In recent times, the English Language has spread across the globe like wildfire, aided partly by its supposed simplicity, partly by its perceived usefulness and partly due to its status as a prestigious language. A language that began its life on a small island in the North Sea is now being taught in schools in far-away lands such as China and India. In fact, the popularity of English is now so high that it is often labelled as a ‘killer language’. As David Crystal puts it, “English is a vacuum-cleaner of a language” (Crystal, 2000).
Recent estimates suggest that there are over 1.5 billion speakers of English, which equates to one quarter of the total population (Crystal, 2000). Native English speakers benefit greatly from this statistic, as it eliminates the need for them to spend their precious time grafting away learning a new language. Indeed, 75% of Britons are unable to speak a foreign language (Paton, 2013), though this is likely down to complacency, as suggested by recent figures which show a drop in the number of modern foreign languages being taken at A-level (Ratcliffe, 2013). When your language needs are catered for at every airport and every major city across the world, where is the incentive for Brits to learn French, German or Mandarin?
A phenomenon called linguistic imperialism refers to the transfer of a dominant language to other people. Robert Phillipson asserts that imperialism is a key factor in the emergence of English in postcolonial settings such as India and Pakistan. Additionally, he cites linguistic discrimination as another key factor in the prominence of English, (Phillipson, 1992). It is also suggested that ‘English is the passport to success and upward social mobility’ and ‘English is the key to national progress’ are some common clichés that are interspersed; more importantly, these clichés reflect the perception of many people – both rich and poor – in discussing future life chances for their children (Shamim, 2011).
So whilst the entire world is seemingly rushing to learn English, and native English speakers are happy to rest on their laurels, smaller languages are finding themselves in a precarious position. It is estimated that 3,500 of the world’s languages (that’s around half of the total number of languages in the world!) are spoken by a minuscule 0.1% of the population (Harmon 1995, 2002; data source: Lewis et al. 2013). These languages vary in number of speakers, with the smallest ones being used by less than ten individuals, whilst the biggest are used by no more than ten thousand. According to UNESCO, ‘if nothing is done, half of 6,000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century (Unesco, 2016). As the world trends towards cultural and economic globalisation, these languages are being abandoned by their speakers in favour of those which will offer them the greatest opportunities in life, such as English.
UNESCO uses the term ‘endangered’ when speaking about such languages, as if to say that language death is comparable to the extinction of animals. Most people would probably scoff at such a suggestion, but does the death of a language result in the loss of much more than just words?
It is widely agreed that language and culture are closely related, and it has been stated that ‘cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behaviour’ (Rosenthal, 2014). This relationship can be given further credence when observing countries such as India, which is said to be home to over 100 million English speakers (The Times of India, 2010). The rise of English in India has paved the way for the rise of Western culture alongside it, with some Indians blaming Westernisation for the increase in single families and a decrease in the showing of respect amongst Indians (Khirbawhani, 2005).
Ultimately, language death could be seen as a form of evolution. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, due in part to economic and cultural trade as well as increasing access to technology, some things are bound to be lost in the transition. Whilst some languages will inevitably be killed off in the process – resulting in the loss of valuable cultural information – the huge array of opportunities that could potentially be accessed by those in possession of an international auxiliary language such as English is too big to ignore.
ZAKA KHALID, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK