Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Is English becoming the world language?

Many people today believe that English is already the world language, or is in the position of becoming that. This is particularly true of English-speakers who have not travelled much, or who have kept to the equivalent of Hilton Hotels in their travels.

Let’s look at the facts.

There are perhaps 375 million native speakers of English, about five and a half percent of the world’s population, and most of its dialects are mutually intelligible.

That is very impressive.

Only two or three languages have more native speakers. Depending on how you count, these are Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish. Mandarin (also called Standard Chinese) stands out as the language of about 14% of us all. The exact percentage depends on whether you count all its dialects.

This 14% count includes the various sub-dialects of Mandarin, not other Chinese forms such as Cantonese, Hakka, or Taiwanese. If these persons are added (and most now have Mandarin as their second language) the ‘Chinese speaking’ figure is even more impressive, close to 20% of humanity.

[ Incidentally, I have written a book on variety within China: The Chinese Mosaic, currently out of print. ]

However, most observers around the world will agree that Chinese in any present-day form is not likely to become the world language. While its figures are far more than twice those of English, its distribution is not nearly as widespread.

English is widespread.

While some 60% of native speakers of English are North Americans, well over 15% are in the UK and Ireland, about 5% in Australia or New Zealand, perhaps 2% in Africa (primarily in South Africa or Nigeria.) In Asia, there are quite a few native speakers of English in places like the Philippines or Guam, even in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Native speakers of Arabic, Portuguese, and Bengali all run close to 4% each of the world population, once again depending on how you count dialects (particularly those of Arabic.)

But to evaluate the role of English, we must address the secondary users of languages, those with English as a second or third language—provided it is at a level of valuable use.

Some of the census figures are very impressive. Almost half of the population of Pakistan claim English as a second language. More than half in Nigeria and the Philippines.

For India, the figure is only about 12% as a second language, but more as a third language. Given the size of India’s population, those using English in India are more numerous than those in the United States or any other country.

Large numbers have a degree of command of English in places like Egypt, Bangladesh, and Japan. Everyday usage is exceedingly high in places far and wide, like Malta in the Mediterranean or Suriname in South America. And so it goes.

So many diverse places.

This global spread for a language is unprecedented.

So many diverse uses as well.

English is the worldwide language of air-traffic control and is easily available in most international airports. It is the commonest language for the conduct of international business. More than two-thirds of the world's scientists can read in English to some degree in their field. It dominates fields as diverse as astronomy, the cinema, diplomacy, most sport, popular music, and advertising.

Here are what I consider the two key facts (the exact numbers are only the commonly accepted estimates):

1) More than eighty per cent of the world's electronically stored information is in the English language.

2) About a billion persons who do not have a command of English are studying it today, typically in secondary schools.


So then, is English already the ‘world language’ . . ?


Ah ha!

There are, perhaps, ‘flies in the ointment,’ as the saying goes.

Some population projections show the percentage of English speakers likely to decline in the face of more and more speakers of Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic. Some economic studies show the expansion of China, Brazil, India, Germany, Japan, and perhaps Russia to loom larger than that of the English-speaking nations.

But the unpredictable future is not the only problem.

It is already the fact that those in one country with some knowledge of English may not find it of much use with those in other countries. Thus, a Nigerian speaker of English may not understand a Japanese speaker of English.

Much of the prestige of English today is a reflection of the world position of the U.S.A. at the end of the Second World War and then at the end of the Cold War. The pretentions of Russian as the ‘future socialist world language’ collapsed. Free market economics made English essential for international ‘biznes’—even in Russia.

However, the disfavor of many nations with the policies of the Bush administration reminded us that the U.S. may not always enjoy this level of prestige. The U.S. position in the world economy and in fields like pop music, advertising, science, technology, and the internet, may not always be as impressive as it has been. Focus on the values of British culture has already faded to a degree within the former Empire.

Moreover, there is evidence that many who claim to speak English (in the census statistics above) do not have any well-rounded competence in it.

Does a taxi driver in Bangkok speak English because he can use it to get his rides from the airport to their hotels?

We will address some of this in a future entry.

1 comment: