Nearly a quarter of the world's population speaks some English. That includes around 400m who speak it as their mother tongue and about the same number who speak it fluently as their second language. English is the global language of academic research, and perhaps 1,500 master's degrees are taught in English in countries where the language has no official status. It provides the vocabulary for some specialised fields, such as air-traffic control. And it is the working language of a growing number of international companies—a big reason why so many of them choose London for their headquarters....
In China 180m students are learning English in the formal education system, and more than a fifth of Japanese five-year-olds now attend classes in English conversation. Countries as diverse as Chile and Mongolia have declared their intention to become bilingual in English over the next decade or two. And this year English was added to the curriculum studied by Mexican primary-school children, who are learning the language along with 200,000 teachers. According to David Graddol of the British Council, a cultural organisation, “within a decade nearly a third of the world's population will all be trying to learn English at the same time.”
At first sight this means that things are about to get even cushier for native English speakers; they needn't lift a finger to learn other people's subjunctives. But there are two catches. The first is that they will lose the competitive advantage that once came with being among the relatively few to speak the world's most useful language. Competent bilinguals, many of whom have travelled in the course of acquiring English, can offer everything that English monoglots can—as well as an extra language and an international perspective.
More subtly, as native Anglophones are increasingly outnumbered by people who speak English as a second language, the future of their own language is passing from their hands. Jean-Paul Nerrière, a Frenchman who retired as vice-president of IBM, has written two books about a version of English he calls “Globish”. With a vocabulary of just 1,500 words and no idioms, abbreviations or humour, it focuses on the essentials and leaves out everything that makes cross-cultural communication difficult. He developed this “decaffeinated English” after noticing how much easier the Japanese and South Korean employees at IBM found it to communicate with him and his compatriots than with their British and American colleagues.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
English was good enough for Jesus, wasn't it?