The triumph of English

Published May 23, 2012 10:01pm

THE second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one”.

It is destined “in the next and succeeding centuries to be more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age”. It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English-speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the eastern seaboard of North America. They were barely one per cent of the world’s population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams’s prediction doing now?

Well, it took a little longer than he thought, but last week one of the most respected universities in Italy, the Politecnico di Milano, announced that from 2014 all of its courses would be taught in English.

There was a predictable wave of outrage all across the country, but the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzoni, simply replied: “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the only way to have that is to use the English language.” The university is not doing this to attract foreign students but mainly for its own students who must make their living in a global economy where the players come from everywhere — and they all speak English as a lingua franca.

Many other European universities, especially in Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, have taken the same decision, and the phenomenon is now spreading to Asia. It is extremely rare to meet a scientific researcher or businessperson who cannot speak fluent English. How else would Peruvians communicate with Chinese?

But wait a minute. Peruvians speak Spanish, the world’s second-biggest language, and the Chinese have the largest number of native speakers of any language. Why don’t they just learn each other’s languages? The choice has fallen on English because it is already more widespread than any other language.

Mandarin Chinese has been the biggest language by number of speakers for at least the last 1,000 years, and is now used by close to a billion people, but it has never spread beyond China in any significant way. Spanish, like English, has grown explosively in the past two centuries: each now has over 400 million speakers. But Spanish remains essentially confined to Central and South America and Spain, while English is everywhere.

There is a major power that uses English in every continent except South America: the US in North America, the UK in Europe, South Africa in Africa, India in Asia, and of course Australia where the entire continent speaks it. All of that is due to the British empire, which once ruled one-quarter of the world’s people. For the same reason, there are several dozen other countries where English is an official language.

English had become the first worldwide lingua franca. Never before has any language had more people learning it in a given year than it has native speakers; English has probably now broken that record as well. The amount of effort that is being invested in learning English is so great that it virtually guarantees that this reality will persist for generations to come. However, Italians, Chinese and Arabs are not going to stop speaking their language to one another. But they will all speak English to foreigners.

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Comments (18) (Closed)


SanjayS
May 24, 2012 03:22am
Why was this piece not titled 'The Triumph of Colonialism'? At least that make clear its confused intent.
malik100
May 24, 2012 03:34am
Well said. But what is sad we dont even have a single english language channel on tv. Not even an hour of english news. Someone should look into that.
sharma
May 24, 2012 07:56am
It is true. very true indeed.hats off to English. However that said , it is no longer the Queen's English!!!
Anwar Ali shah
May 24, 2012 09:33am
To speak other languages is not so bad and undesirable phenomenon., but as a second language. I have seen a lot of overseas Pakistani they speak English with kids instead of their mother tongue..It is our huge misconception that we don`t differentiate between language learning and getting knowledge.......
Socrates
May 24, 2012 10:16am
To get good paying jobs or to succeed in a modern business English is a must. That is the main reason that English is so popular. But there is another reason. The Western world led by England and the US have broken traditional modes of thinking through problem. In Europe and America the religious cleric were and impediment. The clerics have been sidelined. We now have a similar situation in the Islamic world. Young people are being exposed to critical thinking, the questioning of authority, with English as the portal. With the bang of the internet the move to English is unstoppable.
aaa
May 24, 2012 10:19am
English is need to an extent but its wrong that scandinavian countries have taken courses in english. I live in Norway and it is taken care that local language does not miss its position on a state level. As its a part of local culture. Even medical terminologies to the extreme detail and other subjects to the minutest details are in norwegian. The amount of books translated into norwegian is extremely impressive as well. Every new coming or old book can be found in norwegian. Whenever i tell that in Pakistan all higher education is in english the locals get shocked. They think im lying.
Agha Ata
May 24, 2012 12:58pm
A nation that is already developed may or may not need to switch over to English, but a country that is just beginning to develop, ignoring English is like competing in NASCAR on a camel cart.
Saqib Syed
May 24, 2012 01:53pm
Despite being in a thick soup Pakistanis have an edge of English language worldwide. I have practically served in four continents of the world and found that residents of Ex English colonies enjoy more acceptance and freedom of work than any other diaspora. Declaring English as official language of Pakistan was a commendable decision made by the founder of the newly independent state. It contributed in Human Resource development during the later years. Although the process was derailed during Zia's regime but sooner it regained its former pace. With the advent of internet, English has become inevitable for progress from individuals to nations. Today speakers of French, Spanish and Arabic are learning English to keep abreast. Even China has included English in high school curricula as a compulsory subject. In fact, English language academies have emerged as a lucrative business in non English speaking countries. Now a days I am in Africa where one can easily draw a line of distinction between Anglo-phonic and Franco-phonic countries in terms of economy, human development, education,infrastructure and so on.
Vijay K
May 24, 2012 01:53pm
Show me a country that has advanced on a foreign language.
Muhammad Ilyas Khan
May 24, 2012 01:54pm
Brilliant article. English is a language of today and of tomorrow. Anyone who is opposing the English language and its value in Pakistan must read this eye-opener. Our 'ideologues' will still not want to buy it but that is precisely why in Pakistan we have pressed the reverse gear of history. Interestingly most of our ideologues who oppose English in Pakistani education write in English newspapers!!! You guess why.
Tauheed Ahmed
May 24, 2012 02:36pm
Even within China, the north Chinese (who speak mandarin) and south Chinese (who speak cantonese) dont understand their separate versions of Chinese, and so are increasingly using english to communicate with one another. As is the case between north and south Indians. The english colonial heritage to which the author attributes this widespread use of english is only part of the reason. The fact is that english has a far larger vocabulary (millions of words) than virtually every other language today (for example french has less than 300,000 words, urdu has even less). There are of course pluses and minuses, but a little bit of thought would indicate that humanity can no longer afford to speak different languages. Just as the multiple communications protocols of the 1980's whereby computers talked to each other have by and large been replaced by a single "internet protocol", so will the multiple languages (like it or not) give way to one common human language.
Fazil
May 24, 2012 04:39pm
This trend is now unstoppable. Even the Chinese are fast learning English. With globalisation and the Internet, we need a global language for citizens of the world to communicate with each other, and English (with all its variations) has earned this position, not only due to British Imperialism ( as we had other empires in the past) but also it was the vehicle of knowledge for the past two centuries.
Saqib Syed
May 24, 2012 06:08pm
Despite being in a thick soup Pakistanis have an edge of English language worldwide. I have practically served in four continents of the world and found that residents of Ex English colonies enjoy more acceptance and freedom of work than any other diaspora. Declaring English as official language of Pakistan was a commendable decision made by the founder of the newly independent state. It contributed in Human Resource development during the later years. Although the process was derailed during Zia's regime but sooner it regained its former pace. With the advent of internet, English has become inevitable for progress from individuals to nations. Today speakers of French, Spanish and Arabic are learning English to keep abreast. Even China has included English in high school curricula as a compulsory subject. In fact, English language academies have emerged as a lucrative business in non English speaking countries. Now a days I am in Africa where one can easily draw a line of distinction between Anglo-phonic and Franco-phonic countries in terms of economy, human development, education, infrastructure and so on.
Cyrus Howell
May 24, 2012 06:23pm
English has become the world's language for no other reason than Britain and America won World War II. Add to that the fact that hundreds of inventions, commercial products, and consumer products were developed by Germany, the US and England during the war. America and Germany had new products already on the drawing boards. The world was waiting for products they did not know existed, and the way for business men to get them was from America. For example, most countries did not have refrigeration before the war. New drugs were coming from Germany, England and America with television from the US and Holland. Airline transportation blossomed after the war. Those who wanted the new products of the polymer plastics industries or the knowledge of this manufacture leaned English. They were not interested in buying borscht from Russia.
Cyrus Howell
May 24, 2012 06:27pm
In Sweden, any Pakistani can see 90% of Swedes speak fluent English. Not only do Swedish children begin learning English in the forth grade, but 40% of Swedish television programming is in English, with programs coming from both Britain and America.
Cyrus Howell
May 24, 2012 06:33pm
"The Qualitative Changes in Human Civilization - Western civilization is its own product and it is not indebted to any previous civilization except for the Greek one … It has revived the Greek achievements in the fields of philosophy, science, literature, politics, society, human dignity, and veneration of reason, while recognizing its shortcomings and illusions and stressing its continuous need for criticism, review and correction." + (Ibrahim al-Buleihi)
Mahmood Elahi
May 24, 2012 06:37pm
While visiting China last year, I became aware how much efforts the Chinese are making to learn English. In Shangahi and Beijing, the younger generations are mostly bilingual. All signs are in both Mandarin and English. In the subways, all annoucements are in both languages. In Sahngahi, I saw a huge campus with a large sign: Wall Street English. When I asked one of the organisers, he told that they teach business English as used by corporate boardrooms in America. By one account, China has overaken India with English as its second language. Mahmood Elahi, Ottawa, Canada.
sadruddin mitha
May 24, 2012 08:26pm
English language is not a priority of this Government, just see and hear our convicted Prime Minister while giving an interview to CNN and see his pronunciation, LOOK AT OUR CRIKCETS, FILM ACTORS, (INLCUDING MEERA) AND OUR ARTISTS, AND POLITICIANS, YOU INSTANTLY KNOW, HOW THEY STRUGGLE TO SPEAK A FEW SENTIENCES, kAIRA WAS REMOVED BECAUSE HE COULD NOT UNDERSTAND FOREIGN MEDIA PEOPLE AND COULD NOT ANSWER THEM, SO IS OUR MADAM MINISTER OF INFORMATION. learning WAS NEVER A PRIORITY IN Pakistan. tHE LESS EDUCATED U ARE U HAVE BETTER CHANCES TO RISE AND BECOME A MINISTER, JUST LOOK AT RAJA PERVAIZ, HE KNOWS NOTHING OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE BUT MANAGED TO EAT BILLIONS IN RENTAL POWER PLANTS IN HIS TRUE PUNJABI/ one SENATOR TOLD ME WE CAN HIRE AS MANY AS WE NEED ENGLISH SPEAKING STAFF AND HENCE NO NEED TO LEARN THE LANGUAGE, WE PAY 10,000 RUPEES AND WE GET FLUENT ENGLISH SPEAKING STUFF.