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
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