In his highly popular book, The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century, Tom Friedman (2005) argues that extraordinary advances in modern technology have leveled the playing field for huge numbers of people in the world by providing unparalleled access to a global market and information network. Commercial installation of transoceanic fiber-optic cables has enabled people from distant corners of the globe to communicate with one another far more cheaply and easily than before. The Internet has made available information that was once controlled by small groups of people to billions of ordinary citizens. Anyone with Internet access can now search the entire world for new knowledge and be instantly updated on events as they unfold in different parts of the globe. In addition, air travel has given unprecedented mobility to millions of people to pursue dreams in faraway places, and container ships deliver an abundance of goods and products to every corner of the planet. The astounding ease with which people, ideas, and things move in many directions is a defining feature of a globalized world. As Appadurai (2001: 5) aptly observes, “This is a world of flows.”

Many people foresee that the twenty-first century will be an online century and predominantly an English one (Nihalani, 2010). Market integration and flows of media and communication across national borders generate a robust demand for a lingua franca, and this demand is filled by a small number of languages, most notably English (Crystal, 2003). Currently, more than 80% of Internet communication is in only ten languages (see Table 2.1, p. 43). English is still the number one language on the Internet but it is followed closely by Chinese in terms of number of users. Crystal (2006) contends that the Internet is not only a technological revolution but also a social one that is fundamentally altering the way people communicate. He argues that Netspeak, or Internet language, is creating extraordinary opportunities for the expansion and enrichment of human communication.

Although globalization and the rise of the Internet offer the world’s inhabitants unprecedented opportunities for creativity and collaboration, it also presents extraordinary challenges to local cultures, languages, and dialects. For example, thousands of languages in the world are threatened by the phenomenal rise of global English and other numerically powerful languages like

Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish (Nettle & Romaine, 2000; see also Chapter 3). It has been estimated that more than half of the world’s 6,000 to 7,000 languages will disappear in the next century (Harrison, 2007, 2010). The world’s small languages, many with a few thousand speakers or less, are quickly losing speakers as the younger generation see no value in learning and maintaining them. The situation is extremely dire for 473 of the world’s 6,909 languages listed in the Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009) which are classified as “nearly extinct,” a category reserved for languages for which “only a few elderly speakers are still living.” Once the few remaining speakers pass away, these languages will forever disappear from the face of the earth barring any serious attempts to revitalize them.

What is lost when a language dies? The Economist (2008, February 7) ran an obituary of Marie Smith, the last speaker of Eyak (a Native American language spoken in Alaska) who died on January 21,2008 at the age of 89. The following is an excerpt from the obituary:

As the spoken language died, so did the stories of tricky Creator-Raven and the magical loon, of giant animals and tiny homunculi with fish- spears no bigger than a matchstick. People forgot why “hat” was the same word as “hammer,” or why the word for a leaf, kultahl, was also the word for a feather, as though deciduous trees and birds shared one organic life. They lost the sense that lumped apples, beads and pills together as round, foreign, possibly deceiving things. They neglected the taboo that kept fish and animals separate, and would not let fish-skin and animal hide be sewn in the same coat; and they could not remember exactly why they built little wooden huts over gravestones, as if to give more comfortable shelter to the dead.

As this excerpt poignantly illustrates, when a language dies, the culture and knowledge contained in it die as well (Harrison, 2007). The imminent extinction of the majority of the world’s languages is a tragic loss to humanity because the stories of their speakers and their ways of living, thinking, and being will vanish forever. Fortunately for Eyak, its structural characteristics are compiled in a grammar and a dictionary by a linguist who took interest in the language and worked with Ms. Smith. When her last surviving older sister died in the 1990s, Ms. Smith became an activist campaigning to preserve the Eyak culture and language. But since she no longer had anyone to speak the language with, “Eyak became a language for talking to herself, or to God.”

As with Ms. Smith and Eyak, language is intricately linked to people’s sense of who they are. This is why language preservation often goes hand in hand with efforts to assert local identities. However, even the notion that language is a marker of ethnic identities is being challenged by globalization. Heller (2003) contends that in Francophone Canada, there is a shift from understanding language as being primarily an inalienable marker of ethnic and national identity, to understanding language as a marketable “commodity,” a measurable skill. Language is increasingly considered as a skill to be acquired by people who are wise enough to invest in it, and those without this skill fear being left behind in a “flat world” (Friedman, 2005). This is why parents the world over are eager to give their children the gift of a foreign language. More and more parents are investing in English programs and tutors for their children, and the more affluent ones are also sending their school-age children abroad to be educated in English-speaking countries (more on this later in this chapter). These families make significant personal and financial sacrifices in order to enable their children to acquire what they believe will significantly improve their future chances of success.

In a world where language is treated as a desirable commodity, educational institutions play a significant role in increasing the rate of bilingualism. But even in the field of language education, conventional views of language learning and literacy are challenged by globalization. For example, the often-made distinction between English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is blurred for an increasing number of transnational migrants who cross and re-cross national boundaries.

As Kanno (2003) shows in her study, a Japanese adolescent in North America returning to Japan goes from learning English in a classroom with immigrant children, to learning English in Japan with Japanese students who have little opportunity to hear and practice the language outside the classroom. His status changes from being an ethnic/linguistic minority in North America to an ethnic/linguistic majority in Japan. As a linguistic minority, he was expected to learn the majority language and his Japanese language skills were not considered very important. In Japan where English skills are a highly prized asset, he may enjoy an elevated social status as a Japanese-English bilingual but may also feel that his knowledge of Japanese language and culture is constantly questioned by people who may think he is not fully Japanese. As he moves from one country to another, he must continually negotiate his hybrid identities as a bilingual and bicultural person (Kanno, 2003). For language teachers and policymakers then, understanding this reality is crucial in their work with students and families in a globalized world.

Now I will turn to a discussion of English as a lingua franca.

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