturally-specific American image that it carries in its syntax. English may be the tool for communicating used by the international elite, and consequently the language of choice for those who aspire to gain this status, but languages are more than mere modes for communication. They are also the carriers of entire perspectives upon the world, the containers of culture and identity. “While this means that decreasing lingual diversity can lead to the loss of irreplaceable bodies of knowledge and tradition, it also reinforces the influence of those who hold such power.” (Johnson, 2009: 137)

As there is a direct but also a subtle connection between the way the speakers understand the world around them and the language they speak to communicate, using lingual power is a particularly effective modality to spread one’s influence. Many scholars fear that the brand of Americanized “cosmopolitanism” threatens not to celebrate diversity, but to destroy, or dilute in the best case-scenario, the cultures in its path. On the positive side, the rise of English is considered a positive development for culture, linking people who come from a wide range of backgrounds and allowing speakers to share their culture and ideas with a larger audience. But many of modern English students are not very interested in becoming culturally American but more eager in learning English for international purposes, many times related to their careers.

International communication through English is more and more characterized by interactions between those who speak it as a second language rather than by communication between native speakers. It is true that the balance of power may have determined that English would become the dominant global language, but the language in itself can no longer be understood as functioning exclusively to serve the interests of English-speaking states. In sport, business, entertainment or advertising, English is being more and more used as a communication tool, and various scholars in the field claim that this is only strengthening global cultural awareness and the appreciation of diversity. But, according to Graddol, (1997: 3) the language is at a critical moment in its global career: within a decade or so, the number of people who speak English as a second language will exceed the number of native speakers. The implications of this shift are very important: the centre of authority related to the language will move from speakers to the global resource. Their literature and television may no longer provide the focal point of a global English language culture, their teachers no longer form the unchallenged authoritative models for learners. The increasing adoption of English as a second language by people belonging to various communities, where it takes on local forms, is leading to fragmentation and diversity.

The third conflict noticed in the analysis of the rise of English has to do with the permanence of its ascendancy. Many observers believe that English is “just another lingua franca” but there are persons who worry that its rise with the rapid globalization means that it is a more permanent, and probably more dangerous, phenomenon. Phillipson (1996: 429) notices that English has acquired a narcotic power in many parts of the world, an addiction that has long term consequences that are far from clear. For some scholars the pre-eminence of the English language is nothing more than a passing phase. Johnson (2009: 141) cites Fishman, who claims that “historically, languages have risen and fallen with the military, economic, cultural or religious powers that supported them.” Russian, for example, was the indisputable language of power from Berlin to Beijing until the fall of the ideological system that supported it. Since then, English has taken its place, supported by the political and economic forces behind it. But there are many reasons to believe that the heyday of the English language will not long outlive the powers that have propelled it.

Other languages, large or small, may gain more importance, and one sign of this future development is that the widespread popularity of English means that ability in other languages will become equally, if not more, valuable for employment in specific fields. Even though English is the tool of today’s global communication, regional lingua francas like Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, or Swahili are more effective modes to reach greater, even if less affluent, groups of people. Fishman claims “Indeed, for all the enthusiasm and vitriol generated by grand-scale globalization, it is the growth in regional interactions —trade, travel, the spread of religions, interethnic marriages— that touches the widest array of local populations. These interactions promote the spread of regional languages.” (1999: 39) Regional languages are gaining more importance as the societies who speak them gain economic influence and power on the global level. It is agreed that it won’t be long before they become major competitors to the English language.

Johnson (2009: 142) also sustains that lasting English language dominance is unlikely because of the basic human tendency to resist domination. According to her, “trends that are perceived as hegemonic can have the indirect effect of producing a backlash, prompting groups to hold on more tightly to their local identities.” Fishman (1999:40) explains that languages “serve a strong symbolic function as a clear mark of ‘authenticity’ ”and are inextricably tied to a community’s sense of identity. Still, no other language in recorded history has ever been spoken as widely as English. Many of the languages existing in the world have lost the vocabulary to describe certain realities and the non-adaptation of new or technical English terminology to other languages can mean the disappearance of many scholarly traditions belonging to these cultures.

As Crystal (1997: 139) underlines, there has never been a language so widely spread or spoken by so many people as English. There are therefore no precedents to help us see what happens to a language when it achieves genuine world status. The way the global use of English will influence the world is not an answer to be found easily, but being aware of its importance will help us maximize the benefits and minimize its costs. Graddol (1997: 3) describes two competing trends which will give rise to a less predictable context within which the English language will be learned and used: on the one hand, the use of English as a global lingua franca requires intelligibility and the setting and maintenance of standards; on the other hand, the increasing adoption of English as a second language, where it takes on local forms, is leading to fragmentation and diversity. Therefore, there is no way of precisely predicting the future of English since its spread and continued vitality is driven by such contradictory forces.

The future of English is likely to be a complex and plural one. The language will probably grow in usage and variety, yet simultaneously diminish in relative global importance. We may find the hegemony of English replaced by an oligarchy of languages, including Spanish and Chinese. In economic terms, the size of the global market for the English language may increase in absolute terms, but its market share will probably fall.

Fishman (1999: 39) tries to look ahead into the future making guesses about the future of the global language of the contemporary world. In his opinion, English may well gravitate increasingly toward the higher social classes, while the members of the lower classes will turn towards regional languages accepting more modest gains. He fears that most non-native English speakers may come to like and accept the language far less in the twenty-first century than most native speakers are ready to anticipate. The premises are already obvious: the Germans are alarmed by the fact that their researchers are using overwhelmingly English in order to publish the results of their studies. Also, France seems to remain highly resistant to English in mass media, diplomacy, and technology.

Much as English may be learned today, it could become even more widely disliked. Resentment of both the predominance of English and its tendency to spread along class layers could in the future prove a key factor against its further globalization. After the regional rivals of English experience their own growth, there is no reason to assume that the language will still be necessary for technology, higher education, and social mobility. Fishman rightfully comments that civilization will not sink into the sea if and when that happens. When French language experienced a decline from its peak of influence this did not mean an irreparable harm on art, music, or diplomacy. Similarly, the decline of German did not harm the exact sciences.

The scholar brings into discussion the examples of ancient Greek, Aramaic, Latin, and Sanskrit which were once world languages representing military might, sophistication, commerce, and spirituality and which are mere relics in the modern world. Likewise, the power of English will not outlive for long the technical, commercial, and military supremacy of the Anglo-American giant, when a stronger power appears to challenge it. Fishman concludes that the fact that the use of English around the world might decline does not necessarily determine the values associated today with its spread to decline at the same time. Ultimately, democracy, international trade, and economic development can flourish in any tongue.

Berger, P., 2000, Four Faces of Global Culture, in O’Meara, P., Mehlinger, H., Krain, M. (eds.) Globalization and the Challenges of the New Century: A Reader, Indiana University Press, Bloomington Berger, P., Huntington, S. 2002, Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World, Oxford University Press, New York Coleman, J. A. 2006, English-medium teaching in European Higher Education. Language Teaching, 39(1), pp. 1–14. Available at Crystal, D. 1997. English as A Global Language. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Fishman, J. A. 1999. The New Linguistic Order. Foreign Policy, 113 : 26–40 Graddol, D. 1997. The Future of English? The British Council. Retrieved at Gray, J, 2002, The Global Coursebook in English Language Teaching, in Block D, Cameron, D (eds.) Globalisation and Language Teaching, Routledge, London Johnson, A. 2009, The Rise of English: The Language of Globalization in China and the European Union. in Macalester International: Vol. 22, Article 12. Available at: Phillipson, R. 1996. English Only Worldwide, or Language Ecology. TESOL Quarterly 30: 429–452.

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