Consequences of the discourse of English as a global language

Most of the arguments in favour of introducing English as an obligatory subject in the curriculum, and introducing it early on, are geared to the needs of state education systems. Learning a language at school, however, is very different from acquiring a second language in a natural setting. Why is this so? First, the amount of time given over to the learning of a second language at school is constrained by the rest of the curriculum and, in the majority of

Swiss schools, often leads to a maximum of three to four lessons a week over the school year. Second, the size of primary school classes motivates against pupils’ having an adequate opportunity to use what they may have acquired. Third, a very large number of primary school classes are now composed of the children of migrant families speaking neither the official languages of Switzerland nor English. As a consequence, not all children have the same levels of ability in German (or French or Italian). Fourth, in classes of 25 pupils or more, learning motivation and learning ability are very widely distributed. Fifth, the teacher needs to feel confident, alert and flexible in his mastery of the second language.

The “more English-more financial opportunities” angle of the discourse of global English also rests on the assumption that English is used actively across the world as a lingua franca. Some say that speakers use English across the language borders of Switzerland to avoid having to use one of the Swiss national languages. Most statements of this kind, however, are lacking in empirical evidence (cf. Andres & Watts 1993). In addition, the four-year research project for the Swiss National Science Foundation called “Language Contact and Focussing: The Linguistics of English in Switzerland,” under the supervision of Peter Trudgill, David Allerton and me managed to find examples of English being used in this way, but only in situations in which speakers of German, French and Italian were involved or in companies in which either English speakers or speakers of languages other than the Swiss national languages were involved. A more systematic, close-grained analysis of those data also shows that the use of English posed problems of communication that went beyond participants’ differential abilities to use the language actively. English, in other words, can be shown to take on different kinds of symbolic value in both the sociocultural and the material marketplaces and to pose problems for those who still believe that it can function as a neutral language.

The dominant discourse driving the introduction of early English is the discourse of global English. It is based on the English as the global language myth and is fuelled by the perceived needs of the Swiss economy and Swiss business and industry. It is hardly surprising that the cantons in the eastern part of the country, led by the Canton of Zurich, have been most active in implementing early English. However, we have already seen that there is another kind of discourse which challenges the dominant discourse more seriously than the discourse of multilingual Switzerland, and that is the discourse of verbal hygiene. This indicates that the pure language myth is not totally compatible with the English as the global language myth, although it is compatible with the legitimate language myth discussed in chapter 9 .

Nyffenegger’s research into attitudes expressed in letters to the editor and research carried out by others on the status of English in Switzerland (Regli 2008; Grosse 2009) reveals a very strong current of opinion that English represents a contaminating influence on the languages of Switzerland. The strength of this ideological discourse is borne out by Nyffenegger’s statistics, which reveal that even those who argue in favour of early English still feel that this discourse is in some way salient. The discourse of verbal hygiene is based on the pure language myth, on a mythical Golden Age in which language is perceived to have reached a zenith, after which any change in the language represents change for the worse rather than for the better. It assumes that languages can be acquired or learned perfectly and that the most perfect speakers and writers are first-language speakers. It assumes that borrowing from English (e.g. in advertising, in job descriptions, in in-group language used by the young or in the media) automatically contaminates the language. This is even the case for the German dialects in Switzerland referred to as Swiss German, and by making such statements believers in the discourse of verbal hygiene automatically raise those dialects to the status of a “language”.

The following is a small selection of negative comments from the Tribune de Geneve, the Neue Ztircher Zeitung and the Blick on the influence that English is assumed to exert on French, German and Swiss German, all of them emotionally ideologically loaded:

  • ce terme barbare (this barbarous term)
  • l’epidemie semble avoir contamine un large eventail d’organisations et defirmes. (The epidemic seems to have contaminated a large range of organisations and firms.)
  • Je trouve insupportable le charabia anglo-conquerant que l’on nous sert a toutes les sauces. (I find the Anglophone conquering gibberish that is served up to us with all kinds of sauces insupportable.)
  • sprachliche Missgeburt (linguistic miscarriage)
  • Es gibt nichts Schlimmeres als dieses Kauderwelsch. (There’s nothing worse than this hotchpotch.)
  • Die schrittweise Durchmischung des Schweizerdeutschen mit amerikanischem Slang ist nun offenkundig. (The gradual contamination of Swiss German with American slang is now clear.)
  • Was die Jugend und zum Teil auch die Erwachsenenftir Worter rauslassen, schreit zum Himmel. Ich finde, es ware Sache der Eltern, den Kindern klar zu machen, wie man korrekt spricht. (The kinds of words youths, and to some extent adults, produce are abominable. It ought to be the parents’ job to teach their children how to speak correctly.)

There is a wealth of metaphorical material in these comments, attesting to the strength of negative evaluation by the letter writers:

Introducing English into language X is a barbarism

Introducing English is introducing a disease

Introducing English is introducing unpalatable food

Introducing English is a miscarriage

in the sociocultural marketplace, we need to acquire the following forms of capital:

  • • social connections
  • • relational networks
  • • forms of knowledge (including language)
  • • mental and physical skills
  • • acquired competences
  • • notions of identity

If we assume that a near-first-language ability in English is an acquired competence and also a form of knowledge which will benefit the social status of the learner, we need to consider in what professional areas this might be the case. Clearly, in academia this is so. But in the academic world, other mental skills and other forms of knowledge are also required. In a similar way, the professional area of commerce and industry requires not just knowledge of English but knowledge of the working of the financial, production and labour markets. In addition, and in particular in this area of professional activity, social connections and relational networks are vitally important, and although it might be true that knowledge of English could help to create those connections, this need not always be the case.

The price of English in Switzerland, then, is high in terms of financial investment but equally high in terms of the acquisition of the necessary skills in English that will create synergies with the material marketplace. The price might also be too high for Switzerland in terms of the overall sociopolitical structure of the country. Introducing English at an early age before any of the other national languages is not likely to create French-English, German- English or Italian-English bilingualism throughout the Swiss population. It is also not likely to help the development of forms of Swiss identity—which do exist—or to promote social connections over the language borders within Switzerland. The prime movers behind early English are industrialists, bankers, managers and CEOs in multinational companies, and their major motivation is to prevent having to spend money on in-company courses in English. Let us assume for the moment that they have a point in arguing that English should be taught obligatorily in the school system. If the price of introducing it early is too high and if the assumptions on which the ideology of “the earlier, the better” are muddle-headed—which current research indi- cates—it can still be introduced at a later stage in the school curriculum, as has always been the case, and still produce more speakers of English than at present.

The commodity for sale is English, but not just any form of English, rather near-first-language competence in English. Buying that product requires a very large financial investment since it entails, in its turn, the following conditions: [1]

among those who are unlikely—for socioeconomic reasons—to be successful at school). This can be achieved only in much smaller classes;

  • 2. the training of primary school teachers to the level of near-first-language competence in English;
  • 3. the development of teaching materials that are adequate to teaching English to young children (four-, five-, or six-year-olds?) and are adapted to the needs of Swiss primary school students rather than the general non-native learner of that age;
  • 4. adequate provision for transition from primary to secondary education, involving once again teachers with near-first-language competence in English.

The cantonal education systems in Switzerland are at present a very long way from satisfying any of these conditions, and the financial outlay that fulfilling them would entail far exceeds the usefulness of attempting to reach the idealistic goal of producing generations of graduates with near-first-language competence in English, particularly since those goals can be argued to be discursively produced ideologies driven by the English as the global language myth.

Switzerland is a rich country, but it is a model case of a transformation in language-teaching policies that has taken place in just 20 years. I have argued here that the price is too high for Switzerland. So how high will it be for countries that do not have the financial resources that Switzerland has? One of the solutions to this conundrum is that language teaching need not focus on producing near-first-language speakers of English, but should be satisfied with producing speakers who can get by in situations in which English might indeed be the only language that they can use to communicate. This is an eminently sensible point, but, as we shall see in the next section, it leads to such concepts as English as a Lingua Franca, which tends to be conceptualised as if it were a homogeneous system.

  • [1] a marked increase in overall motivation to learn English (and not just amongchildren who would be expected to be highly motivated in any case, but also
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