PROBLEMS IN THE ASSUMPTION THAT ENGLISH IS THE GLOBAL LANGUAGE

The discourse constructing the belief that English is not just a global language but rather the global language rightly assumes that English is currently needed in the “global marketplace”. The pressure that has been put on education authorities in Switzerland to make English an obligatory subject in all cantons is not at issue. Even before the Ludi report, English was offered in the vast majority of schools, so the final step of making it obligatory was a small and probably logical one.

There is no way of knowing, at the present time, whether the pool of people with competence in English will increase in size. But if it does increase, this will effectively lower the value of the commodity, not increase it. A detailed survey of precisely where English is needed in the world of work in

Switzerland, listing not only which institutions make use of the language but also at what levels in their professional hierarchies it is required, has not yet been made. My hunch is that, if and when such a survey is made, the result will be much more sobering and will reveal that higher levels in the hierarchy require it more than others. Obviously, this depends on the industry concerned. For the tourist industry, it does indeed seem sensible to have competence in English at all levels. For banking, however, there are many areas in which it will not always be necessary, even though it may be desirable. At present, at least in Switzerland, more research needs to be carried out on the language ecologies of different industries and the companies and organisations making up those industries.

Switzerland has served as an example in this chapter for some of the consequences of a blind belief in the discourse of the global language. However, it is at least a country in which four official languages are in use, and the awareness of multilingualism is higher than in most other European states. The major problem in the English as the global language myth is that no one seems to have defined adequately what is meant by the term “global language”. If it simply means that English can be found as a first or additional language in one function or another in most parts of the world, this is certainly true. If it means that English can be used to communicate with others anywhere in the world, it is blatantly misleading. In countries like Switzerland, this second interpretation seems to be favoured, particularly among those who construct and institute language policies for schools!

This is not at all surprising if we consider the way in which the language is promoted by ESL/EFL organisations. One such organisation, which can be found on the Internet at www.anglik.net, purports to be an “online resource for students of English as a second or foreign language”. One of the sections on the Web site is “The History of the English Language”, which is a potted version of most histories of English currently on offer. At the end of the section is a subsection on Global English in which we read: “English has now inarguably achieved global status.” To provide evidence for this somewhat wayward claim, a number of “facts” are listed, which include statements to the effect that more than 90 countries use English as an official language, that the working language of the Asian trade group ASEAN is English, that it is the de facto working language of 98 percent of the world’s chemists and physicists, that it is the official language of the European Central Bank, and that Indian and black parents in South Africa want their children to be educated in English.

The vast majority of those 90 countries with English as their official language are former British colonies, and although they may have chosen English, this fact throws virtually no light on the percentage of the population who can actually speak and use English with ease. The Asian trade group obviously chose English because it was already a second language in a number of ASEAN countries (e.g. Singapore, Malaysia, India) and because business tends to be carried out globally in English. It is true that the scientific

community has shifted quite considerably to English, but these are very specialised registers of English and the claim bears no relation to whether the physicists and chemists writing in English are able to use the language orally. The South African example can be explained historically through the competition between English and Afrikaans in South Africa.

However, it is not so much what is said, but rather how it is said that is unsettling. No one doubts the spread of English, but it tends to be confined to specific registers that need a “global” language for international communication to take place. From this point of view, the idea that English is a global language is not in dispute. The tone in which these facts are listed, however, leaves one with a feeling that those who are making the claims are jubilant, almost triumphant. This is evident in the following paragraph from the subsection (my underlining):

One of the more remarkable aspects of the spread of English around the world has been the extent to which Europeans are adopting it as their internal lingua franca. English is spreading from northern Europe to the south and is now firmly entrenched as a second language in countries such as Sweden, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark . Although not an official language in any of these countries if one visits any of them it would seem that almost everyone there can communicate with ease in English . Indeed, if one switches on a television in Holland one would find as many channels in English (albeit subtitled), as there are in Dutch.

The “spread of English around the world” is characterised as “remarkable”, and the statement that Europeans are “adopting it as their internal lingua franca” is patently untrue if one descends from the level of politics, academia and big business, in which, obviously, some form of lingua franca is needed, to the level of less well educated people. For example, Preisler (1999) shows how large portions of the Danish population (particularly those older than 40) have little or no knowledge of English and feel discriminated against when English is introduced into Danish advertising and public notices. It is simply not true that “almost everyone [in Sweden, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark ] can communicate with ease in English”. Although a European survey of attitudes towards languages carried out in 2001 reveals that English is seen to be a useful language by 43 percent of informants, the ratios of acceptance of English differ quite spectacularly by country, from 89 percent in Sweden to just 6 percent in Spain. Yet on the basis of such flimsy evidence the following statement is confidently made on the Web site: “English has without a doubt become the global language.” And so English is now not merely a global language; it is heralded as the global language—it has no rival. The phrase “without a doubt” is not a statement of fact, but one of belief. One could argue, of course, that if the Web site has been set up for teachers of English, this kind of message simply expresses a feeling of elation that these teachers will never be out of a job!

However, we are still no nearer explaining what is understood by the term “global English”. It cannot mean that wherever one goes in the world, one can use English. Mercifully, this point has not yet been reached—not by a long way. It might mean that English has swept the board in terms of its choice as a second language in state education systems, but this is not true either. French still has pride of place in a number of states. It could mean— and here we might be on the right lines—that English is rapidly taking over as the language in which the world financial system, world trade, international politics and worldwide scientific collaboration are carried out. As Crystal (1997) notes, English has been used as the only language in a large number of international organisations for some time now, particularly since the Second World War. This is most noticeable in air-traffic control, but this was a result of American domination when civil aviation became big business after World War II, and the English used is, of necessity, a very restricted register.[1] Crystal writes clearly and cogently on the subject of global English, making the point that English always seems to have been “in the right place at the right time”. However, he, too, has been criticised for using a style that belies a note of triumph. In addition, his figures of second-language speakers of English across the world are somewhat exaggerated in that, if English is taught as the only additional language in the school curricula of non-English-speaking states, this does not automatically mean that the whole population of the country has had some instruction in English, let alone that the whole population can be counted as second-language speakers of English.

It is understandable, to some extent, that EFL/ESL teachers should feel secure, or even jubilant, that they are never likely to be out of a job for very long in the face of the current demand for English. Despite the exaggerated estimates of the number of second or additional language learners of English, they still far outstrip the numbers of first-language English speakers, and the language is indeed in use in situations in which people have no other language to communicate with each other; it is frequently used as a lingua franca. This has prompted some researchers to propose that there might be similarities in the way English is used as a lingua franca by non-first-language speakers.

The research programme mentioned in section 4.5, financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation and supervised by Trudgill, Allerton and Watts, set up the bold hypothesis that a variety of English that we tentatively called “Swiss English” might be in the process of formation through German, French and Italian speakers using English within Switzerland as a lingua franca. Three doctoral dissertations resulted from the analysis of the data collected during the course of the research, and very little evidence was unearthed to enable us to uphold the hypothesis of a focusing process toward a Swiss form of English. Rosenberger (2009) carried out a detailed statistical analysis of the data and discovered only three constructions that might be taken to be typically Swiss. There were two problems with this result, however: (1) those three constructions could also be found in other European data corpora of ESL/ELF; (2) the material displayed a bewildering range of non-first-language English constructions, many of which were idiosyncratic, as they were restricted to one individual speaker at a time.

In chapter 3, Rosenberger deals with the topic of “English as an International Language and English as a Lingua Franca”. He first discusses the old distinction between “native speakers” and “non-native speakers”, and, like most other critics, comes to the reasonable conclusion that a language cannot belong to anyone, but is, on the contrary, open to everyone to use. English is not the possession of English speakers, and in a situation in which we are far outnumbered by speakers of English as a second or additional language, any attempt to claim ownership borders on the absurd. However, in the area of English language teaching, whose goals must surely be to enable the learner to acquire sufficient English to achieve whatever her aims are, a number of distinct goals can be discerned.

If the purpose is to equip the learners with a linguistic competence which is almost equal to that of first-language speakers,[2] the learning will be aimed at the acquisition of the Kultursprache, and there are various pedagogical ways in which this goal can be reached. If the purpose is to enable learners to use the English language instrumentally in whatever kinds of interaction with first-language speakers they are engaged in, then the learning will be aimed at the acquisition of English as a second language or some form of English for specific purposes. Communicativity and the development of a pragmatic awareness of how to use English in different environments will be focused on in this teaching scenario.

Most learners in the modern global context, however, will need English to communicate adequately either with first-language speakers or with other speakers of English as an additional language, in which case the learning will be focused on English as a lingua franca. Communicativity will be needed, but pragmatic awareness may present problems, since in a non-first-language interaction, each partner may tend to use English to instantiate his own cultural expectations. In this kind of situation, cross-cultural issues become significant.

The argument in favour of teaching English as a lingua franca is either based on the assumption that a lingua franca is a simplified form of language,

which again feeds into the question of what we understand by pidgins and creoles, or that it is a form of language designed to function in specialised situations such as trading and business—that is, that it represents various types of English for specific purposes. Widdowson (1997: 144) takes the latter approach and suggests that English, with its international status, has now become a virtual language. It is there for anyone to use, and as soon as it is used for some purpose, it is adapted accordingly to the needs of the people involved. “The virtual language,” he writes, “has spread as an international language: through the development of autonomous registers which guarantee specialist communication within global expert communities.”

Rosenberger argues that this view “empties the concept of ESP [English for specific purposes]” (2009: 51). As we can see, the focus of attention has now narrowed to the following nexus of English learning scenarios: English as an international language, English as a lingua franca and English for specific purposes. Whether or not we accept Widdowson’s point, it at least avoids the temptation to construct a new variety of English based on principles of simplification and levelling. This, as Rosenberger cogently argues, is what appears to have happened in the case of English as a lingua franca; certain researchers have postulated that, instead of teaching English, the English language teaching community should focus more narrowly on teaching English as a lingua franca (Jenkins 2000, 2003, 2004; Jenkins & Seidlhofer 2001; Modiano 1999; Seidlhofer 2004). Such a position, however, is tenable only if there really is a variety of English that, on an international level, could be shown to be English as a lingua franca.

In her book The Phonology of English as an International Language (2000), Jenkins attempts to identify English as a lingua franca as a new variety with respect to phonology, but what she really does is to suggest a set of core features that would (or could) constitute the phonology of it. Rosenberger raises the counterargument that this is equivalent to discursively constructing (or trying to construct) English as a lingua franca, and that it ignores the simple linguistic fact of variability and heterogeneity in all situations of emergent social practice. I wish to go a step further and suggest that it also reopens the desire to construct a homogeneous variety of English—that it has not freed itself from the homogeneity myth, To construct an English as a lingua franca variety requires a huge effort of codification and valorisation that is hardly supported by the kinds of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century myth that drove the powerful language ideological discourses from then up to the twentieth century. The failure of the Conservative government of the late 1980s to turn the clock back and insist on the use of a “correct” version of standard English for the National Curriculum was a clear indication of a change in the discourse archive (cf. chap. 10). The standard language today is simply one variety of English among a myriad of other varieties and is just as prone to innovation and change as those varieties.

How does this discussion bear on the issue of global English? Let us assume for the moment that a global language is indeed one in which the world financial system, world trade, international politics and worldwide scientific collaboration are carried out. It also includes the need or the ability of individuals and groups of individuals to move quickly from one point in the world to another in search of work, or simply to satisfy a craving to see other parts of the world. What more natural development could there be than that the same language as is in use in the global domains listed above should also be used to function as a mobility factor? This does not mean that English is spoken everywhere and by everyone, nor does it mean that it is uniquely in use to facilitate communication in the global scenarios sketched out above. Nor does it mean that it is the only global language. It most certainly does not mean that this was the destiny of English; no language has a destiny. Despite the metaphor, no language is a human being.

The English as the global language myth appears to have triggered off a language discourse that very quickly became hegemonic, although it began its appearance as early as the mid-nineteenth century. It would also appear to be the case that a new archive governing the law of what can be said has also emerged, so much so that national language policies with respect to English are founded on ideological principles that learning English will enable the learner to communicate with anybody in the world, will guarantee better and financially more lucrative job opportunities and at the same time will not present the learner with insuperable difficulties. Policy makers appear to take no notice of counterarguments with respect to the possible negative influences on the official indigenous languages, nor do they concern themselves with the fact that such principles as “the earlier the better” are no longer scientifically supported. Worst, however, they seem to ignore the extravagant costs of such policies. At the same time, those linguists in control of influencing the discourse of English as the global language (not merely a global language) are resorting to the old homogeneity myth, backed up by the superiority of English myth. They have a responsibility to reconsider their motivations to ensure that the global status of English is considered from a more realistic and matter-of-fact perspective.

  • [1] Cf. Welskopf 2008.
  • [2] A fair number of students who have studied under my supervision have turned out to command aproficiency in spoken and written English that is fully equal to that of the average first-language speaker and,in some cases, well beyond the average. I may say that this is not to be attributed to my teaching, but to thestudents’ astounding ability to adapt fully to the English-speaking cultures in which they functioned. In allcases, these language acquirers did not begin to learn English till at least age 10 or 11, this being the perfectanswer to the claims made by supporters of the the-earlier-the-better ideology that this is an impossibleachievement.
 
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