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Why We Speak English Now

, by Eva Schloer, Lee Bacon, Sven Weigand

In this new century, language has become a flexible thing, an elastic method of communication that is no longer bound by geography or nationality. Globalization, the internet, open borders, and increased mobility, especially among younger generations: all have had an unprecedented effect on the way the world communicates with itself. But what does this mean for the world?

Is it all just a coincidence? Is it all in your head? Or does it seem as if the English language is becoming more and more common in the everyday lives of Europeans—regardless of the mother tongue spoken within individual countries. Take part in an international university seminar and you’ll probably find that all the programs take place in English. Walk into a clothing retailer in continental Europe and it’s likely you’ll see more t-shirts in English than the native language. Attend a conference, where someone from Italy is conversing with someone from Sweden in English. In fact, the British linguist David Graddol has found that 2 billion people across the world are learning English. The English language has become the closest thing to a world language that we’ve ever had.

This makes sense, really. In a society of seemingly infinite choice (whether it is a language or a television show or a box of cereal on the supermarket shelf), the human mind seeks to narrow the crowd. This eases the difficulty of decision and allows us to go about our day without constantly sifting through every single option available to us. In Europe alone, the multitude of choice is dizzying. At one end, there is Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, and so on—at the other: Russian, Estonian, Latvian, Finnish, and many, many others. Between all of this, you are faced with dozens of other dialects, each calling out from its place on the shelf, a nonsensical pitch of voices and indecipherable sounds. What is a reasonable person supposed to do? You begin to pick and choose, you follow the formula that you developed at some point in life when you realized there was more stuff in the world than you could ever possibly consume or participate in. Which language do they teach in school? What might help get me the job that I want? What is the language spoken by the person you find attractive? And since you are reading this article, you chose (or had chosen for you) English. And it appears that, somewhere along the way, the rest of the world made the same choice.

But why English? There are many variables that allowed English to gain its foothold as the common language of Europe and the world. There is, of course, the simple process of elimination. Most of the other languages just weren’t being used by enough people. Macedonian, Euskara, Danish never had the population to have a lasting effect on economies and cultures as those of more populous nations. French could’ve been a contender. In the 19th Century, French had become the default language for academic discussion, an essential for writers and thinkers of serious aspiration across Europe. But this distinction came and went before it could be authenticated by the rubber stamp of globalization.

[...] as the twentieth century trundled forward, there were three major factors that contributed to the widespread use of English throughout the world: commerce, entertainment, and globalization.

Other languages – Russian, German, Spanish, Dutch – had some chance to establish themselves as the lingua franca. But as the twentieth century trundled forward, there were three major factors that contributed to the widespread use of English throughout the world: commerce, entertainment, and globalization.

Commerce

One might be able to communicate basic needs in, say, a vegetable market without speaking the dominant language. Point to the basket of tomatoes, hold up three fingers, and the vendor will have a pretty good idea of what you need. But as commerce has expanded beyond the borders of small markets, or single nations, or even continents, it has become clear that a common language is increasingly necessary.

Commerce has been altered dramatically by the shifting foundation of technology and business in the past century. From the industrial revolution to the internet, international finance, stock markets, increased trade: for a company to operate in a more efficient manner, to grow and compete on a global scale, it was necessary to communicate effectively between nations. And for many companies to do this, all at the same time, every day, a default language would need to rise to the top of the linguistic heap. What language though? Perhaps the greatest other competitor might have been Russia. After all, Russia had a huge population and many of the resources necessary for international trade. But then the Bolsheviks drove the country into Communism, and as a result, Russia did most of its trading with itself and with the small number of other Communist nations, thus excluding its language from international commerce.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom—through aggressive trade, imperial policies, and robust economic drive—had long been a primary force behind financial markets. And by the end of the twentieth century, the United States had become an essential consideration in nearly every economic decision, regardless of the origin of a company.

These changes had an impact on companies and the culture in general. Renault, the French automaker, designated English as the language of communication for senior management. A number of other corporations have done the same. In recognition of this trend, schools and universities placed increasing value on the necessity of learning English. As a result more and more people learn English at an ever-younger age.

Entertainment

Among all the other dramatic changes that took place in the twentieth century, one of the most important to consider was the increased significance of entertainment on the lives of ordinary humans. At the same time as average personal income and leisure time increased, the availability of cheap entertainment exploded. Innovations such as radio, television, film, and the internet gave anyone—everyone—access to entertainment.

Much of this entertainment was in English. In the early twentieth century, innovations in music began to take form—swing, jazz, the blues, and later, rock & roll—often in English, and carried by radio all across the world. If you wanted to sing along it helped to know the language. Meanwhile Hollywood spread its films across the world. And although the internet is available in every language, it has become yet another platform to spread the messages of English language entertainment culture. All of this has created a very effective kind of advertising (or if you prefer: propaganda) in the promotion of English as a lingua franca.

Globalization

The world has become a much smaller place in the past few decades. For most of human development, Europe was a very private territory. Although Europeans may have ventured to other lands for trade or imperialist reasons from time to time, a majority of the commerce—and the conflict—remained within the continental borders. If things had remained this way, the outcome might have been different. However, travel became easier, more routine; companies reached farther into international territories; the internet made communication seamless, despite distance. The only thing that was separating us any longer was language.

So then, in this circumstance, what was it that gave English the edge. The answer lies beyond the borders of Europe. As globalization shrunk the world, other English-speaking nations gained ever-greater importance in the culture and commerce of Europe. Before, English was only represented by the United Kingdom and its 80 million inhabitants (which is about equal to that of France, less than German-speaking countries, and far less than the Russia in population). But globalization gave less priority to location, and as you look to the east and west of Europe, you see America and Canada on one side, and Australia on the other. English had Europe surrounded.

Many other reasons can be provided, pointing to education, war, economics migration, technology, etc. But ultimately, English is only a platform, a way of exchanging ideas and thoughts. It is a way for you and me to fulfill our very human need to communicate.

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P.S.

This article is brought to you in cooperation with the European magazine Point-E, where it was firstly published back in Spring 2007.

Image: illustration from the original article’s publication at Point-E

Your comments

  • On 26 November 2007 at 13:51, by Quetzal Replying to: Why We Speak English Now

    Mais l’Europe doit-elle nécéssairement devenir un village anglophone, la est la question qui se pose?? l’on conçoie bien au travers de cette déclaration d’amour pour l’anglais qu’il existe une réelle volonté d’imposé un etat de fait a l’ensemble des populations européennes. l’injustice est patente, l’anglais est sans doute de très bonne facture, mais il existe aussi d’autre langue de très bonne facture. sur ce point toute les langues naturelle se valent, qu’elles semblent simple ou complexe, elles restent toujours pour les non mother-tongues une langue étrangère au contours dificiles a définir a parti du moment ou l’on a a faire a une personne l’ayant appris dès son enfance.

    est-ce là l’equité du pouvoir que nous promet l’Europe a nous tous et a nos enfant, qui ne seront jamais mother-tongue donc éligible au plus haute fonctions administrative de cette europe anglicisé. est-ce cela l’idée de justice européenne et d’egalité entre tous les peuples d’europe. faudrait-il qu’il y en ait un peuple qui n’ait aucun effort a fournir pour se sentir chez-soi en europe, alors qu’apparement cette europe semble etre la dernière idée qui semble convenir a la plèbe britanique.

    hm, il m’est d’avis que si l’anglais est une jolie langue et que l’on peux certes faire beaucoup de belle chose avec, l’histoire du bel canto en europe monter très bien que l’italien, l’allemand le français le russe et quelques autres ont satisfait nos plus grand auteurs. certes sa prédominance economqiue est patente au plan international, mais est-ce suffisant pour lui donner l’avantage au détriment de toute les autres.

    en fait je n’est cesse de penser que le choix de l’anglais pour l’europe signerais d’emblée la fin de l’europe, puisque ce faisant l’on élirais la langue d’une nation contre toutes les autres. est-ce là vriament le chemin de la paix que nous promettait en filigranne monnet et chuman quand ils posèrent les jalons de l’Union future.

    et pour tout dire, là encore, et puisque l’on n’a su choisir le mark comme monnaie européenne pour de simple raison de suceptibilité politique, l’on ne saurait par sagesse et pour l’europe que le même chemin, celle de la créativité et de l’inventivité plus que celle de la simple récupération.

    l’europe a un très grand besoin d’une langue capablede devenir sa langue administrative, de devenir sa langue de référence pour ses lois et vers lequel tout les juristes puisse avoir la certitude davoir un texte original et exempt des difficultés de traduction inter-linguistique. car, peut-on vriament concevoir l’interprétation de texte et des lois, si les mots eux-même ne renvoie pas au même signifié?? n’est-ce pas là contraire a une certainne idée de la sécurité juridique et a une certainne idée de la hiarchie des normes de droit cher a kelsen. l’on pourrait aussi poser un wittgenstein qui ne voyait a tout problèmes philosophique, que des querelles de définition.

    a mon gout, l’europe serait bien sage si elle parvenait a créer, et je dis bien a créer, et non récuperer une language rationelle telle que nos philosophes l’on toujours prescrit a qui sait entendre.

    par le fait elle parviedrait tant a la maitrise d’elle-même et de son propre droit, en en faisant une réelle référence internationale, une langue droite et normée, sure en définitions et en descrptions, une oeuvre pour ecrire l’europe comme un nouvel être de droit, comme un être de raison , plus que de passion et de pulsion.

    difficile, impossible?? hm, pour ceux qui n’ont jamais tenté d’apprendre une langue rationelle sans flexion et a la grammaire parfaite. car là ou les langue naturelles sont toujours complexe car nul n’en connait vraiment la profondeur. un européen aurait cette indéniable avantage d’etre maitrisable de tous et sans qu’il soit fait d’execptions entre les futurs citoyens, ou plutôt administrateur et fonctionnaire de l’Union.

    dire que cela serait au même titre que la monaie, un gage de sécurité et de volonté commune a faire de l’idée d’europe un lieu “commun” pour tout européen, plutôt que la victoire par le fait de l’une de nos nations contre toutes les autres??

    il m’est d’avis que sur ce point-là, vouloir l’europe ne peux se faire que dans la création commune et l’effort commun pour une paix et une prospérité communne. l’on ne sauait vanté les gloires des uns poir l’imposer de force a tout les autres sans prendre pour le futur de bien grand risque. l’on ne fait pas un Etat comme on le dirrige, là est peut-etre la difficulté auquel nos élites européenne se trouve avoir quelques difficultées.

  • On 26 November 2007 at 17:01, by krokodilo Replying to: Why We Speak English Now

    Waouh ! Astonishing ! You said it by yourself : “All of this has created a very effective kind of advertising (or if you prefer: propaganda) in the promotion of English as a lingua franca.”

    Against propaganda, there is only one way, like proud England during WWII : résist ! We have to promote linguistic equity in EU, and support espéranto, only way for a real respect of all the european langages.

    Il faut savoir que le voile pudique qui recouvrait l’anglais obligatoire à l’école primaire vient de tomber, car c’est maintenant en toutes lettres dans un récent dossier de presse du ministère de l’Education nationale : les tableaux électroniques interactifs promis par le ministre durant sa visite au salon de l’éducation serviront à promouvoir l’anglais, à dialoguer avec des natifs (payés par nos impôts ?).

    http://www.education.gouv.fr/cid20472/les-technologies-de-l-information-et-de-la-communication-dans-l-enseignement.html

    Et le français devient deuxième langue à l’école primaire - non, là je blague, c’est prévu seulement pour 2009 !

  • On 29 January 2009 at 13:55, by CLET Replying to: Why We Speak English Now

    Vu l’horrible charabia que je reçoit quand je demande la traduction de cette page en français, je me dis que l’anglais a encore beaucoup de chemin à faire avant de devenir un moyen de communication adapté à l’Europe. A-t-on envisagé SÉRIEUSEMENT les autres moyens d’intercommunication?

  • On 21 May 2010 at 03:34, by Titan Replying to: Why We Speak English Now

    2 milliard d’être humains apprennent l’anglais ce qui ne veut pas dire que ces 2 milliard de personnes parlent l’anglais. Et puis l’anglais est en train d’être supplanté par l’espagnol aux Etats-Unis alors franchement quelle subjectivité cet article. Exemple concret en Californie 36 pour cent de la population parlent l’espagnol. A Los Angeles c’est 46 pour cent ! Non en fait il faut apprendre une langue pour son plaisir tout simplement !!

  • On 25 September 2011 at 02:28, by Gilberto da Silva Replying to: Why We Speak English Now

    Good night dear ones, I would like to make you a question: how do you see education in a federalist and “really” united Europe? thanks cheers. Gil

  • On 6 April 2012 at 04:10, by Manish Replying to: Why We Speak English Now

    Must we speak english everywhere ? Can’t we do anything without English ? Yes I do respect every language and that is why I am more fascinated about my mother tongue.

    http://vyarthgyan.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/do-we-really-need-english-everywhere/

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