The Changing Language of Search: Part 2. Global English

By Herther, Nancy K. | Searcher, February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Changing Language of Search: Part 2. Global English


Herther, Nancy K., Searcher


In the first part of this series on the changing language of searching, we looked at Nu Speak, the newest version of a shorthand that is changing the face of communication and invading the repositories and websites of the internet. But another challenge for searchers could dwarf the impact of Nu Speak, a more complex change in language resulting from the globalization and emerging omnipotence of the internet--the rise of a global form of English.

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International English (also called the new Englishes, English as Lingua Franca, or Global English) stems from the growth and spread of the language as the common language used on the global internet, among other reasons. Today more than 75 countries (2 billion people) have English as the national or dominant language. More than 400 million people speak English as a first language and, more significantly, more than 750 million people speak some form of English as a second language. English is also the most common language for communicating technological, academic, scientific, aviation, entertainment, diplomatic, and international trade information today.

Braj Kachru, Indian linguist and author of the Handbook of World Englishes (Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), has developed a system of three concentric circles for understanding the widely varying types of English being spoken and developed today. The inner circle includes native speakers, those who have "functional nativeness," i.e., highly proficient speakers of the language. This would include Canada, the U.K., the U.S., and others. The next circle includes more traditional English-as-a-second-language learners, for whom English is essential and used often in daily life, even though not the native tongue. The third and largest circle includes speakers of other languages who still need some limited proficiency in English in order to conduct business, use the internet, etc. In reaction to the increasingly volatile nature of English usage today, Kachru has since revised his model to include only two layers: the highly proficient and those with lower proficiency.

Of course almost every language changes and evolves over time, but English is entering a period of immense change rivaled only by the changes being wrought by globalization itself. A recent Newsweek article estimated that non-native English speakers (those whose mother tongues are not English) outnumber native speakers in our world today by a 3:1 ratio.

This is not happening without criticism and some strong resentment. John Swales recently described English as a Tyrannosaurus rex, let loose on the cultures of the world, gobbling up other languages and cultures. Linguist David Graddol and others have pointed out that, in the future, native English speakers--who will be far outnumbered by other speakers of Englishes--will be seen more as problems, a hindrance: "Increasingly, the problem may be that few native speakers belong to the community of practice which is developing amongst lingua franca users. Their presence hinders communications."

No Longer the 'Queen's English'

David Crystal points out that even the Queen Elizabeth II's own English has changed in the past 50 years, reflecting the evolutionary aspect of this vibrant language. As a global or international language, English is no longer the "property" of any country or culture but belongs to anyone who speaks it.

Award-winning novelist Salmon Rushdie described the change this way:

   What seems to me to be happening is that those people
   who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly
   re-making it, domesticating it, becoming more and more
   relaxed about the way they use it--assisted by the English
   language's enormous flexibility and size, they are carving
   out large territories for themselves within its front.... The
   children of independent India seem not to think of
   English as being irredeemably tainted by its colonial
   provenance. … 

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The Changing Language of Search: Part 2. Global English
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