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: http://www.ethnologue.org.uk/web.asp
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: http://www1.amalnet.k12.il/amalna/gefen/profession/English/resources%20reserve/
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.