Speaker's Corner: It's the universal, global, one-size-fits-all language. Eric Lucas says it's not enough.
01.12.09 | 8:55 AM ET
“Do you speak English?”
The impeccably dressed young man behind the hotel counter in Dresden looked at me as if I’d asked whether he ever takes a shower.
“Of course,” he replied, briskly. Oxford-style accent.
“Sorry, of course you do,” I apologized, moving on to my question about how to find a restaurant. That night at dinner, as I was having a conversation with our waitress, I mulled my language provincialism. I know a smattering of German—hello, please, thanks, good morning, etc.—but have not gone much beyond the basics in Deutsch. My lack of knowledge was no impediment whatsoever to the purple-tressed 22-year-old Goth who brought a Saxon-style meal and easily answered my questions about it. In English.
“Danke,” I said.
I might have said, “Masha danki,” or “Mil gracias,” or “Tack så mycket,” or “Dziekuje,” or “Hsieh-hsieh,” had I been in Bonaire, Mexico, Sweden, Poland or Beijing. Most everyone in those places could have looked me up and down, determined my provenance, and replied “You’re welcome.” In English.
English is everywhere these days. It has become the universal, global, one-size-fits-all language. Estimates place its worldwide use among 1.5 billion people—quite a preponderance, considering native speakers of English number around 450 million. Almost any human working in the travel industry, Earth’s biggest economic arena, speaks some English. Commercial pilots are expected to do so. Bankers, customs and immigration officials, police officers, corporate managers, food servers, retail clerks—are all largely English-speaking, around the world. The language that was once an imperial weapon has been utterly transformed into a peaceable necklace embracing all. No matter where we go, we Americans, people speak our language, willfully. The question is: What should those of us who grow up speaking English do as the rest of the world adopts our language?
The irony, of course, is that much of the land in which we English speakers reside has been stubbornly pulling the linguistic shades shut in order to impose a monolingual culture. More than half the U.S. states have made English the official language. Got that, pilgrim? No furrin’ jabbering around here. By contrast, almost half the world’s 190 or so countries have at least two official languages.
Once upon a time only boorish Americans who somehow found their way outside the U.S. (usually to Mexico) expected that everyone should speak English. I recall sitting next to a gang of drunk Texans on a plane home from the Yucatan in 1980: “Great beer,” one enthused. “But can you believe they don’t speak English!” his wife complained, though she used a cruder term than “they.”
Today it is rude to presume that residents of foreign countries are so uneducated they don’t speak English. Elementary school students learn it. High school students practice it. It’s as important to business as presentable clothing—one California company, Global English, offers instruction to workers at 450 locations in 140 countries. My wife and I hosted a Finnish exchange student for three months one spring. Her assignment? Improve her English. Every Finn is expected to be conversant in English.
How did this happen? Though academics trot out theories laden with terms such as “linguistic imperialism” and “subcultural authenticity” (in English, of course) it seems clear one can credit the British Empire, which had colonies around the globe; the Wright Brothers, who invented aviation and spurred its global spread using English; Microsoft, which created PC software that was initially English. Who knows? Maybe one should include the world’s most visible brand, Coca-Cola, which wanted to teach the world to sing ... in English.
As a lifelong writer and editor, I can verify that English didn’t rise to the top on merit alone—it’s confusing and clunky compared to, say, Spanish.
However it happened, the fact is that now, when you visit Beijing, all official signs, and many unofficial ones, are in Mandarin and English. When Poles and Swiss wish to converse, they use English. When 200 business executives from around the world gather for a conference in Frankfurt, the common language is English, which also happens to be the dual-language choice at Frankfurt airport, which happens to be the world’s most international air terminal. The term for this is lingua franca, a phrase English borrowed from Italian. I’m not sure which language should be aggrieved about that.
The English epidemic has led to great variation, which often yields entertaining novelties. I have a harder time conversing with someone from particular parts of Britain or the Caribbean, in English, than I do in Spanish (my sort-of second language) with Mexicans. And anyone who travels overseas collects what are perhaps rudely known as “Engrishisms,” such as this sign in an Eastern Europe hotel: “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”
Although it may seem the spread of English is good for those who grow up speaking it, a British study commission concluded just the opposite a few years back. Most of the world’s business people are bilingual, pointed out the British Council in 2006. Most native English speakers are not. If you run a global business, are you going to hire someone who speaks only one language?
But what does this mean for those of us saddled with this universal language since birth? Turnabout is fair play, goes the old playground saying: We should all be learning a second language.
I bet that’ll happen.
I just hope the universality of English spurs more members of the largest English-speaking as-a-native-language society—the United States—to get out of our rather large but provincial box and travel the world. Maybe the ease and comfort of global English will help create respect and appreciation for the world’s 6,000 other languages and the customs of the people who speak them. Maybe.