Is English a "Killer Language"? Effects Language Death has on Societies

Term Paper, 2016

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical background

3. How do languages die?

4. Effects on societies
4.1 Identity-loss
4.2 Social inequality
4.3 Education
4.4 Global homogeneity

5. Consequences of language death for Aboriginal Australians

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Today the undisputable process of globalization is in full effect. The evolution of the world’s communication and transportation in the 20th century has paved the way for a possible prompt interaction between people at all times resulting in a vast amount of information being exchanged every day. These interactions are more intercultural than ever and since every interaction between people is accompanied by language it would seem that this would actually spread cultural diversity rather than decreasing it. However “[t]he players or partners involved in the relevant world-wide networks of interconnectedness and interdependence do not hold equal economic powers”.1 This means that the nations with greater political and economic power have major influence and a certain level of control over smaller less powerful countries. Languages are obviously also affected in this process and since English speaking nations have been amongst the most powerful since the age of the British colonizers, English has been consistently distributed all over the world at the expense of less influential languages and cultures.

This research paper will deal with the question if the English language can be considered as an actual “killer language” which would classify English as a language that can be held responsible for language deaths world-wide. At first I will give an insight to the rise of the English language. The chapter will feature a chronological summary from the beginnings of the spread of English during the age of British colonization up to the present-day status of English in which the spread is mainly attributed to the United States of America. How languages die will be discussed in the third chapter. The causes and dynamics between the dominated and dominating language necessary for language death to occur will be elaborated in order to understand how languages are dying at an incredibly rapid rate. The next chapter will deal with effects language death has had, is having and will have on societies. Identity loss, social inequality through English, the resulting necessary changes in educational systems and the possibility of global cultural homogeneity will be discussed. Chapter four will be somewhat of a continuation of chapter three. I will exhibit effects English has had on the Aboriginal community in Australia and give examples of attempts Australian institutions have made to preserve remaining Aboriginal languages. The conclusion will complete this research paper with a summary of the findings and the answer to the question if the English language really was and is the cause for language death.

2. Historical Background

When analyzing the global status of English today and the effects it has on societies of countries one must also consider how and why English has achieved its current status.

The process can be divided into four (chronological, partially overlapping) phases:2

- The spread due to the British colonialism
- The spread due to the British leadership in the Industrial Revolution
- The spread due to the American political leadership and economic power
- The spread due to the American technological domination

During the seventeenth and eighteen centuries English was spread as the consequence of the British colonization. During this phase English was disseminated in the most impactful way and laid the foundation for English today. British colonies and emigrants that settled in foreign countries were not acquainted nor skilled with the indigenous languages. Instead of learning the languages of the natives the Britons used English as a method to interact with the natives and control slaves that were brought from Africa. This implemented the language into many countries. Natives and slaves began to realize that English had become very powerful and learning the language would be beneficial to them. The largest territories occupied and inhabited by the British were Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, Canada, South, -West and East Africa, South-East Asia and the South Pacific region. During this time period the first cases of English as language killer became evident particularly in America where only 200 of approximately one thousand indigenous languages remained.

Whereas the first phase enforced English onto language because of Britain’s political power during the Industrial Revolution it shifted towards a language of knowledge. New inventions such as bridge building, steam-engines and production machinery were being introduced in England. Countries quickly began to notice the advantages of the new inventions and desired to incorporate them into their own industry. In order to access these inventions English was used as the primary tool. New communication technologies such as the telegraph system were developed in English. This also put pressure on many countries to use English.

At the end of the 19th century the United Stated began to emerge as the world’s economic and political superpower. Simultaneously international organizations such as League of Nations, United Nations, UNICEF and UESCO began to form and English was ruled as the sole language of communication in these organizations. In addition, the UN headquarters were set in New York and the fact that 70 percent of all English native speakers live in the United States also increased the international importance of the U.S. and the English language.

Today, we find ourselves in the fourth phase: the American technological domination. Because of the computer revolution that took place during 1980s and 1990s countries were confronted with English again. The high costs of translating various software from English into the native languages did not pay off in most cases and caused many countries to reject this procedure. This - once again - made people want to learn English in order to partake in this development.

3. How do languages die?

It is easy to say that language death is a natural process and inevitable for the evolution of today’s society. Despite the constant improvement in technology, communication, transportation, etc. one has to wonder if it is worth it seeing the effects this development is having on languages. Some may argue that the problem is rather small and is being exaggerated but when you consider the prediction that the by the end of the 21st century only 600 of the current 6000 languages will remain, the extent of this issue becomes evident.3

In order to answer the question how languages die, we must first elaborate the term "Language death". The explanation "A language dies when nobody speaks it any more"4 is as logical as it is simple but the factors that enable a language to die as well as the actual process need to be taken into consideration. Language death occurs when an entire community of language- speakers is killed in a short period of time (e.g. by genocide, disease or a natural catastrophe) or by the language not being passed on to subsequent generations resulting in gradual language death. I will focus on the latter case.

First and foremost it is important to mention that speakers of a certain language do not give up their native language in a happy manner. Many Linguists have argued that people embrace the sacrifice of their language in order to learn and use the language that is spoken by the most people enabling them to communicate with the largest population possible. However, this theory would propose Chinese to be the Lingua Franca due to the supreme population of China.

Language shift - which is the foundation of eventual language death - often goes unnoticed until the process is already in an advanced stage. The shift begins with people using their language in a less consistent manner and often unknowingly evading their own language by communicating in a world language which nowadays is obviously English. This is triggered by the declining number of situations in which they are “forced” to use their language. When the lack of situations eventually reaches the lowest point and speakers do not have fellow speakers to communicate with the shift is completed. This is how the knowledge of a language and the competent speakers of a language are gradually lost because it isn’t practiced anymore. Mixtures of race, pop-culture, technological trends - only to name a few - are reasons for this process that begins with the integration of a foreign language and (eventually) culture in a city, territory or country. The tremendous influence this imported language can have becomes visible when it is so beneficial to native speakers that their own language is neglected. The term linked to this process is cultural assimilation occurring when a culture is dominated by another’s, imposing trends, behavior and language. The size of the dominating culture can play a role but contrary to the belief that the dominating culture needs to have a larger amount of speakers than the dominated, smaller countries with larger political or economic power have caused language endangerment and death in the past. This became evident during the age of colonization when European countries occupied large parts of Africa.5 This is one facet where English occurs as a language killer. When a community of English speakers forcefully attempts to spread their language by imposing their language onto a group of speakers of a different language. This is only possible when the speakers of the dominating language are in a superior position of power socially, economically or politically. Which eventually leads to the reduction of the speakers.

For English speakers around the world this "method" is obsolete nowadays. Today languages are rarely endangered by English because of the brute acts of people prohibiting native speakers to communicate in their language but rather by the rapid process of globalization which is accompanied primarily by English linguistically. The various effects of globalization have had a monumental impact on the majority of societies world-wide. Thus making the cause for the gravitation towards English and disregard of one’s own language a combination of constraint and free decision.


1 Mufwene 2013: 31

2 Fennell 2001: 243

3 Musgrave 2016: 386

4 Crystal 2000: 1

5 Crystal 2000: 77

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Is English a "Killer Language"? Effects Language Death has on Societies
University of Würzburg  (Neuphilologisches Institut – Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (Book)
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society, sociolinguistics, english, globalization, language death, linguistics, english studies, aborigine
Quote paper
Henry Quevedo (Author), 2016, Is English a "Killer Language"? Effects Language Death has on Societies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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