DOM D’ANGELILLO explores to what extent English is a ‘killer’ of languages or a global necessity

Eight years ago, I was on a school trip in Germany. Sitting in a city centre café with two of my globetrotting friends, I thought now would be the best time to practice the language I had been learning for two years. I mustered up the courage and confidently asked for ‘drei coca’ (three cokes) and as I settled back into my seat, my order was met with laughter. ‘You want a dry coke?’ The waiter replied ‘you sound like an idiot, why don’t you just speak English’. Now, at the time, I was far too embarrassed to make anything of it, but when I look back as a competent English language student, it begs the question. Is English a threat to languages the world over or a necessity for those inferior nations?

Crystal (2003a:108-109) estimates that there are around 750 million English speakers in the world, acting as an official language in countries ranging from India to Nigeria. Now, while this may seemingly make the world a better place for us British Passport wielding linguists, meaning that we can order nuggets in almost any country, it is not always as easy for those whose languages perish.

African writer Thiong’o (1986:11) states that during his education in Kenya, English ‘was the language, and all others had to bow before it’. The fact is, that after the English colonised Kenya, the very identity of Thiong’o’s native ‘Gikuyu’ was lost, along with ‘the culture of those people’ making Kenya an English speaking hub rather than a proud African Nation (Thiong’o 1986:13). This instance is most certainly not an anomaly either, with Krishnaswamy & Krishnaswamy (2006:109) arguing that the same happened in India, where the educated took control and ‘India, to a large extent used English’, a disturbing thought if not your first language.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, and although broad estimates from the likes of Rymer (2012) in the  National Geographic state that ‘a language dies every 14 days’, the more conservative argue that language death is simply a part of ‘the natural cycle of language’ (Wolfram 2002:764). After all, we have to accept when our beloved pets and family members are no more.

Generally speaking, having English replace languages can help the world be a better, more unified place. Consider politics, business, air travel and safety, all of which see English as the language to use (Crystal 2003b:12-13). Perhaps where once Crystal (2003b:12 ) argued that ‘a lingua franca might be needed for the whole world’ it is more appropriate to say ‘a lingua franca is needed for the whole world’.

So what can we conclude? Whatever way we look at it, English is the global language whether you like it or not. Used in so many influential and important fields, from business to Hollywood, air travel to politics, it has become the norm for a huge percentage of the world. While this is well and good for those of us that speak English, it can be disastrous for those that don’t, losing an identity, pride and a sense of culture, becoming a pawn in an ever-growing English speaking world. Perhaps we should rephrase our initial question, is English the killer, or are smaller languages the more vulnerable prey?

DOM D’ANGELILLO, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Crystal, D. (2003a) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003b) English as Global language. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: University Press.

Krishnaswamy, N & Krishnaswamy, L. (2006) The Story of English in India. New Delhi: Manas Saikia.

Rymer, R. (2012)  National Geographic.  [Accessed 18 January 2014]. Available at:  http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/vanishing-languages/rymer-text?rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_r1p_intl_ot_w#finished

 Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Publishers Ltd.

 Wolfram, W (2002) Language death and dying. In: J. Chambers, P. Trudgill & N. Schilling-Estes (eds.) Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 764-787.

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2 thoughts on “DOM D’ANGELILLO explores to what extent English is a ‘killer’ of languages or a global necessity

  1. Hannah Waude says:

    This blog brings up a lot of key issues found within today’s multicultural society. I am certain that every person, whether monolingual or bilingual speakers, has had an experience where English has been a vital tool in communication. I completely agree that English is the lingua franca. as the top language for international communication (Europa Press, 2013)
    But is English at risk of losing its lingua franca status? As people continue to debate whether the English Language is a killer, languages like Spanish and Chinese are steadily creeping up to claim the lingua franca status. Within the next three or four generations, 10% of the global population will understand Spanish (Europa Press, 2013). While Dom discusses the risks for minority languages, I am more concerned about English being removed altogether.
    Additionally, English isn’t just losing its position, its losing its culture. According to Cruz (2006), languages were originally learnt so that people felt a connection to a culture. Nowadays English is spoken all over the world but purely for communicative purposes. As a fanatic for other cultures and languages, an opportunity to utilize my own language throughout the world is exciting, however as a native English speaker I am afraid for my language and my own culture.
    So as food for thought from Dom’s idea of English killing others (whether intentionally or otherwise), Is English just a killer language or a victim of the lingua franca effect?
    Cruz, J. (2006). Focus: El español ganará la partida al inglés. El País [online], 8 February [Accessed 5 February 2014]. Avaliable at : http://elpais.com/diario/2006/10/07/sociedad/1160172015_850215.html.
    Europa Press. (2013). Focus: El español se convirtió en 2012 en la segunda lengua más hablada del mundo. La Vanguardia. [Online] 8 Feruary [Accessed 4 Feruary 2014] Avaliable at: http://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20130114/54360852169/espanol-segunda-lengua-mas-hablada-mundo-2012.html

  2. Rachel Dunster says:

    Dear Dom,

    I can fully relate to the embarrassment you experienced at a café in Germany. I too have been corrected and, at times, scolded for my attempts to converse in my second language.
    Your use of the term ‘inferior’ to refer to the way in which languages other than English are often stigmatised and in some instances, completely wiped out, as was the case with the Gikuyu Language in Kenya. I wonder how speakers of English would feel if their language and effectively their entire culture were obliterated by German or French? As a largely unashamedly, monolingual society this prospect would arguably not be met with much enthusiasm or acceptance.
    You note that the consequences of the rise in the English Language’s importance, prominence and its use, are not all doom and gloom. Crystal references the unifying power of the world’s lingua franca from the field of politics and business to other areas of importance in the everyday lives of our global citizens.
    I was intrigued to see your reference to attitudes towards the growing influence of English and the consequential death of less ‘superior’ languages. Individuals often seem quick and perhaps even eager to label English as a “killer language”, as your title states, however they quite often fail to take into account the fact that languages that face extinction are simply a part of a natural and ongoing cycle of linguistic predation.

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