To put it plainly, the English language is currently the top dog of all languages. It’s generally considered the world’s first global language, and it’s a popular lingua franca. When two people with different mother tongues meet, they will most likely find that they both speak English. But why English?
We all know, to some degree, about the British Empire, its worldwide influence, and the colonisation of countries that are home to hundreds of millions of people. And while the Empire may since have fallen, its linguistic legacy has lived on; nowadays Crystal estimates ‘that 1.5 billion people use it either as a first, second or foreign language’ (2000, p.3). Crystal says that ‘[English] is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, medicine, diplomacy, sports, international competitions, pop music, and advertising.’ (2010, p. 370). To be a successful contender on an international level, then, it seems learning English is the way to get your foot in the door.
Take the British Council, for example, who say that ‘English is such an important language in today’s global society. It’s the language of business, the internet and modern culture. So being confident in English is pivotal in helping you fulfil your potential and get the most out of life’ (British Council). From this, you might assume that English is at the top out of necessity, because it offers a wealth of benefits, and promises prosperity to those who choose to learn it.
But with a cynical mind you might consider English is being kept at the top for profit, and never mind the threat it poses to minority languages and the cultures they’re bound to. You might suggest that it’s the cash cow that just keeps giving, and the whole world is its market. Thank neoliberalism if you must. It is, as Gray puts it, ‘a multi-billion pound industry which exists primarily to make profit’ (2012, p. 162) with ‘powerful forces propelled by human agents acting on behalf of commercial and governmental organisations [who] are actively involved in promoting and sustaining the position of English in the world’ (2012, p. 162).
Park and Wee claim that ‘English is seen as an economic resource, a commodity that can be exchanged in the market for material profit’ (2012, p. 124). And why not? As you read this, you are sharing the world with over seven billion other people, and that number is rising steadily. Since language is our primary source of communication, and the world is becoming increasingly connected, there is a rising demand for a global language. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together and see that it’s a highly profitable market.
While the spread of the English language at this point is like wildfire, you might ask how English is being taught worldwide. Well, it is certainly not being taught for free, and it certainly isn’t cheap; it is a commodity after all. In 2008/09, UK book exports were estimated to be £14.1 billion (Department for Business Innovations & Skills, 2011). TOEFL, an English language test for foreign learners, charges up to £235 just for registration. These figures are highly suggestive of a threat to marginalising those who cannot afford to learn English, and as such are unable to progress in their careers, or find any sort of success and financial stability that fluency in English could offer. It’s evident that the spread of English to improve the livelihoods of millions is not the primary focus.
There are certainly ulterior motives at play here, but how much does it matter? Despite its exploitative nature, learning English is an investment that ultimately pays off. It’s been proven to boost the economy of countries that name it an official country (Rwanda, for example); people fluent in English are more likely to get a better paying job, possibly earning up to three times more for the same role (Euromonitor International, 2010, p. 74, as cited by Gray, 2012, p. 147).
At risk are minority languages and the cultures, ideologies and knowledge encoded within them. But what choice do speakers of minority languages have, when potentially sacrificing their native language means acquiring a language that offers something their mother tongue cannot? Is the treatment of language as a commodity – and the neoliberalist marketing and selling of English – to blame for the dominance and cultural imperialism that English imposes? Is it a natural, inevitable, progression that one language (which just happens to be English) rises to the top, or has it been pushed and held there by strategic marketing?
KERRY CHARNOCK, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK