“Queen Victoria may have ruled a British empire on which the sun never set. But it’s been Bill Gates and the USA’s IT revolution which has made English the world’s lingua franca.
The Queen’s English is now a minority among the many dialects of English worldwide – American, British, Australian, Singaporean, Indian, etc. Global forums (should I say fora?) are seeking a fresh international English norm. Amidst the current spate of gloom about the future, this is one story Australians should be celebrating.
English now rules the waves, offering English-speaking travellers and graduates a unique comfort zone. Their language opens doors to further education, employment, social position and easier movement across borders.
Ninety per cent of internet hosts are in English-speaking countries. Migrants with English get bonus points. Countries with vestiges of British language and culture (Nigeria, India, Singapore) belong to a family of “new Englishes”. No language has ever been so widely taught, read or spoken as English is today. Macquarie Dictionary’s Sue Butler says linguists are now part of a cultural bridge, especially linguists in Australia serendipitously headquartered in the major English-speaking country of their region.
However, for Australians, it may be a case of seize the day. Non-English speakers are now the fastest growing group of new Internet users. Internet traffic in languages other than English will outstrip English language traffic within the next few years. An imminent Latin American merger with North American trade group Nafta will soon form a bilingual English-Spanish zone at the hub of the Western world. There is a massive market in dubbed films in Italian and Spanish. Huge populations in China and India will soon be logging on in local languages, and even the possibility of gadgetry to mechanically translate speech has been raised.
Some 372 million people speak English as their mother tongue. Another 350 million speak it as a second language and anything up to a billion people speak some sort of English as a foreign language. But it’s not the numbers that tell the story, when you consider that 1,113 million speak varieties of Chinese and that the first language categories Hindi/Urdu, Spanish and Arabic are each predicted to overtake English in coming decades.
Despite the likely shift in future, English currently reigns as the world’s most successful coloniser – even if it seems to be a foreign language to old world purists and the split infinitive watchers, as it borrows from local idioms and incorporates technical jargon, email abbreviations, bureaucratic and commercial acronyms and trade marks.
The plural of “mouse” can now be “mouses”. “Pepsi” and “Coke” are commonly used nouns. “I am knowing” is not correct in Standard English, but perfectly acceptable in Indian English. “It all depends on what is meant by an error,” says language guru David Crystal. Some think English is crumbling; others like David Graddol, of The English Company UK, take a more constructive view.
Talking by email to Barbara Wallraff, after her cover story piece, in November 2000’s Atlantic Monthly, “What Global Language?” Graddol argued that there was a global language which was a “fusion between English and other languages. The type of language switching and word borrowing that typically goes on in any multilingual community is now happening on the Internet on a massive scale.” Crystal says English is predominant because of the United States’ military umbrella and presence in strategic summits for global peace.
Warns David Graddol. “[In] multilingual societies … you really need to speak more than one language to participate fully … [the] question is whether monolingual English-speaking Americans will in future need to learn to speak Spanish in order to participate fully in American society.”
Barbara Wallraff tells us, though, not to be complacent. Because English dominates, there is a danger that monolingual English speakers can fall behind the rest of the world. Britons are the last of the monolinguals in modern Europe. Everyone else is bilingual, as Continental Europeans learn English. Australian organisations, isolated and Anglophile by world standards, should note this. Our joy may be short-lived if we don’t exploit it quickly.”
Article published in The Sydney Morning Herald