From Lingua Franca to Global English

From Lingua Franca to Global English

English has unmistakably achieved global status as the world's lingua franca. How did it get that way?
At his new job in the accounting department of a cell phone company that recently opened in Kurdistan, Iraq, Saryas Jamal discovered rather quickly that he had to deal with managers who did not speak Kurdish. He realized he would have to learn English if he was going to be able to prove himself on the job. So he enrolled in English classes and found that he was not alone - English-language classes are a booming business in Sulaimaniyah, and the classes are always full. On of the English teachers there, Faraydoon Abdulrahman, says that increasing access to information technologies like the internet and satellite television brought on by globalization has spurred the growth of private English language-learning centers in Kurdistan. Though Iraqi children have always learned English in school, there has been an increase in Iraq of private institutes where citizens of all ages may become more adept at speaking and understanding English and therefore can gain a foothold in competing in the global marketplace.

The English language has unmistakably achieved status as the world\'s lingua franca through globalization. English is now the official or dominant language for two billion people in at least 75 countries. According to the British Council, speakers of English as a second language probably outnumber those who speak it as a first language, and around 750 million people are believed to speak English as a foreign language. English is the most common language to communicate scientific, technological, academic, and international trade information. English is clearly the world\'s lingua franca, but how did it get that way? Part of the reason is the feedback loop driving its history - a dynamic which may serve to illustrate how globalization often is the result of a natural course of events: before English infiltrated the world, many of the world\'s languages infiltrated English.

The term \"lingua franca\" originated in Mediterranean ports in the Middle Ages among traders of different language backgrounds. In order to carry on the business of trade, they spoke a common \"patchwork\" language consisting of bits of Italian mixed with Greek, French, Spanish, and Arabic words. Some of those words are still part of ordinary conversation today - in modern English. Nearly every language on Earth has contributed to the development of English. Languages of the Indian subcontinent provided words such as pundit, shampoo, pajamas, and juggernaut. From the Spanish are several words that came to define the spirit of the American \"wild west:\" mustang, canyon, ranch, stampede, and vigilante are a few examples. English has adopted literally hundreds of words from Arabic and Persian. Though some filtered down through other languages, these words that evoke images from American culture have Arabic origins: tariff, sugar, hazard, jar, almanac, shrub, alcove, alfalfa, syrup, and spinach. Long is the list of words and expressions that came to English from \"foreign languages.\"

\"Paradoxically, the very spread of English can motivate speakers of other languages to insist on their own local language, binding them to their own cultural and historical tradition.\"
Hamburg University Linguistics Professor Juliane House
Now with mass media, contemporary English slings its patchwork of historically adopted words and new pop slang back at the world in a very big way. Some say, too big a way. John Swales describes English as "Tyrannosaurus Rex" let loose in the world to gobble up other languages and, thus, their cultures. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong\'o has observed that the erosion of a first language results in the loss of understanding the corresponding culture: \"Language carries culture, and culture carries . . . the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.\" Anne Pakir ultimately dubbed English a \"killer language\" when attempts to teach English alongside the first languages of her homeland Singapore only resulted in the rise of a new language: Singlish.

On the other side of the debate, Salman Rushdie says that creating new Englishes such as 'Singlish' can be a therapeutic act of resistance against whatever dominance English exerts upon a given culture. \"To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.\" Juliane House, professor of applied linguistics at Hamburg University, Germany, notes that the spread of English can actually enhance the preservation of local dialects. \"Paradox as this may seem, the very spread of English can motivate speakers of other languages to insist on their own local language for identification, for binding them emotionally to their own cultural and historical tradition. There is no need to set up an old-fashioned dichotomy between local languages and English as the \'hegemonic aggressor\': there is a place for both, because they fulfill different functions. To deny this is to uphold outdated concepts of monolingual societies and individuals.\"

It is the \"different functions\" aspect of English vs. ‘other languages' that is fiercely debated today. The speaking of English often functions as an elevated socio-economic currency on the international market and in international diplomacy, while local languages are pressured to be kept within the home or within communities, or for entertaining tourists. English is the official language of the European Central Bank even though the bank is in Frankfurt, Germany, and no predominantly English-speaking country is a member of the European Monetary Union. English has become a commodity.

Globalization of the IT marketplace is accelerating the effect of English as a commodity. For decades English has dominated the IT industry, from research and development, to the design of hardware and software. In 2002, there were signs that the impact of China\'s interest in respecting international intellectual property rights heralded a new era of China-led technology standards which would slow down the monopoly of technologies made primarily for English speakers. A new culture of IT researchers had developed in China which was not built on U.S.-trained engineers. However, more recently, India, which once was very concerned about China\'s enthusiasm for changing standards in the IT industry, now sees the threat as fading - partly due to Indian businesses assuming that China will take a long time to catch up in English language proficiency, and India\'s dominance of the outsourcing industry which was won in large part because of their command of the English language.

English, like so many other aspects of Western culture, has the potential to bring people together, or the power to divide people into classified groups. As the debate goes on, English will continue to grow and change with the same force that has always driven the patchworking of language: the natural desire to exchange goods and ideas.

  • Editor. 2003. \"China\'s influence in IT grows despite poor English.\" The Global English Newsletter, Aug 16, 2003, The English Company (UK) Ltd.
  • House, Juliane. 2001. BBC. \"Debate. Global English: The European Lessons.\" Wednesday 18th April 2001. Brighton Conference Centre, Brighton, UK.
  • Jamal, Shabaz. 2004. \"Kurds Demand English.\" Iraqi Crisis Report No. 73, 13-July-2004. Institute for War & Peace Reporting, London.
  • Ngugi wa Thiong\'o. 1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: Heinemann, 15-16.
  • Phillipson, Robert. 2001. \"Global English and Local Language Policies.\" Language Problems and Language Planning. Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2001, pages 1-24. Rushdie, Salman. 1992. "Imaginary Homelands." New York: Granta, 1992.
  • Swales, J. 1997. "English as Tyrannosaurus Rex." World Englishes 16, 373-382.

Contributed by Terri Kelly, a freelance journalist, community college instructor, and intercultural conflict mediator in Portland, Oregon.

To read another Global Envision article about the affects of globalization on other cultures, see Erosion of Ethnic Identity: Is Globalisation to Blame?

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