A ‘killer’ language? English has become a global lingua franca for many of the ‘outer circle’ countries. It is thought that the huge increase in the number of English speakers has endangered small indigenous languages. This is causing people to claim that English is murdering local languages or forcing them to commit suicide.
The globalisation of the English language, is much bigger than the tiny island in which the language has derived from. English as a world language is not an isolate. Much of its vocabulary has been borrowed from other world languages for science and technology. Fishman (2001, p.6) believes that ‘[g]lobalisation is the wave of the future’, so change was unescapable. McLuhan (1964) talks of the ‘global village’, an interconnected world, through the invention of the computer in the late twentieth-century. The technology originated from the English speaking world, and therefore English became its lingua franca. It’s all very well pointing the finger at English. But without the spread of this unifying language through urbanisation, there simply would not be a branch of communication for rural communities.
Britain is now the minority in the amount of English speakers, with a population of sixty-four million. The inner circle countries who were once colonised by the English, have contributed to its globalisation, like America for example that holds over two-hundred million English speakers. In fact, according to the 2007 census all of the inner circle countries, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have populations of at least eighty-percent or higher that speak English as their first language.
Due to the colonisation of many countries, English was thrust upon outer circle countries. Kenya for instance, gained their independence from Britain in 1963, but English still prevailed as a global language for many. Schneider (2011, p.211) notes, ‘[T]he New Primary Approach’ was introduced in Kenya’s elementary schools, which saw the endangerment of their mother tongue. This also seeped into their family homes as many parents thought English would give their children a better edge later on in life.
Nettle & Romaine (2000, p.8) claim that ‘[t]he pulse of a language clearly lies in the youngest generation’. This illustrates one cause of language death, because if languages are not passed down to the younger speakers, they will inevitably dye out. Egbokhare (1999) investigated the Emai-speaking region of Nigeria, finding that whilst adults hold their vernacular language, the younger speakers are opting to only speak their indigenous language whilst addressing the older generation, and would opt to speak English at all other times. Schneider (2011, p.214) believes this has sparked the loss of ‘community’s cultural and historical roots’, and interestingly notes that the ‘British administrators’ did not promote the learning of English within indigenous populations. Through the colonisation period, English was ‘withheld from the masses’ and was only passed onto the ‘loyal local elites’.
Crystal (2000, p.78) explains that this all stems from the ‘immense pressure’ that people feel to speak a ‘dominant language’ like English, in order to gain ‘political, social or economic sources’. English is seen as a powerful prestigious language with great social wealth. But, is this necessarily a case of English murdering local languages? Or are these communities committing language suicide. If you consider both sides of the debate here, English is arguably a platform to progress from. But the price these indigenous speakers seemingly have to pay is their mother tongue.
However, through a process called ‘language mixing’, some speakers have combined their mother tongue with the global language. Schneider (2011, p. 222) discusses how English is not replacing indigenous languages, instead it is adding to the local language habits and contributing to the ‘growth of cultural hybridity’. Students in Hong Kong chose not to lose their cultural identity, and created ‘mix mix’, so they have combined their local language with English, which I think is culturally creative and a gateway of communication within small communities.
So, is English a language ‘killer’ or a language promoter? Evidently, those within the inner circle have benefited greatly from the higher profit that has been achieved through the teaching of English for western-style development. Some may claim that this is at others expense, but the new varieties of English can also express culture. I believe that people do have a choice, so the claims that a world language has been forced down people’s throats is a bit over-exaggerated. Perhaps these smaller communities should stop committing language suicide if they are so worried about losing their cultural identity. Stop conforming to the identity that society has constructed for you.
RACHEL SADLER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK