NICKY POLLARD discusses whether the jury is still out on ‘English: A Killer Language?’

A major concern of linguists today is the increasing endangerment and death of many of the world’s languages.   Alarming figures indicate that, by the end of the 21st century, between 20 and 50 per cent of the world’s 6,900 languages will become extinct (Ethnologue, 2009).

So what is the cause of language death?  This much debated topic has raised a number of differing opinions, with a number of scholars citing the spread of global English as the major contributory factor.   This view often illustrated in the use of emotive expressions such as ‘killer language’, ‘virus’ or ‘murderer’.  This viewpoint is one held by Phillipson (1992) who refers to the spread of global English as ‘linguistic imperialism’, a process whereby powerful nations such as Britain and America assert their influence on weaker, developing nations.  The promotion and often imposition of English and positive westernised ideologies helping to maintain political dominance and power  (Seargeant 2012: 22-25).  This viewpoint is shared by Ferguson (2006: 125-126, cited by Seargeant 2012:25) who states that the spread of English has resulted in a loss of linguistic diversity which has ultimately led to the endangerment of many languages and cultures.

For example, McMahon (1994, cited by Eckert et al. 2004: 110-112) argues that Papua New Guinea is an example where the influence of English has led to the death of many of the countries indigenous languages.  This was caused by a language shift to the more prestigious contact variety Tok Pisin which led to inhabitants abandoning their local vernaculars in favour of the new variety.  Ultimately, many of the local languages became extinct leading to the loss of the countries linguistic diversity and cultural identity.

However, Schneider (2011: 213-214) argues that global English is not the main factor in language death.   He argues that speakers of indigenous languages often shift to regional varieties which are  promoted by authorities through local language policies, for example, Filipino and Bahasa Indonesia.  In addition, Brutt-Griffler (2002, cited in Schneider 2011: 214) states that English has not been imposed on the speakers of other languages.  On the contrary,  during the period of British colonialism English was not promoted to the lower class inhabitants, only the elite were provided with the opportunity to learn the language of ‘power’ and ‘self-empowerment’ (Seargeant 2011: 214). This resulted in many of the indigenous communities retaining their vernacular language throughout the period of British colonialism.  In addition, Mufwene (2005: 45) argues that the real language killers are in fact its own speakers who voluntarily shift to a new language in order to gain better opportunities and prospects in the global community.

Whilst the evidence does suggest that globalization has in part been a contributory factor in the cause of language death, I am not fully convinced that it is the major factor.   However, I am in agreement with the view that the spread of English is being used  as a tool with which to spread  westernised  ideologies. This is evident is the use of positive expressions such as  ‘pathway of global communication’ and ‘more than a language’ Prime Minister’s Office (2008, cited in Seargeant 2012: 9).  So what do you think?

NICKY POLLARD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



Brutt-griffler, J. (2002) World English: a Study of its Development. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters  Ltd.

Ethnologue. (2009) [Accessed 20 December 2012].  Available at:

Eckert, T., Johann, A., Kanzig, A., Kung, M., Muller, B., Schwald, C. & Walder, L. (2004) Is        English a ‘Killer Language’?  The Globalisation of a Code.  Retrieved December 1, 2012      from:

McMahon, A.M. S. (2004) Understanding Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University  Press.

Mufwene, S. S. (2005) Globalization and the myth of killer languages.  In: G. Huggan & S. Klasen  (eds.) (2005) Perspectives on Endangerment.  New York: Georg Olms Verlag, pp.45.

Phillipson, R. (1992) Linguistic Imperialism.  Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Seargeant, P. (2012) The Politics and Policies of Global English.  In: A. Hewings & C.Tagg (2012) The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existance.  Abingdon: Routledge in  association with The Open University Press.

Schneider, E. W. (2011) English Around the World: an Introduction.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


One thought on “NICKY POLLARD discusses whether the jury is still out on ‘English: A Killer Language?’

  1. Laura Buckley says:

    Considering all the evidence you highlight, it does convince me that globalization is the major factor of language death. However, I do believe there are other contributory factors that can cause the reduction of other indigenous languages.

    These other factors include some you have mentioned, for example as Scheinder argued in countries such as Filipino and Bahasa Indonesia, where speakers shift to local varieties rather than their local vernaculars. As English had not been imposed on to these speakers, it had no influence. Therefore it is evident to me that English is not the only factor killing other languages.

    However, despite my agreement that English is not the only cause of language death, I do believe that it is the major factor. As Phillipson (1992) suggested the spread of English as ‘linguistic imperialism’, where the power of nations like Britain and America dominate weaker nations. Whereby, the language spreads with power. I think that the nations who undermine English, are not forced to use the language, they can choose to. This is because it may put them in a higher position.

    I think that people complain about globalization dominating their language, however I believe that they nowadays have the choice to whether or not they use English or remain with their local vernacular.

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