Can English Be Dethroned?

By Breton, Roland J. -L. | UNESCO Courier, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Can English Be Dethroned?


Breton, Roland J. -L., UNESCO Courier


Roland [*] J.-L. Breton

Major languages other than English are spoken by over half the people on the planet. What can be done to give them more clout in international bodies?

Back in 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson managed to have the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War between Germany and the Allies, written in English as well as French. Since then, English has taken root in diplomacy and gradually in economic relations and the media. The language now seems set to have a monopoly as the worldwide medium of communication.

As the 21st century begins, faster economic globalization is going hand in hand with the growing use of English. More and more people are being encouraged to use or send messages in English rather than in their own language. Many do not mind. They see this as part of the unavoidable trend towards worldwide uniformity and a means whereby a growing number of people can communicate directly with each other.

From this point of view, the spread of English may be seen as a positive development which saves resources and makes cultural exchange easier. After all, it might be said, the advance of English is not aimed at killing off local languages but is simply a means of reaching a wider audience.

Perhaps. But accepting that as the last word ignores the deep-rooted ties between individual freedom and political power, between the linguistic, social and economic mechanisms which in every society underpin relations between people and groups and between culture and communities. A person makes a mark through his or her ability to use the most useful language or languages. And over several generations, the most useful language eliminates the others.

Cultural imperialism is much more subtle than economic imperialism, which is itself less tangible and visible than political and military imperialism, whose excesses are obvious and easy to denounce. It would be wrong to say that the world domination of English is something deliberately organized and supported by the Anglo-Saxon powers, hand in glove with political initiatives or the penetration of the world economy by their transnational firms. The "language war" has very seldom been regarded as a war and has never, anywhere, been declared.

The military, diplomatic, political and economic strategies of the major powers can be studied and criticized, but linguistic strategies seem to be inconspicuous and tacit, even innocent or nonexistent. The history of the past century has obliged many powers to take a more modest attitude to language, but has it taught them to stand up to domination by a single language?

Many years after the founding in 1945 of the Arab League, whose current 22 member states have 250 million people, the countries which share a French linguistic heritage broke new ground by creating a joint policy. In order to promote linguistic, economic and political co-operation, they set up the International Organization of French-Speaking Countries, which (like the Commonwealth) embraces more than 50 countries with over 500 million inhabitants.

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