Why Learn Another Language If the Whole World Speaks English!?
(Based on a speech given to the Rhode Island Foreign Language Association, October 2001)
Recently a high school student and his parents were in my office to learn more about our International Engineering Program which combines the study of language, culture, and engineering, and prepares students for global careers.� Midway through my usual enthusiastic presentation about the benefits of such a cross-disciplinary approach, the father interrupted saying:� �You know, this all sounds great, but engineers in countries like Germany and France and Spain speak English, don�t they? Why shouldn�t my son just concentrate on the technical side of things?�� Put on the defensive, I spent the next five minutes responding to this question, which is not new to any of us in the language profession, and which will be heard with increasing frequency in the coming years.
Who needs to study a language when the whole world speaks English!?� This may not seem like a serious question to those of us who are bilingual.� At the very least, it is annoying to those of us who travel and work abroad periodically, and know that communication with partners in other cultures goes only half way if we do not have access to their language.� It strikes us as very na�ve, and reminds us that the battle to make language learning relevant to Americans is never ending.
Like it or not, however, we cannot retreat from the fact that English is indeed a global language.� Always a strong contender as a means of international communication, its use has increased with a vengeance in the last two or three decades.� The bad news for the language teaching profession is that the people who control the educational purse strings, the people who fund teachers and programs, who decide the future of our tenure-track lines, who determine that Johnny and Suzy have to learn to read, write, and do math, but not necessarily speak another language, all know this.
The power of English as a global language has a long history.� It really goes back to British colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, which took English to so many parts of the globe, and includes the founding and growth of this country with English as the primary language.�� A second big factor was the industrial revolution of the 19th Century, which likewise had its origins in England, and bolstered the prestige and importance of English as it was exported to other parts of the world.� The 20th Century push for English is more an American phenomenon than British, and is attributable to American economic and military dominance.
The role of English as a world language was recognized far before our time.� John Adams wrote these words in 1780 as part of his proposal for an American Academy:
English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age.� The reason of this is obvious, because the increasing population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether great or small, force their language into general use, in spite of all the obstacles that may be thrown in their way, if any such there should be.
To understand the rapidly growing role of English in� recent decades, and this certainly has been the case, we need to consider at least three very influential developments
��������� First of all, regardless of the views of Islamic fundamentalists, we live today in an era of American dominance.� With the fall of the Wall in Berlin and the concomitant end of the Cold War, we were left as the only super power and our style of free-market capitalism was accepted much more broadly and adopted by the world marketplace.� Eastern Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world are doing their best to follow our model and to become competitive players in the global market.� They want to play our game, and that often means speaking our language.
Second, we have accelerated the shrinking of the world with incredible systems of transportation, computer networking, and telecommunications.� I can be in Frankfurt tomorrow morning if need be.� Short of that I can easily be in contact with my partners around the world on a daily basis by way of the computer on my desk or the fax machine in the outer office.� The facts are there, and the numbers are astonishing:
��������� � 500,000 people cross the Atlantic every day.
��������� � 1.5 trillion dollars cross the Atlantic every day.
� Cable lines, which not long ago carried 80 calls per line, now carry
one million calls.
��������� � 1.4 billion e-mail messages are sent per day.
��������� Third, along with the expansion of our market system and our technology, our language has been accepted as the common language to be used when people of different nations need to speak with one another and do not have the ability to communicate in their mutual languages.� English is: 1) the language of international conferences. 2) the language of most international organizations.� 3) the language of scientific and medical journals. 4) the first second-language in a rapidly growing number of nations.� 5) the official language of most global companies.� 6) the language of instruction at universities in many non-English speaking countries such as Sweden, Holland, and Finland.� 7) the language likely to be used in multinational business meetings.� 8) the most common language in the modern music scene, the motion picture industry, the tourist industry, the international news industry (CNN � MSNBC), and the fast-food industry.� 9)� the international marketing language.� 10) the language of international sports.� 11) the lingua franca of the Internet.� 12) And, yes, even a key language for international terrorism.�
If this is so, why do we as Americans need to speak anything but English?� There is no sign that English will decline as the primary language for global communication.� Indeed, many speculate that the use of English will only intensify in the coming years.� Some believe that English will become the language of the European Union,� especially when it expands to Eastern Europe.� Some theorize that countries like Holland will eventually give up their languages in favor of English, in short that English will become so predominant that language after language will slip away in favor of an emerging global English.
Though we might snicker and shake our heads amongst ourselves about this kind of attitude, we language professionals need to have some pretty strong answers when asked if English isn�t enough.� The question will not go away, and Americans are simply too pragmatic to accept vague theoretical responses about broadening the horizons of our students or learning to understand our own language better.�
There is some long-term hope if we take an historical perspective.� I don�t want to suggest that American civilization is in decline, nor do I want to wish that in any way, but external languages do seem to drift in and out of fashion on a large scale without forcing native tongues into extinction.� Remember the role that Latin played as an academic and official language in the Middle Ages.� And then in the 18th Century, French was so �in� that Prussian King Frederick the Great claimed he only spoke German in his horse stalls.� Everyone in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire knew German as the official language, to the extent that literary figures like Kafka in Prague, even chose German as their medium for artistic expression.� Then, there was Russian in the many nations and republics behind the Iron Curtain.� One can assume dominance of an outside language for decades, but then see it disappear in as little as one generation.� The East Germans are no longer interested in speaking Russian (if they ever were); the Czechs learn German for business purposes, but the man on the street is more likely to speak some English today than German.�
That is interesting information and a basis for speculation.� But, language teachers probably don�t want to go to their school boards with the argument that, based on historical examples, English might be significantly diminished in 100 years in favor of Chinese or Spanish.
On a shorter-term basis, we need to know how widespread or pervasive English really is.� Who speaks English and who doesn�t and how does that affect us in our lives and careers?� We also need to ask what the nature of Global English is, how far one can get with Global English, and what the disadvantages are for those who are limited to it?� We also need to ask what native speakers of English are missing if they do not learn other languages.
How widespread is Global English?
��������� As suggested already, its use is growing and growing fast. If you are, for example, a European and hope to have a meaningful role in a professional arena, you are expected to know English and one other foreign language.� Most companies do their international work in English, and chances are continually greater that students outside of the UK and the USA will do at least part of their post-secondary studies in English.
��������� But, there are limits to what this means that many Americans do not understand � and it is critical that we learn to explain this to our non-language colleagues, and to our school boards:
First of all, it is ridiculous to think that Europeans are going to scrap their native tongues in favor of English.� Dutch will always be the first language of the Dutch and Swedish will always be the first language of the Swedes.� Secondly, English is a popular and necessary second language for many peoples around the world, but it is precisely that -� a second language, and not the language of their daily thoughts and their personal and national identities.� If you really want to understand the Dutch, the Swedes, the Japanese, the Chinese, if you really want to speak to their minds and hearts, you must get to them through their native tongue.� Thirdly, as we shall see in more detail below, the English used globally is predominantly not the English spoken by native speakers, but rather a simplified and often topic-specific language of convenience.
Who speaks Global English?
At certain levels, there are many who speak English extremely well, but this ability is not as widespread as many would like to think:� If you as an American plan to do tourist or business travel abroad, which commits one to hotels and restaurants catering to the global community, and do not want to venture more than a block or so beyond the main streets, you will be fine with English.� Or if you plan to interact only with the elite management levels of global companies, or with academics in professional meetings, then English only will be adequate.� But English by no means permeates throughout organizations, even though they might be global in structure and nature, and have English as an official language.� Parallel to tourism where one is linguistically safe on Main Street, the business world is safe for English when associating with the right groups.� Strong English skills are common to the domain of upper management, but rapidly fall off after that.� Middle management, sales and service people, as well as engineers tend to focus on the immediate and local issues through the medium of their own tongue, and find themselves pressed when forced to work in English.� Moving to the technician level or to the persons on the shop floor reduces the chances of speaking in English even more dramatically.
To cite a personal experience, I was part of an American group visiting a Spanish company last summer.� It was the Spanish subsidiary of a French owned firm which had established English as its official language.� Their presentation to us as a group of Americans was in English, and most of us were really surprised at the clear inadequacy of their English language skills.� They acknowledged that and confessed that German was actually more important to them at their facility, because their customers were German. (They make seats for Volkswagen.)� English played a large role in global strategy sessions, but these generally were limited to the company�s top players.
In 1997 I published an article in The Journal of Language for International Business (Vol. 8, No. 2, 1997), which was the result of a survey of engineers who worked for the TRW Corporation in locations in Germany, France, Spain, and England.� Though English is the company�s official language, we found that English was not necessarily used in cross-national communication, in part because of inadequacy, but also in part because of national pride.� People felt strongly that there should be an effort to learn each other�s languages and that English should not be the only language of communication.� In actual practice, TRW employees communicate across cultures in a variety of languages, generally choosing the language of least resistance, or, in some cases, the language of the person presumed to have the highest status among the players at a particular meeting.
The nature of Global English:
It is important to note that there is a Global English �used internationally by non native-speakers of English as a common language, e.g., when an Italian, a Japanese, a Dane, and a Brazilian get together to negotiate some kind of agreement.� In most cases, the English that they speak in that meeting is not the English spoken by a native speaker, but rather a simplified international variant that is very different in significant aspects and deserves, for that reason, a special name.� Global English �is my designation, but it could be Inter-English, World Standard Spoken English (WSSE, as designated by the linguist David Crystal in his book, English as a Global Language, Cambridge University Press, 2001), or some other similar name.
Global English should sooner be designated as a default language rather than a language of choice. It is the language most likely to be known by international groups communicating with one another on common topics.� When the various parties are coming from the airport for a meeting in Malaysia, for example, we can envision a group speaking Indian English in one cab, the Germans speaking German in another cab, the Japanese Japanese, the group from Lagos speaking Nigerian English, and the Finns speaking Finnish.� But, when they meet, they all give up the languages which encompass their national and cultural identities and communicate with each other in their own forms of Global English
Global English is a stripped-down English, grammatically uncomplex, avoidant of subtleties and nuances, limited in vocabulary, and culturally neutral. It is not a personal language, it is not a native language, it is not the language of one�s innermost thoughts, one�s feelings, beliefs, aspirations, etc.� Global English is a utilitarian language, and, as such, a less than impressive English from the point of view of the native speaker.� The crudest examples are known today as Seaspeak, Emergencyspeak, AirTraffic English, and Computerspeak.� But even the English used in academic settings is often wanting in terms of style, vocabulary, or grammatical perfection.� As Wolfgang Mackiewicz, President of the European Language Council, points out, English is more and more prevalent in European university circles, and yet neither the professors nor the students are fully ready for it.
The trend of English as the academic lingua franca (in Europe), at least for science and business subject areas, is no longer to be stopped.� At the same time, we need to note that neither the faculty nor the students possess the linguistic prerequisites for this.� The trend is not just English, but bad English.
One of the great ironies of Global English is that it is not spoken well by native speakers.� For Americans to succeed at communication in Global English, they must learn to simplify their language and avoid imagery and metaphors and other expressions rooted in culturally specific terms.� Monolinguals, a term describing most Americans, tend to be unaware of the linguistic barriers or the subtleties separating them as native speakers of their language from those who have learned or are learning their language as a second language or as a language for a specific purpose. �In Global English, one would say, for example, that he or she bought something at a good price, whereas an American might well say he/she bought something �dirt cheap� or �for a song,� or that he/she �stole it right out from under� someone!� In turning down an offer, Americans often say they are �all set� or that they will �pass,� or that they are �good.�� This can be confusing to the global traveler who has learned to simply say �No thank you.�� While the non native-speaker of English would say that he or she did not succeed at a particular venture, the American is likely to be more colorful with phrases such as: �I struck out.�� �I screwed up.�� �I never even got to first base.�� A phrase as simple as �I don�t know� offers a whole range of possibilities for Americans which would flop in the global business setting:� �Beats the hell out of me.�� �I don�t have a clue.�� �I don�t have the slightest.�
What are the disadvantages for those limited to English?
Global English is a risky and limited form of communication. �Aside from its purely linguistic limitations and the concomitant dangers of misunderstanding, it bars us from cultural nuances, and isolates us from the inner language of our conversational partners.� It keeps us at the surface level, and never lets us into the other person�s world.� As Barbara Wallraff observed in her Atlantic Monthly article (November, 2000), �the globalization of English does not mean that � we�ll soon be able to exchange ideas with anyone who has anything to say. We can�t count on having much more around the world than a very basic ability to communicate.�
��������� Jay Oliva, the recently retired President of NYU, spoke on this topic at the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in New York last spring.� His argument was that English is a �language of convenience� available to the global community, but is not the �language of the soul.�� If you want to truly understand your partners abroad, then you must reach them through the their languages, the languages of their thoughts, and of their innermost selves.� Without this, discussion remains at the superficial level.
At the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference in April, 2001, similar thoughts were echoed by American businessman Edward Cohen.� He argued that business is 90% social, that things happen through personal contacts and through personal relationships.� Here again, the only real way to interact with persons from other cultures is through their own view of the world, and that means their language.
��������� I recently visited the subsidiary of an American company in Germany, which makes valves for Volkswagen engines.� Though their official corporate language is English, and some of the managers are Americans, they were quick to point out that German is the language they need to speak when they meet with Volkswagen engineers, i.e., that they would be at a distinct disadvantage and would most likely lose their primary customer if they could not negotiate in German!�
I have heard experts on television arguing recently that we need to be reaching out to the hearts and minds of the Muslim populations so that they understand who we Americans are and what we want.� I fear, however, that we have few experts who can translate appropriate messages into clearly communicative Pashto and Dari, which are the most commonly spoken of the 45 languages in Afghanistan!� Indeed, the federal government has been advertising in search of people with expertise in these languages.� Without that expertise, we are, for example, spending millions on air drops of Pop Tarts and Peanut Butter in Afghanistan.
��������� Can we really understand the Muslim extremist if we can only access his thoughts through the Global English which he despises?!� If we value our relationship with Iran, maybe we should encourage more Americans to learn Farsi, and to study the Iranian culture.� If we really want the Uzbeckis and the Turks and the Afghans to be on our side, maybe we should invest in the study of the languages which provide them a national identity.
We must get the message across that there is a world standard for global communication.� Though English may be the symbol of that standard for others, the heart of that standard is not English, but rather bilingualism and cross-cultural communication. Though we might think of it as an advantage, the spread of Global English has become a national handicap for us, which has clouded our understanding of the world beyond our borders.� Being born speakers of the global lingua franca enables us to be lazy, to confine ourselves to a monolingual perspective, and it limits us to superficial conversation with our partners. It allows us to let the other guy make the extra effort to communicate in our language. It denies us access to the innermost world or the personal world of our partners from other cultures.� It translates into ignorance and loss of power.� As Barbara Wallraff points out in the Atlantic Monthly: �Outside certain professional fields, if English-speaking Americans hope to exchange ideas with people in a nuanced way, we may be well advised to do as people elsewhere are doing: becoming bilingual.�
We in the language profession all believe this.� Can we convince our school boards, can we convince our deans, our fellow faculty members that investment in language learning is paramount?
Maybe, in the current climate, we have an opportunity to make some impressive arguments:� It needs to be stressed that superficial conversation is not good enough for complex issues.� When Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld confer with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Uzbekistan, I assume that they are counting on the Uzbekhis to understand everything they say.� And I assume, or hope that they are being as straightforward as possible with very few nuances or subtleties in their words.� I would hope that Colin Powell has speakers of the pertinent languages on his staff, who are also cognizant of and experienced with the cultural subtleties of those societies.� Or, are they relying on the other side�s translators?� Americans do not have a good track record in these things.� Can we really afford to remain linguistically and culturally as limited as we are?
My own experience has been more in the realm of global business than in global politics, and here there has been a detectable awakening among Americans.� Global business people value and seek bilingualism increasingly as an appropriate credential for the global workplace.� We can offer proof of that through our International Engineering Program at the University of Rhode Island where global companies eagerly recruit our graduating bilingual engineers.
It has also been our experience that the private sector is an ally for language faculty today.�� We have had direct contact with numerous corporate leaders who clearly subscribe to the notion of blingualism as a fundamental qualification for work in this age of globalization, and who are willing to speak up.� They have helped us at URI and have made it clear that international education is in the direct interest of corporate America.
We won�t solve this problem today, but I believe strongly that language professionals and their professional must work together to identify and recruit their allies in order to move our nation toward a rational and consistent policy on language study, remembering that: Monolingualism is a Handicap We Can No Longer Afford to Ignore!� Or, as Mexican President Vicente Fox stated at the 2nd Congress on the Spanish Language in Valladolid on October 16, 2001:
��� ��el monoling�ismo no es ya la condici�n natural del hombre.�
��monolingualism is no longer a natural condition of man.�
John M. Grandin, Ph.D.
Professor of German
Director, International Engineering Program
67 Upper College Road
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, RI 02881
tel: 401-874-4700 (or 4283)
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