What’s keeping the English Language at the top, and who benefits? KERRY CHARNOCK investigates

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

References

British Council. Learn English. Retrieved January 21, 2016

Crystal, D. (2000). Emerging Englishes. Issue 14. English teaching professional. Retrieved January 21 2016 

Crystal, D. (2010). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (3rd ed.). Cambridge: University Press.

Department of Business Innovations & Skills, (2011). Estimating the Value to the UK of Education Exports. BIS research paper 46. Retrieved January 22.

Gray, J. (2012), English the industry. In: A. Hewings and C. Tagg (ed.) The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existence. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 139-163.

Park, J. and Wee, L. (2012) Markets of English: Linguistic Capital and Language Policy in a Globalizing World. Oxon: Routledge.

TOEFL. Retrieved January 21 2016.

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2 thoughts on “What’s keeping the English Language at the top, and who benefits? KERRY CHARNOCK investigates

  1. Megan Davies says:

    Hi Kerry,
    This blog is extremely informative and a very good read. I agree completely that the English Language is used for economic gain and those who wish to acquire its benefits have to do so at a price. Do you believe that the high cost of learning English is another method of keeping the rich, rich and the poor, poor? The highly profitable market may suggest so as you have stated that those who cannot afford the payment, can simply not progress in their careers.
    The possibility of improving the livelihoods of non-English speakers and introducing them to the world wide Lingua-franca is overshadowed by the ability to use of an entire language as a cash cow in the global market.
    Although the prime motive of marketing English globally is profit, it is clear to see that those who learn English often have better prospects. Does paying for the opportunity make it wrong? If so, we, as university students, have also fell into the same trap. Paying for a qualification or learning opportunity is common practice in the 21st century.
    English may have risen naturally but if it has been strategically placed at the top, is that not due to people’s acceptance of English as the Lingua-franca and the demand of those who wish to learn it?

  2. George Carsley-Bromilow says:

    I felt like this was a well-researched blog, and one that I, mostly, agree with. English has become a commodity nowadays, especially if one is hoping to go into a career that may cover an international level, and unless one is willing to forego upwards of the equivalent of £6,500 in schooling fees then one may fall behind, especially when “knowledge of other languages […] [is] important for education […] and community relations” (Blackledge & Creese, 2014).

    While I agree with Kerry’s comments that English has become a privilege to learn, as opposed to a right, and that it has developed to the point where it has become a dominant language across the world, could it not also be argued that Mandarin Chinese is challenging English as a key language within the linguistic imperialism debate?

    According to the BBC, businesses view English as being less important when they take “western clients to do business in China,” (Pak, 2012) so while an eastern understanding of English is important it suggests that western speakers also need an understanding of Chinese for successful communication.

    With English being so dominant, will it always be so or are there any legitimate challenges?

    – George

    Blackledge, A., & Creese, A. (2014, July 24). Speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English. University of Birmingham. Retrieved February 22, 2016, from http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/thebirminghambrief/items/2014/07/speaking-only-english-is-a-disadvantage-24-07-14.aspx

    Pak, J. (2012, February 22). Is English or Mandarin the language of the future? BBC, Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/786huxo

    Zhao, S. (2014, April 21). Parents in Hong Kong struggling with rising cost of English-language education. South China Morning Post, Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/zmqqldn

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