The English language has become the world’s most significant lingua franca and in many respects is the language of universal communication. According to some, many of the most celebrated literary texts in the world’s literary canon have been written in English and later translated. Crystal (1987, p.358) claims that “[o]ver two-thirds of the world’s scientists write in English,” thus making English a global force to be reckoned with, because as medical advancements increase in popularity, so does the expansion of English. So it is often alleged that more and more people are choosing to learn English, as its influence continues to expand.
So is this popularity based on an inherent ‘superiority’? Why is English often considered to be superior to others? Pennycook cites and critiques the triumphalist views early 20th century linguists such as Jespersen who claim “there is perhaps no language in the civilized world that stands so high as English” (1998, p.136). Due to the correlations between English being considered ‘civilized’, it is held in high political, legal and scientific respect.
One of the market forces behind the increasing spread of English, is undoubtedly, the British Council. Their job is to encourage the expansion of English. According to Gray (2012b, p.97), the British Council’s textbook industry is “worth £3-4 billion year to the British economy” and this industry “makes the case for English as a language worth learning in terms of the economic benefits it can bring to countries and to individual speakers” (Gray, 2012b, p.97). Other countries require training in order to teach the English language so they ultimately rely on the council’s services to educate them. Some consider this to be a an example of English being a kind of ‘cultural capital’ which is sold like any other commodity and can lead to a kind of cultural or ‘linguistic imperialism’ whereby ultimately the English economy grows through profiting from the success of English. English is exploited as a marketable commodity which is: “putting a price on things never actually produced as commodities” (Harvey, 2005, p. 166) making English a “killer language” (Price 1984; Nettle & Romaine 2000). As English grows, fewer people choose to learn other languages such as French and German.
English has recently become more firmly established in countries where traditionally it played little role. For instance, in Rwanda, following a devastating civil war which led to a cut in diplomatic ties with France, English replaced French as an institutional lingua franca, including being the language used in schools at quite an early age, replacing the indigenous Kinyarwanda. Some critics argue the British Council are the biggest benefactors.
So, does this mean the spread of English has had a provable, positive effect? Not necessarily. Unfortunately, some Marxist theorists are still able to argue that the financial aspect of English has been exploited, as the richest elite in Rwanda have an unfair advantage. Many Rwandans are still struggling to incorporate English into their vernacular. Families from more affluent backgrounds are able to spend extra money on tutorials and resources which grants them a faster and more in depth knowledge of English. Essentially countries adopt the “neoliberalistic ideology in favour of greater economical advantages” (Gray, 2012a, pp.137-138). But not everybody gains.
Nonetheless the World Bank’s Its Doing Business report 2010 noted that Rwanda is “the world’s top reformer of business regulation” marking “the first time a Sub-Saharan African economy is [in] the top reformer[‘s list]” (The World Bank, 2009). So although there are some who would argue the spread of English only benefits the rich, this report states it is actually easier for the locals to start a successful business.
English is a marketable commodity, and as many of the world’s top businesses communicate through the medium of English, it is understandable that in using English you are more likely to achieve global, financial success. So by exploiting the language, not just the British economy benefits. As the Rwandan case study highlights it can have success elsewhere around the globe. It is safe to say, the discussion of whether or not English currently being the ‘global language’ is a positive phenomenon, is not going to be resolved anytime soon.
SOPHIE HELPS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Gray, J. (2012b). Neoliberalism, celebrity and aspirational content in English language teaching textbooks for the global market. In D. Block., J. Gray & M. Holborow (Eds.) (2012), Neoliberalism and applied linguistics (pp. 86-113). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.