English has without doubt achieved some kind of global status as many countries adopt the language they consider to be synonymous with economic success and a cosmopolitan culture. However, factors such as the increasing numbers of speakers of other languages, including in English-speaking countries, an increase in bi-lingualism and growing anti-American sentiment in some parts of the world, all indicate that English may not occupy an entirely stable position in the world.
This essay explores some of the reasons why English has become so widespread and then argues that global domination of English, despite its current position as a medium of international communication, is unlikely to take place. According to Crystal, (1987, cited in Pennycook, 1994, p. 8) “English is used as an official or semi-official language in over 60 countries…it is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, medicine, sports, international competitions, pop music and advertising…”.
It is the working language of ASEAN, the Asian trade group, and the official language of the European Central Bank, even though none of the member countries has English as its first language (Wallraff 2000, p. 3). The extensive economic power of the United States has also influenced many countries to view English as the “key to economic empowerment” (Guardian weekly 2000, p2). English has also become dominant because it is regarded as cosmopolitan and the way of the future.
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According to Cohen (2000, p. ), the dominance of American popular culture has influenced many young Europeans who aspire to the “unfettered, dynamic, creative culture of California” rather than the “rigidity” of many European societies. Volkwagon in Germany called their car the “new beetle” rather than the German equivalent neuer Kafer because advertisers believed it sounded more “hip”. Similarly in Asia, English is associated with the glamour of block-buster movies and the pop industry. However, despite these factors English is unlikely to dominate the world.
English speakers are still the minority of the world’s population with 372 million speakers, well behind Chinese languages which have 1,113 million speakers (Wallraff, 2000 p. 5). Within fifty years English is likely to lose even second place to the South Asian linguistic group which includes the Hindi and Urdu languages. Spanish and Arabic will also become as common as English. There are also increasing numbers of bilingual and multilingual speakers, even within English-speaking countries.
Currently about one in seven American citizens prefers to speak a language other than English at home, including 2. 4 million Chinese speakers. (Wallraff 2000, p. 3). This suggests that the future of other languages is guaranteed despite the popularity of English. Another reason why English will never dominate is because of a growing anti-American sentiment. Wallraff (2000, p. 5) suggests that there may be “…a backlash against American values and culture” and that this could lead to a resistance to learn the language of the United Sates.
In post-September 11 times this seems a very real possibility. In Europe France and Germany have also held a conference focused on defending Franco-German culture against the cultural pull of America (Cohen 1998, p. 2). Afrikaaners in South Africa are also leading a passionate fight to gain equality with English as are many other indigenous languages (Alexander 2000, p. 2). Still further reasons that may prevent a world take-over by English include political, economic and technological factors.
Political factors include the potential formation of new alliances between non-English speaking countries and the probable rise of regional trading blocks in Asia and the Middle-East. It is also possible “that world-changing technology could arise out of a nation where English is little spoken” (Wallraff 2000, p. 4). This could tip the scales away from English to the use of another language. Finally, in a world of rapid technological change and increasing political instability it is difficult to predict what the future may hold.
Although English has enjoyed a period of great expansion as a language of international communication, it is unlikely it will eventually dominate the world. The sheer numbers of non-English speakers, the potential of new political trading partnerships or new technological developments as well as the possibility of a rejection of the “cultural imperialism” of the West may in fact contribute to a decline in the spread of English. Perhaps English speakers should be a little less complacent about learning other languages themselves.
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