Saturday, 13 November 2010

Bubblings From Babel AKA "Who'd Have Thought Franglais Is The Future? - Kind Of"

Most of the boys I teach still live in that beautifully walled-garden world where everyone speaks English, where we don't need to learn anyone else's language. I don't blame them. Most don't get exposed to any foreign language except in a classroom. Moreover, classroom-based language learning is like being taught to swim on dry land. The ability to manage deferred gratification, (something we adults find hard enough, let alone the kids) is more important here than in many subjects.

Our kids inhale the cultural air from such established institutions like the Economist which back in Dec 96 described English as being "impregnably established as the world standard language."

Now of course they are right on one level, there is no imminent danger to English, nor it's global popularity. It continues to be the language of choice for the global industries of publishing, finance, transportation/logistics, research and development, academia, diplomacy, sport, entertainment and advertising. With 1.4 billion native speakers and over a billion people learning it, the Economist was right, it's not going to disappear any time soon.


The times they are a changin... Economic and political power are moving eastward, the development of cheap technology is bringing us (and many millions of others) into a bigger and broader global playing field, and whilst there is general awareness of change, there is also no clear vision of where it may all be leading. It seems that we are not yet living in a new era, but we have fallen off the edge of an old one.

Mr Native English Speaker
English is, in another way, at a critical moment in its global career, for within a decade or so, the number of people who speak English as a second language will exceed the number of native speakers. The implications of this are far likely to be far reaching: the centre of authority regarding the language will shift from native speakers as they become minority stakeholders in a global resource.

On the one hand, the use of English as a global lingua franca requires intelligibility and the setting and maintenance of standards. On the other hand, increasing adoption of English as a second language, where it takes on local forms, is leading to fragmentation and diversity (Chinglish, Manglish, Franglais, Gangsta etc). No longer is it the case, if it ever was, that the Queen's English unites all who speak it.

The likelihood is that the future of English will be a complex and plural one. The language will grow in usage and variety, yet simultaneously diminish in relative global importance. We may find the hegemony of English replaced by an oligarchy of languages, including Spanish and Chinese. Use of English will grow in absolute terms, but fall in "market share."

Some commentators predict that just as environmental issues were once regarded as less important than the need for profit, so issues of social equity will form a third "bottom line" in the global business environment. This suggests that those who promote the global use of English will be burdened with new social responsibilities and have to engage with a more complex public agenda, including  ethical issues relating to linguistic human rights.

When John Cleese uttered those famous words, "Fetchez la vache" mixing English with French, he spoke, it seems, more prophetically about the future of English than he realised.

Sections in italics, are my attempts at summarising and saying in my own words, the introduction to this book.

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