ENGLISH—"THE LANGUAGE OF THE WORLD"?

If we look at the quotation from Kington-Oliphant’s The Old and Middle English given as the leitmotif for this chapter, we note a distinct air of selfcongratulatory arrogance and self-assured confidence, which is redolent of the ideological discourse driven by the superiority of English myth. In that myth, English is constructed as an imperial language preeminent among others, a language that, because of its assumed superiority, is destined to become “the language of the world”. Kington-Oliphant’s use of the term “Englishman” not only encourages the inference that the term stands metonymically for the inhabitants of the British Isles; it also strongly implies that speakers of languages other than English are in the habit of wasting their breath. The only fact that can be put forward in Kington-Oliphant’s favour is that he refers to the oral language spoken in “common life” as being “terse and pithy” rather than to forms of written, “educated” standard English.

The opinion that English is “fitted to be the language of the world in future years” is by no means an isolated occurrence in discourse on English in the second half of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century. A search through grammars and histories of English from around 1850 reveals, from the middle and up to and beyond the end of the nineteenth century, an increasing number of references predicting the emergence of English as a world language. As early as 1850 we find the following statement by R. G. Latham in his book The English Language (p. 576): “Transplant the other [Teutonic dialect] to England, let nine centuries pass over it, and it becomes a language too, and a language of more importance than any which was ever yet spoken in the world, it has become English.” At this point in the text Latham is discussing the two “Teutonic” languages German and English. The reference to English as a world language is oblique rather than direct, but the discursive trajectory of the statement is clear enough.

In 1875, A. H. Keane, in a handbook on the history of English meant for use by teachers and students of English, goes so far as to state blatantly that English may already be called a “world-language”:

In truth, the English language, which by no mere accident has produced and upborne the greatest and most predominant poet of modern times, as distinguished from the ancient classical poetry (I can, of course, only mean Shakespeare), may, with all right, be called a world-language, and, like the English people, appears destined hereafter to prevail with a sway more extensive even than its present, over all the portions of the globe. (170)

The “destiny” of English is expressed discursively in terms of the wielding of power (“to prevail with a sway more extensive than its present”), and Keane’s vision is one of linguistic domination “over all portions of the globe”. Imperial competition with other languages (e.g. French, Spanish and German) seems to be the determining factor in the evaluation of English here, which is the first step not only towards making the language and the culture it is thought to represent part of the prestige of the British nation-state, but also increasing its selling power as a commercial commodity.

The Scotsman John M. D. Meiklejohn is a little more cautious and ascribes the prediction that English will become the world language to “the great German grammarian Grimm”, among others, although he is silent on which of the two Grimm brothers, Jacob or Wilhelm, is meant. The prediction, however, is much the same as Keane’s but without the undertone of cultural competition and domination: “Hence the great German grammarian Grimm, and others, predict that English will spread itself all over the world, and become the universal language of the future” (1886: 322).

If we move into the twentieth century we even find Otto Jespersen in 1905 falling prey to the English-as-a-world-language myth in The Growth and Structure of the English Language: “Only two or three centuries ago, English was spoken by so few people that no one could dream of its ever becoming a world language” (1905: 246). By the end of the First World War, the discourse, well established by this time, had taken on the perspective of speakers of other first languages[1] who might wish (perhaps even need) to acquire English as a second language. This represents an inevitable development from the “English- as-a-world-language” theme since, if English is to achieve the status of a world language, it will have to be used by large numbers of speakers and writers who do not have English as their first language. A classic example of this development is provided as early as 1919 by Ernest Classen:

By common consent, the opinion of the foreigner concerning English is that it is a very practical language, easy to learn, and one in which one can with the utmost ease and convenience give expression to fine shades of thought. Now, although the foreigner very often gravely underestimates the difficulties in mastering English, yet his opinion that it readily lends itself to the expression of new turns of thought, and that it is a most flexible and adaptable instrument, is probably just, whilst his view that it is easy to learn holds promise of its future as a world language. (1919: 260)

The quotation from Classen indicates that “foreign”[2] languages had become part of the school syllabuses of most European nation-states by the end of the nineteenth century. In terms of Bourdieu’s marketplace, represented diagrammatically in figure 8.1, these languages had, in other words, acquired a certain value as sociocultural capital that could afterwards be converted into symbolic capital and thence into material capital. Knowledge of and the ability to use a second language had become, in Classen’s terms, an “instrument”, meaning knowledge that could be put to good use in enhancing one’s social status, power and influence, which in turn gave the “possessor” of the language the means of increasing his material well-being. Languages had become abstract commodities, which could be put on sale in the sociocultural and symbolic sectors of the marketplace, and the means through which those commodities could be sold to others (e.g. teaching materials, teaching methods, teacher training courses) became part of what we might call the “language industry”. Languages as commodities began to develop different social, cultural and instrumental values with respect to one another.

In Classen’s day, after the horrifying and devastating four years of the First World War, the “language industry”, which had begun in state school systems, still hankered after the acquisition of cultural and sociopolitical prestige. For example, learning French meant learning “refined”, “educated” French and using it not simply to be able to speak to those who had French as their first language, but to read the cultural monuments of the French

nation-state. The model for teaching foreign languages was built very solidly on the ways in which the classical languages Latin and Greek had always been taught. Languages were learned because they were Kultursprachen, and if they were not considered to be Kultursprachen, what was the purpose of learning them at all? Learning languages as differently valued commodities in the marketplace was, as yet, in conflict with learning languages as the carriers of national culture.

Despite these factors, however, the quotation from Classen also contains some revealing characteristics of the “English-as-a-world-language” discourse. The “foreigner”, by which term Classen means someone living outside an English-speaking country with another first language, is said to find English “easy to learn”, “practical” and “a most flexible and adaptable instrument”. Classen finds it necessary to modify the perception that learning the English language is easy. For example, he suggests that learners of English as an additional language “gravely underestimate the difficulties in mastering” it, thus hinting at his belief that most of them will never be able to acquire English as a Kultursprache. But although he doubts the validity of the opinion that English is easy to learn, he nevertheless considers that this opinion “holds promise of its future as a world language”, an opportunistic stance if ever there was one. The major characteristics of the discourse, which are still to be found in the nonacademic discourse of English as a global language, are the following:

  • 1. that English is easy to learn
  • 2. that English is a practical language
  • 3. that the desire to learn English is instrumentally motivated.

It is precisely these characteristics which are most frequently given by present-day learners of English as a second language as their motivation for wishing to acquire the language, and not the desire to immerse themselves in the cultural achievements of the English-speaking world, as we shall see in section 4. We note here an important contradiction: on the one hand, “foreign- language teaching” in public state education systems has always stressed the need to acquire the language being learned as a Kultursprache; on the other hand, learning a “foreign” language is seen to enhance an individual’s sociocultural, symbolic and hence material capital, which entails learning to speak and use it. The commodification of language is closely associated with commercial interests, with a new kind of metaphorical conceptualisation of language as a valuable human resource. The commercial and colonial history of Britain, however, tended to overstress the significance of “refined” English in an effort to underscore the racial and social differences between colonisers and colonial subjects. The English that colonial subjects needed to acquire was meant to be matter-of-fact, instrumental and concerned with the pragmatic problems of everyday life, and it was precisely this emphasis which was put to use in the phenomenal surge of private English-language schools in Britain after the Second World War.

  • [1] I deliberately use the terms “first language”, “second language”, “other language”, often incombination with the noun “speaker(s)”, to avoid involving myself in the acrimonious debate over the dubiousvalidity of terms such as “native speaker” and “non-native speaker”.
  • [2] I place the term “foreign” in quotation marks here to indicate that learning languages other than thestandard variety of the language of the nation-state meant learning a language outside or beyond the culturalvalues of that state. All outsiders were thus “foreigners”, and if they had, as their first language, one that was“outside” the confines of the nation-state, that language was regularly classified as a “foreign language”.Several problems are immediately created by the use of this term. For example, what would Welsh or ScotsGaelic be called within the framework of the British nation-state? What about Gujerati, Bengali, or Urdu? Orwhat would a co-official language of a state be called, as in the case of French, German, Italian or Rhaeto-Rumantsch in Switzerland? Obviously in both cases the term “foreign language” is entirely inappropriate.
 
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