Magazine article Whole Earth

English: The Killer Language? OR A PASSING PHASE?

Magazine article Whole Earth

English: The Killer Language? OR A PASSING PHASE?

Article excerpt


Whether we consider English a "killer language" or not, whether we regard its spread as benign globalization or linguistic imperialism, the expansive reach of English is undeniable and, for the time being, unstoppable.

There are reasons to believe that the English language will eventually wane in influence. For one, English actually reaches and is then utilized by only a small, atypically fortunate minority. Furthermore, globalization has also encouraged regionalization, and with it the spread of regional languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hausa, Spanish. Finally, the spread of English and these regional languages collectively has created a squeeze effect on small communities, producing pockets of anxious localization and local-language revival resistant to global change.

For all the enthusiasm and vitriol generated by grand-scale globalization, often heavily associated with the spread of English, it is the growth in regional interactions--trade, travel, the spread of religion, interethnic marriages--that touches the widest array of local populations. These interactions promote the spread of regional languages. In Africa, for example, where a third of the world's approximately 6,000 languages are spoken and where 13 percent of the world's population lives, English is neither the only nor even the best means of communication. Throughout East Africa, Swahili is typically the first language that two strangers attempt upon meeting. In West Africa, Hausa is often the language of choice.

Some [non-English] regional languages are spreading in part due to the efforts of organizations and government agencies. France spends billions of francs annually to support French language and culture abroad. The German government funds seventy-eight Goethe Institutes, scattered from Beirut to Jakarta, that promote German language and arts. And Singapore, a tiny country with four official languages, is in the nineteenth year of its national "Speak Mandarin" campaign.

The importance of regional languages should increase in the near future as more and more regional lingua francas are used by merchants, writers, and relief workers to reach larger populations. In many developing areas, regional languages are used to facilitate agricultural, industrial, and commercial expansion across local boundaries. Wherever the local vernaculars are just too many to handle, regional languages come to the fore among ordinary "rank and file" citizens.

For all the pressures and rewards of regionalization and globalization, local identities remain deeply ingrained. Local languages often serve a strong symbolic function in most communities as a dear mark of "authenticity," which represents a sum total of a community's history. …

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