english as a Global LanguageEnglish holds the top spot in the hierarchy of world languages. That doesn't mean it's spoken by the most people – that gong goes to China – but english is the most influential language in the world, and at present is the only language which can claim to be the global language.
My first glimpse of this phenomena came while speaking with an austrian
visitor to Australia, and discussing his native language, German. I thought to ask him what language he had used for his PHD work in mathematics at a Vienna university, and was amazed when he replied “english,” and in a tone of voice and startled expression which indicated “of bloody course.” The place of english as an international language of learning was confirmed for me while talking with a German veterinary science student who is studying in The czech Republic. This time I expected “english” as the answer to my question about the language of instruction at her Prague university.
At a less lofty level, I have been surprised at the number of speakers of smaller European languages like Danish, Dutch and Flemish who have dismissed my apologies for ignorance of their language with a good humoured “Why would you bother? Everyone here speaks english.”
Native english speakers like me are now out numbered by the proficient speakers of english who have learned the english as a second or third language. In her paper A Concept Of International english And Related Issues: From 'REAL english' To 'REALISTIC english'? Barbara SEIDLHOFER of the University of Vienna reports different researchers claiming 2 to 4 non native speakers for every native speaker. Seidlhoffer calls these non native speakers EIL speakers, speakers of english as an International language. We native speakers are termed EMT or ENL, having english as a mother tongue of as our native language.
While George Weber, writing in The World's 10 Most Influential Languages doesn't claim those same numbers of EIL speakers, he does point out that english is the official language, or the lingua franca, of 115 countries, streets ahead of the second place getter, french, with a mere 35, let alone chinese with just 5. I must point out that the dates of Weber's data are mixed, and some of the numbers appear to be about 15 years old, but in a sweeping statement about his mid 90s data, Weber said in 2008 that the numbers have increased, and the relativities indicate a strengthening position for english.
Weber demonstrates one of the roles of EIL in an anecdote of a brazilian
hotel which has no local guests, but business customers from around the world, all of whom communicate in english, both with each other and the staff. english is the lingua fanca of business. Weber also points out it is the language of the wealthy, as well as of science and the internet, and these usages will ensure its eminence over the next 50 years or so.
Seidlhoffer explores what this might mean for the teaching of english to non native speakers, the teaching of EIL. She points out that EIL is not yet codified, and so cannot be taught because we don't have a standard to teach. However, she and her university, along with Oxford University are working on that problem, having begun the job of building a corpus of EIL usage. She speculates on a world to come when we might not worry too much about the niceties of the “s” on the third person singular verbs and the meaning of idiom needed to understand english like a local, focusing instead on the skills of negotiating and checking meanings openly rather than striving to be able to communicate flawlessly with EMT speakers.
Another interesting point that Seidlhoffer makes is that the large number of EIL speakers have, by dint of their numbers, the power to change english. If so, I wonder if their simplification of english for use as a global lingua franca will bring about a rationalisation of some of the difficult little quirks of the language, and perhaps even a change is the way english everywhere is spoken. A 2001 article in The Guardian newspaper reporting on Seidlhoffer's work and that of her colleague Jennifer Jenkins considers the evolution of english as Lingua Franca Europe (ELFE), and that it may have no place for the “th” sound, which EIL speakers find completely unnecessary to make meaning in english.
And I am sure that for the foreseeable future english will be taught as it is now, with an emphasis on the learner becoming as proficient as possible in one of the versions of english used around the world. But languages do change. Shakespeare would be at a loss in modern england
, as I expect would Charles Dickens. Actually, as an australian
, so am I sometimes too.
The interesting question for future linguistic historians may be describing where the changes originate.
Bringing Europe's lingua franca into the classroom, The Guardian 19 April 2001 http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2001/apr/19/languages.highereducation1
George Weber, The World's 10 Most Influential Languages 2008 http://www.andaman.org/BOOK/reprints/weber/rep-weber.htm
Barbara SEIDLHOFER, A Concept Of International english And Related Issues: From 'REAL english' To 'REALISTIC english'? Language Policy Division DG IV – Directorate of School, Out-of-School and Higher Education, Council of Europe, Strasbourg. 2003.