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In our highly technological, modern and above all fast paced world, instant communication is not only an auxiliary but also a necessity. To be successful and to compete in a global economy, one has to be seen and heard by as many different parties as possible, as quickly as possible. However, in in a worldwide context, the content is not the only thing that is important. What causes more difficulty is the question of understanding. It is very likely that the addresser and the addressee do not come from the same country or even the same continent. In order to enable communication despite the language barrier, there has to be a language that can serve as a medium of connection between two parties. This language nowadays is English, spoken all over the world by almost 1 Billion people, 600 Million of which are non-native, or second language, speakers. (Lewis et al. 2016) Even though it may not be the ‘biggest’ language in the world when it comes to the total number of speakers, Mandarin Chinese heads the table with 1.1Billion speakers, there are other aspects that make English the ‘biggest’ language globally (Graddol 2010). Lu (2008) identifies some of them as ease of learning and use, broad acceptance of culture that the language represents, widely scattered users and the possibility to avail of audio-visual and literary publications in order to use the language actively.
The history of English as a global language is a relatively recent one. Crystal (1997) identifies two main reasons for the status and widespread use of English nowadays. The first one is the expansion of the British Empire and of British colonial power. Britain did not only bring people to the colonies but also the language itself and the use of the language. This way the English language has become a valuable good that can be sold at a high price. Today still, in many countries of the Commonwealth, English is an official language next to the native tongue. What is more is that it is usually an indicator of power and wealth, for example in Hong Kong and India. Better or private education is often carried out in English and more expensive. Well payed, prestigious jobs such as lawyer and doctor can only be obtained after going through private schools and universities with an emphasis on English. The language is also used to test a worker’s “worldly” status, especially the fact how accent free they can speak. In the United States, that is even reflected in the salaries of English language teachers: natives earn more than non-native speakers do, a study by Bojas found in 1994. (Han and Singh 2008)
The second reason according to Crystal is the emergence of the United States as the leading economic power of the 20th century. It still is one of the biggest economies in the world, and with its goods, the English language is being exported. Huge companies like Apple, Windows, or Facebook are known and used all over the world. The same goes for Hollywood, which dominates the film industry in many parts of the world. Through movies and TV series, English is easily accessible for learners and users of the language. Literature plays a big role in that as well, best sellers like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones have their origin in an English speaking country. Even though movies have been dubbed and books translated into numerous other languages, the English original is usually available as well.
The English language is also an official and working language in both the United Nations Organisation and the European Union. It is estimated that English is the source language for the translation and distribution of documents in the EU 80% of the time. (European Commission 2010) This is a sign that even in an institution that values and protects multilingualism and different languages, there is sometimes the need to be able to understand each other as quickly and easily as possible. Even with the possibility of the Brexit this summer, and therefore the loss of the biggest English-speaking country of the Union, the shift to another language in the near future is very unlikely as learning a new language takes time and effort. Additionally, it has happened before in history: the language use continues for a long time after the downfall or disintegration of a dominating nation. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire, German was still spoken a long time in Eastern Europe, as was,or still is in some cases, Russian in the former Soviet republics. De Swaan (2001) calls this “linguistic inertia”. This is because once a language is learned; it is not as easily forgotten. Additionally, when people are already used to speaking that language on a regular or even daily basis, it is hard for them to give it up suddenly. The transition to another language takes a few generations, until the majority of the people have got used to the “new” language.
Certain languages are said to pose a threat to the worldly state of English. These languages include Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish. It is true that Chinese is the language that has the most speakers worldwide, but they are mostly limited to China itself, the language is not widespread. However, it is, according to Lu (2008), becoming a popular language to learn due to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Yet learning it is difficult, especially the characters as learners have to sacrifice a lot of time to practice “drawing” them, and many have to be learned by heart. Finding sufficient learning material to practice it is also an obstacle.
That is different for Portuguese and Spanish. Both languages are not that hard to learn and many different kind of publications such as films or books are easily available. The languages are also widespread and spoken in Europe and South America. Spanish especially is a very popular target language as well and taught in many countries at school.
When it comes to the global economy, a group of nations called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China; or sometimes BRICS including South Africa) represents a possible threat in overthrowing the US economy, especially if they stick together. Thakur (2014) raises the questions whether they will not only be a successful economic group but become a powerful political one as well. This may lead to their national languages becoming more desireable to learn and therefore more important, but any of them replacing English on its own is unlikely. After all, there has to be at least some common ground language-wise for the members of the different nations to communicate. As many people in the respective countries already know English, it is possible and very probable that this common language or lingua franca will continue to be English.
Another factor that makes English an important and influential language in our world is that it is relatively easy to learn, at least in the beginning. The basics that enable simple communication and understanding are not that tough. That does not mean that English can be mastered with no problem, quite the opposite. What makes English tricky is that with an easy beginning, learners do not expect it to get more difficult. It definitely does, though. Other languages are more “fair” in this regard, they are difficult from the very beginning and therefore learners know about the challenges they will have to face from the start. This can be highly unmotivational, however, and is another reason why English is so popular as a foreign language - it seems easy at first, and therefore more people are willing to try to learn it. These non-native speakers are especially important in a global context as it means that people from different language backgrounds can communicate with each other.
A dominance of one language like this of course also has its dark side. McColl Millar (2005) addresses this by showing that even though in theory, all languages and language varieties are equal; we still associate different languages with more or less power or even value, thus making them unequal. It is hard for people to see the need to learn a language with very little speakers such as Icelandic, even though theoretically, it is just as valuable as Spanish for example, linguistically speaking at least.
English as we know it today might be different in the future. It is widely used nowadays by people who are not natives and therefore use structures that a native English speaker might not. This does not mean that it is “wrong”, it just means that with every person that speaks English as a non-native speaker, many influences from their own language and cultural background come into the English language. It therefore becomes richer and more varied. Graddol (2010) also believes that depending on the region of the world, English may (have to) share its supranational status with another language, be it Chinese, Spanish, or Portuguese. This way there would be not a single language taking over English but the development of different regional patterns of English-knowing bilingualism.
In conclusion, it can be argued that English will most probably not be replaced in its worldly status by another language in the near future. It is widespread and spoken all over the world, as well as taught in many countries as a compulsory subject in school. There is a great attraction and the feeling to need to learn English because it already has so many speakers. Its important and almost predominant status in international and multilingual organisations such as the UN or EU also shows the impact and influence it has in the world.
Even though there may be threats to the English language from languages such as Chinese or Portuguese, it does not mean that these languages or any will successfully replace English in the near future. As mentioned before, there are many aspects that help a language or hinder a it from spreading and becoming widely spoken, and for now, Portuguese and Chinese face many hurdles in becoming a world language themselves. English is therefore relatively safe and still of great importance, and will continue to be for probably quite some time more. It fulfills all of the aspects that make a language a global one: it is relatively easy to learn and to become able to communicate in it, there are many speech communities in different regions of the world, and there is a vast amount of literature and films which is easily accessible and that learners can avail of.
Crystal, D. 1997. English as a Global Language: Global Rules, Global Roles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
De Swaan, A. 2001. Words of the World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
European Commission 2010. Translation at the European Commission - a history. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
Graddol, D. 2010. The ET column. Will Chinese take over from English as the world’s most important language? English Today, Vol. 26 Issue 4, pp3-4.
Han, J. and Singh, M. 2008. The commodization of English and the Bologna Process: Global products and services, exchange mechanisms and trans-national labour IN: Rubdy, R. and Tan, P. (eds.) Language as a Commodity: Global Structures, Local Marketplaces. London: Continuum, pp.204-224.
Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2016. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Nineteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com
Lu, D. 2008. Pre-imperial Chinese: Its hurdles towards becoming a world language. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, Vol. 18 Issue 2, pp268-279.
McColl Millar, R. 2005. Language, Nation and Power: And Introduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
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