English Everywhere

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

REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

“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.

Eric Lucas writes for the Los Angeles Times, Michelin Travel Guides and many other publications. He lives in Seattle.

22 Comments for English Everywhere

Eva Holland 01.12.09 | 11:43 AM ET

Cool post, Eric. I completely agree with your call for everyone to learn a second language!

But I also think there are two separate issues/strains at work here: one is people learning a second language, and the other is official language policy. You’re right that a place like Germany is well ahead of the US in terms of second language learning—I’ve never met a German who didn’t speak impeccable English, and usually at least a smattering of French or Spanish, too. But I suspect it will be a long while before we see Germany adopting Turkish as its second official language, or France doing the same for Arabic—the US government is certainly not alone in formally ignoring the presence of a large linguistic minority in its midst. Even in Canada, where we already have official bilingualism, I think the population (both English- and French-speaking) would be very reluctant to add a third language, to reflect a more recently arrived minority language group.

Also, whether we’re talking about everyone learning a second language of their choice, or everyone learning the same second language in order to communicate with a large domestic linguistic minority, I think it’s as much about resources as any kind of national attitude. The countries we’re talking about, with the populations of fluent English speakers—Sweden, Germany, etc—generally take a pretty different view to the US as far as publicly funded education goes. All the Americans I know speak second or third languages—but all the Americans I know also belong to similar educational/political backgrounds and belong to the upper/middle class. I think tackling the larger numbers of Americans who aren’t learning a second language would involve a pretty large-scale look at the public education system more generally.

I think people sometimes view unilingualism among Americans as a choice, or reflective of a broader attitude of disinterest in the world. There’s probably something to that, but it’s also about resources and opportunities—official bilingualism here in Canada has meant an enormous infusion of public money. Personally, I think it’s worth paying for, but it’s worth remembering there’s more to it than individual interests and attitudes.

Sophia 01.12.09 | 12:00 PM ET

I will never stop being ashamed that I speak only one language but my attempts to learn a second as an adult were so frustrating, I cratered and gave up.

Just a funny aside (or at least I think so): When traveling in Finland, I asked a woman if learning English was difficult for her. She laughed and said, “Not compared to Finnish.”

Jennifer 01.12.09 | 1:30 PM ET

As Eva pointed out, there are definitely several intertwined issues here.  First and foremost, one of the biggest reasons that people outside of the US are so proficient at multiple languages (English in particular) is that they begin learning them at a very young age, usually grade school or its equivalent.  In comparison, most US students don’t start learning a foreign language until middle school and in some cases even high school.  In my opinion, it’s really too late at that point.  People who speak multiple languages who are from outside of the US, mostly have their education system to thank for it.  No one from the US should feel ashamed for not being able to speak more than one language well.  That’s like saying you are ashamed of something that you didn’t do when you were 8 years old when in reality you weren’t even aware of the issue and even if you had been, you wouldn’t have had any control over it what-so-ever.  As things stand with the education system, most people never will become bi-lingual.  If policies change, I have no doubt that our foreign language proficiency will too! 

Second, even if the US were to adopt more agressive foreign language teaching in our schools, because of the prevalence of English in the world, learning a language like German or French would be of limited use unless a person wanted to travel extensively in an area that spoke that language or wanted a career in international business, foreign language teaching, etc.  In addition,  because of our relative isolation, US students have very little oppourtunity to practice any foreign language that they may be learning, which of course compounds the issue.  As an example, any German student studying French can simply hop on the train and spend the weekend in France for some very practical foreign language practice.  Because of the size of the US and our isolation, opportunities like this are few and far between.

On another front ,because of the sheer number of people who immigrate to the US every year and the vast backgrounds from which they come, implimenting any policy requiring citizens to learn a foreign language so they can communicate with a large linguistic minority is a slippery slope.  If that were the case, then 100 years ago we all would have been required to learn German or maybe Italian whereas today it would be Spanish or maybe Arabic, or . . .  Are we to change the required language every 50 or 100 years along with immigration trends?  Hardly!  Not only would that be incredibly impractical, it would be very, very expensive!

This is a very multi-faceted issue, the discussion could go on and on.  My main hangup though is when people start to think that the issue has anything to do with laziness or an imperialistic attitute by native English speakers.  It’s far more complicated than that!!

John M. Edwards 01.12.09 | 3:58 PM ET

Hi Eric:

English has the world’s largest vocabulary and is the easiest tongue to tame into viable slang. Yay! English rules!!! Woo! Partay!

Need I say mjore.

John M. Edwards

Barbara - Krakow 01.13.09 | 11:52 AM ET

John, I am not so sure about the vocabulary… but it’s indeed true about the easiness of the language.
Grammar is so easy to learn that one can do it in a very short time.

Jennifer, where I live people very often start learning foreign language (apart from the one they learnt at school) very late. But they do it out of passion. They decide to take private lessons just to be able to communicate in Spanish or Chinese (even if they do not know when and whether they have the opportunity to use it).

One thing is not to speak foreign language. That I don’t blame anybody for. But another thing is to ask the foreigner ‘ha? you don’t speak English?why?’ - and I have witnessed such situations. That’s what makes many people tell English-speaking people: ‘why don’t you learn MY language?’.

Emily 01.13.09 | 5:49 PM ET

It really is a shame that a second language isn’t mandatory in U.S. schools. I too, have struggled to fit in with the locals while traveling only to have them answer me in…you guessed it, English. I am ashamed to say I’m not fluent in a second language, but it is tough when you try and you are immediately rebuffed because English is “easier” for all involved instead of clumsily trying to communicate in the country’s own tongue. This kind of communicating can bring with it some of the coolest cultural exchanges that travel can offer.

Lezick 01.14.09 | 1:11 AM ET

“English is the universal, global, one-size-fits-all language.”  No, it absolutely isn’t—why do you assume this?  You’ve written a decent article in some of its parts, but your very premise here is way off-base (and I’ll admit for full disclosure, that I used to be similarly mistaken years ago myself).  English is, to be sure, the most important single international language today, but this article vastly overstates its global prevalence (let alone its staying power).

As an American who does a lot of work abroad, I’d certainly hope that US schools do start emphasizing foreign language skills sooner and more intensively—because English isn’t going to be the world’s major international language for much longer, and Americans will need foreign tongues to survive economically.  I’ve been doing this job for more than 30 years, and it’s shocking how quickly the situation has changed.  Back when French or Latin were the main lingua francas (and I guess German during its heyday as a technical language), it took many decades for things to transition to a new international language—seems to be happening a lot faster these days.

I have to admit that I’ve become very wary about “English triumphalist” articles in general, partly because they tend to get the facts wrong, partly because they totally fail to understand the rapidly changing linguistic world around us, and how English is slipping in this role.  The reason for “global English” today is, quite simply, the economic, technological and military prowess of the USA since the early 1960’s—almost unrivalled as a great power since the end of the Cold War, in particular.  While the British Empire did help its spread, even during the peak of the British Empire (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), French was the global lingua franca, and most of British imperial territory was in sparsely populated regions like Canada and Australia.  (Only 45% or so of India was in the British realm, as a colleague in Hyderabad informed me recently.)  The growth of English as an international language has been strongest since around the early 1960’s, when the USA became such an unparalleled technological leader, and it’s happened in countries (like China, Vietnam, Morocco) which were never under the rule of the British Empire. 

IOW, English spread because of the international economic and technological importance of a superpower, and English is now slipping for the same reason—US military (with the twin draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and especially economic power are waning rapidly.  We’re almost $12 trillion in debt (per capita, the UK is even worse and Australia is in precarious shape), and so the prestige of our country as a global leader is slipping as well.  Other countries aren’t foolish, and they’re not going to stake their future on an economy that’s become the biggest debtor in history—which probably explains a lot of the shift away from English that people in my field have been seeing over the past 5 years in particular.
I had a disturbing experience in Bergen back in early December of 2008, where one of my local business contacts noted that people are increasingly perceiving that Americans and British have “conned them” over the years into thinking that our economy (and our system in general) is stronger than it actually is—which has led to a rapid reassessment of our prestige and status in a not-so-good direction, and an inclination to seek out stronger economic poles elsewhere.  I’d heard rumblings like this throughout 2008, but this was the first time I’d heard it so explicitly, and it seems to be behind a lot of the surprisingly rapid movement away from English recently.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes in assignments over the past few years, even before 2008, and when you talk up English as much as you do, I’m afraid it’s because you may be missing some very important things when you travel.  For example:

Eric, you state: “When Poles and Swiss wish to converse, they use English.”  Um, no, they don’t.  It’s funny that you bring up this example, because I was on assignment in Debrecen 2 years ago (in eastern Hungary, incredibly beautiful city FWIW), and I happened on a Swiss and a Czech person who were conversing.  Guess what language they were using?  No, not English, or even Hungarian—they were using German with each other.  Even more surprising (at least IMHO), when I was in Aarhus just last year, I encountered a Pole and a Slovak—both with native tongues closely related to each other—and they were both using German as well to talk to each other.

Lezick 01.14.09 | 1:17 AM ET

As far as international conferences go, I was at a conference in Medan in Indonesia 2 years ago (on hydrological developments), and the common language was Chinese, not English—and it wasn’t because the conference was predominantly attended by Indonesian Chinese, either.  There were not only Chinese but Koreans, Malays, Filipinos, Thais and plenty of Westerners there.  Many of the slides used a “Romanized” Chinese (Chinese words with Roman characters, pinyin I think it’s called) but it was all done in the Chinese language.  Fortunately, many of the conferees did speak some English (which is good since I speak almost no Chinese myself) and German in some cases, and they explained some of the events to me, but Chinese was the chief language there.

In Korean and Thai schools, Chinese has already overtaken English as the main foreign language—for obvious reasons, since China has a healthy economy and is the main trading partner, while becoming a major research hub in its own right.  This is rapidly becoming the case elsewhere as well.

I have a hunch about why you have the misconception that you have here: You’re seeing the international linguistic world that you expect to see, not as it actually is.  By way of example, I encountered a Frenchman in Hanoi 3 years ago who marveled at the way “the entire world seems to speak French” (just as you, and many other Americans I’m afraid—including myself some years ago—seem to perceive that ‘the whole world speaks English’).  He’d been across much of Europe, in the Middle East, even in southern Thailand and of course Vietnam, and he was able to use his native language wherever he went.  As I probed him further, I realized that he had largely wound up in regions where there were plenty of French-speakers to cater to him, and he spoke little in the way of the foreign languages where he went.  So he got a false impression, and I suspect you’ve done the same.

I’ll just emphasize again here—I made the same mistake you did, until I really had to work internationally and communicate to people in a business context.  What you find is that, while English is the single most common international tongue in our present day, it’s not nearly as prevalent as you may often think, and it’s rapidly slipping.  The reason you see it so much, is that most of the people that you encounter in international hubs (such as in hotels, airports, business centers and elsewhere) are multilingual.  And English is just one part of that mix—generally not the most fluent part, and often not part of the mix at all.  (In a recent business meeting in Milan, French and German were both spoken but *not* English, which was not well-understood by many of the participants.)  So it may superficially seem like English is the one “common standard,” but it isn’t—it depends on where you go and what you’re doing.

For example, the only reason that I was aware of those instances above—with the Czech and the Swiss in Hungary, and the Pole and the Slovak in Denmark, speaking German in both cases—is that I’d been compelled to learn German myself a little over 6 years ago, as part of a project I’d been assigned in Hamburg.  Before I knew German myself, I just assumed, as you did, that different Europeans would just use English with each other, and whenever I heard conversations in German, I assumed that it was just two Germans (or Austrians) speaking their local tongue.  It was only when I could speak German myself, and could meet and greet people in the language, that I learned how prevalent German is as an international tongue in its own right, in eastern and northern Europe but elsewhere as well.

In the course of the encounter I’d ask people where they were from, just making conversation—expecting to hear a German or Austrian city like Vienna or Berlin.  Instead, more often than not, it’s a Finn, or someone from the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Denmark or (in a couple cases) even East or South Asians (admittedly to my own tremendous surprise), who are communicating with someone from somewhere else.  I suspect it’s partly because my field is somewhat technical, and for engineers and technical types, German is really essential due to the innovation there—one is at a major disadvantage career-wise without it, especially anywhere in Europe but even abroad.

It may also be due to the close resemblance of German to other languages.  For example, most Dutch I’ve encountered know both German and English (and often French as well), but to my thorough surprise, they’ve been just as likely to speak German as English to me when I state I know the language well.  Apparently because German and Dutch are so closely related, as is Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.  (English is also Germanic as they are, but apparently the resemblance to German is closer.)

Lezick 01.14.09 | 1:19 AM ET

In Brazil, Spanish was by far the most common second language (head and shoulders above English), and in much of South America, Portuguese had prevalence probably due to the increasing importance of Brazil.

Please understand, I’m not in any way trying to cast aspersions at you here—but these articles playing up English so much, frankly amount to outright misinformation especially today, that can have adverse consequences.  The world is changing very, very rapidly, and English as an international language is already going the way that French did in the 1950’s, just a whole lot faster.  Americans really, really need to get a lot more serious, a lot faster, about foreign languages.  (Fortunately this does seem to be happening—many of my nephews and nieces are enrolled in immersion schools, especially in Spanish but occasionally in German, French or even Chinese.)

As far as *which* languages are becoming most important with English’s decline—the ones we Americans need to be focusing on—the most commonly cited trio are Chinese, German and Spanish.  Chinese is growing at breakneck speed throughout Asia and even elsewhere with the spread of Chinese language institutes and trade contacts, and it’s already replaced English as the main commercial and educational language in some regions.  German is regaining as a crucial technical language especially in engineering and manufacturing fields where German technology is a global standard.  Plus, it’s the most common first language in Europe (it’s even spoken in northern Italy as a first tongue, which I didn’t know until I was posted there), and with Germany as a more-or-less de facto EU leader, it’s growing even further.  Many of the firms that I collaborate with, which do business in Europe, will not even consider a US applicant unless they speak German.

The third language is Spanish, which really is extremely widespread and is one of the original “American” languages along with English and native American tongues.  Certainly in the USA, and particularly in Southwestern states and in Florida, Spanish is essential—in my home state (Arizona) and in California for example, you’re slitting your own throat economically if you don’t speak Spanish to a high degree of fluency.

Jennifer, you say many good things in your post but I have to call you out on one of your points:  “implimenting any policy requiring citizens to learn a foreign language so they can communicate with a large linguistic minority is a slippery slope.  If that were the case, then 100 years ago we all would have been required to learn German or maybe Italian whereas today it would be Spanish or maybe Arabic”

I see where you get this impression, but the problem with your argument—and I say this not knowing where in the US you reside—is that in the US Southwest (where I’m from), Puerto Rico and Florida, Spanish actually preceded English as a widespread, official public language and therefore has *legal* status as a public means of communication in public places.  My background isn’t in law, but there’s some legal concept with a fancy Latin title, that gives special protections and recognition to languages that are “founding” in a particular region—and make them at least co-equal with English.  For us in the USA, this language is predominantly Spanish.

Lezick 01.14.09 | 1:23 AM ET

In Arizona where I grew up, as well as in nearby states (such as Texas and California), Spanish for all practical and legal purposes is equal with English because the Latino people aren’t “newcomers”—they and their cultural sphere long preceded English, and as a way to maintain peace among the peoples after the extremely bitter Mexican-American Wars, a whole host of statutes, treaties, common-law provisions and other precedents have granted Spanish full equality with English.  Same for Florida and Puerto Rico, for related reasons.  You just have to know Spanish to be economically viable anywhere in the Southwest.  So while Spanish isn’t a globally crucial language of commerce and technology that Chinese and increasingly German both are, for us in the USA at least, Spanish is the third member of the “Big 3”, especially in historically relevant parts of the country.

Notice, Spanish isn’t the only such “founder tongue” to have that kind of legal status and recognition.  French is official in Louisiana (and parts of Maine) due to its founder status.  Hawaiian is co-official in Hawaii—and since the Hawaiians are indigenous there, they take this very seriously.  The Sioux language is critical in their territory in the Dakotas (which is legally sovereign).  Even German has status in portions of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other regions of “the German-American Midwest” where (especially Pennsylvania) it was a “founder tongue.” 

However, French and German don’t have anywhere near the singular importance that Spanish does, and not only because they’re much less widespread historically—Spanish was a founder language across nearly 1/3 of the USA before US Anglo settlement spread westward and southward.  Moreover, whereas there were mostly peaceful transactions to bring in e.g. the Francophone portion (the Louisiana Purchase), the Latino portions were incorporated in the wake of some bloody and very bitter conflicts, after Latinos had been present for centuries (hence the names of the cities, streets, the states themselves).  As we learn in the Southwest, and as my nephews and nieces already understand, respecting Spanish and knowing it isn’t just a matter of following legal prescriptions—it’s a fundamental way to maintain harmony in a region that’s had a bloody and very painful incorporation into the USA.  When you combine this with the protections offered to indigenous peoples and languages (which applies to native American tongues like Sioux and Creek as well), this explains why Spanish is so crucial around here.

So again, people are emphasizing Chinese, German and Spanish as the rising standards for us Americans, with good reason.  I wouldn’t arbitrarily exclude other languages—depending on what you do, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese or French for example, can be very important.  But Chinese, German and Spanish have an especially high and rising global profile.

If you’re in the SW or Florida, Spanish is a must, and the parents I know are increasingly enrolling their kids in immersion programs to master Spanish early—a good idea in general.  Chinese is also popular for obvious reasons elsewhere, and German is a must for the technical set or someone who wants to do business in Europe, in general.  I am happy to see that more American families are getting their kids into language classes and immersion programs early on, since this allows them to learn not just one critical language (like Spanish) but also something else like German later on, while boosting their thinking skills.  And at any rate, this has to become more widespread, because Americans in the future are going to need these language skills to make it economically.

Eva Holland 01.14.09 | 10:39 AM ET

Hey Lezick, fascinating stuff! A couple of quibbles though:

“The third language is Spanish, which really is extremely widespread and is one of the original “American” languages along with English and native American tongues.”

And French! It’s not just Louisiana - once upon a time the French controlled large swathes of the Ohio Valley, too.

“Only 45% or so of India was in the British realm, as a colleague in Hyderabad informed me recently.”

The so-called “Princely States” weren’t under direct British administration, but they were under de facto British control - treaties, decidedly lopsided “alliances”, etc. It eventually became an issue for the British public - because how do you square the idea that you’re bringing democracy to a “backwards” people, with the continued control of a wealthy aristocracy over vast areas of the country?

I take your point about English’s reign by no means being secure, but I think it’s worth noting that a) this article was focused on travel, and travelers, and there’s no denying English continues to be the second language of choice in that arena (eg the second, or third, language on signs at tourist destinations is almost always English), and b) there’s still no single other dominant language; as important as other languages are, there isn’t one that can be singled out as becoming the new default, which suggests that English will remain a default for some time.

Also, while the role of the US etc. declines, India is the next-next superpower - and English there is, to quote the world factbook, “the most important language for national, political, and commercial communication.” So it may wind up remaining a crucial global language, albeit with a different support base.

Jennifer 01.14.09 | 10:58 AM ET

Barbara, it is true, many people attempt to learn a foreign language late in life simply because they are passionate about it, and maybe some are successful.  However, I believe that the majority of people in the world who learn English as a second language do it because it is a requirement through school first and foremost.  This is the singular reason why it is so prevalent today.  Yes, there are people who may learn English simply because they are passionate about it but I’m sure these people only account for a small majority when you look at the overall picture.

As someone who took German in high school and a little in college it was frustrating to go to Germany, try to speak the langauage, and have people respond in English.  Situations like this make it even harder to learn a foreign language even if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to “immerse” yourself in the culture.  English speakers who travel abroad and expect everyone to speak English are out of line!  Again though, in the US, because we learn our foreign languages so late, sometimes out of sheer frustration when traveling abroad it is easier (not neccessarily better) for both cultures to revert to whichever language they share the greatest proficiency at.  And more often than not, that language is English! 

As for myself, I would love to learn Portuguese so that I can go back to Brazil and converse with people on a daily basis, on their terms.  However, even if I were able to find classes in this language and become proficient enough for basic conversation, unless I plan on spending a great deal of time in Brazil, the language will become useless to me and will probably slowly fade away.  This is a frustrating thought considering the amount of time, money and effort that it takes to learn a foreign language, especially as an adult.  While there may be ample opportunities for people throughout the world to learn English (whether through school or something they pursue on their own), it isn’t quite so easy for people here in the states to do the same.  It’s not like there is a “foreign language institute” on every block, or even in every large city for that matter!  Unless we have an interest in mastering French, German or Spanish, most opportunities for learning a foreign language in the US are pretty limited unless you are lucky enough to live in a very large metropolitan area!  I’m sure there are exceptions here, but this is probably fairly true as a general rule.

How does everyone feel about Rosetta Stone?  Are the programs really as good as they make them sound?  Are they worth the money?

Lezick 01.14.09 | 5:53 PM ET

Hello Eva.

1. Good point about French in the Ohio Valley.  I guess Louisiana is where it’s held out strongest (still spoken in much of the state, actually), but the French imprint on the USA is a lot stronger than I suspect most Americans realize.

2. On British rule in India—again, I’m not an expert on Indian history personally so I’m just repeating what people more knowledgeable (generally Indians themselves) have told me.  Not only my friend in Hyderabad, but also as confirmed independently from other Indians I’ve interacted with, as well as a non-Indian Canadian who minored in history.  The consistent refrain I get is that the Princely States *were* independent.  The British didn’t even have de facto control, much less legal authority—apparently, when India became independent after 1946, the new nation of India (with its capital in New Delhi) actually had to *negotiate* with the Princely States and haggle with them, since the States really were regarded as independent entities.  And during the British period, the Princely State rulers ran their own currencies, negotiated their own treaties, frequently even opposed the British directly. 

Part of this I guess, is that the French, Dutch and Portuguese were also powers in India (and Russia indirectly, with its power base in Central Asia right next door), at least more than I used to think—and so the Princely State rulers more or less played them off each other.  Plus, Britain was apparently being slaughtered in Afghanistan and what’s now Northwest Pakistan (where they were trying to extend the Empire, albeit unsuccessfully—according to another old Indian colleague something like 25,000 British soldiers were wiped out in an Afghanistan war around 1850, except for a single military surgeon!) and wanted help from the Princely States in taming the region.  Again, not being an expert myself I can’t confirm this, but this kind of description—with the States playing rival Western powers off each other, running their own currencies, negotiating independently—certainly seems to meet the description of independence. 

I guess, when it comes to India I’m also very hesitant to start up arguments about history b/c they’ve very sensitive about it there, and since the above description of the Princely States seems to be the consensus, I’ve never tried to argue with an Indian who knows more than I do (or my Canadian history minor friend who agreed).  For Indian folks it seems, British PM’s and officials like Disraeli, Palmerston and Lytion are even worse than Hitler and Stalin (British Raj officers in India films are basically little Stalins, just much more incompetent).  We don’t learn much about their history in the States, but apparently in the wake of some rebellion in India against Britain (around 1860 IIRC), the British wiped out entire towns and villages in India to “set an example,” gunning down entire families in ravines.  Then the British appropriated rural communities wholesale to grow opium, taxed even subsistence farming and food sales, shipped Indians off to work camps, shuttered Indian industries and then shipped out whatever food was produced—to the tune of maybe 25 million or more Indian citizens being killed in the 1880’s or so (estimates vary in the famines, I guess). 

I’ve been to Limerick and Dublin several times, and I used to think that the Irish were vitriolic against the British, but they have *nothing* on the Indian loathing of the British for what happened there (and this is despite the fact that Indians are probably the most vigorous followers of that quintessential British sport of cricket).  Ironically, if anything the vitriol seems to be less among the ex-Princely States (like Hyderabad FWIW) than places like Bengal or much of Tamil Nadu, which were squarely within the British Raj—again, maybe b/c the States didn’t have to experience British rule (and they tend to be richer on average, interestingly enough).

Fortunately, you won’t encounter too much of this unless the historical subject is broached, and since I’m a businessman, whenever I’m in India these days I veer away from history or politics like a pestilence.  (Although if you wind up catching a Bollywood flick with the folks there—which is hardly uncommon when you’re schmoozing—historical topics have a way of sneaking up on you, and if you’re a Westerner there, polite nodding and artful subject-changing are a must!)

Lezick 01.14.09 | 9:35 PM ET

“Also, while the role of the US etc. declines, India is the next-next superpower - and English there is, to quote the world factbook, “the most important language for national, political, and commercial communication.”

I don’t find this to be true either—in fact, India (along with Hong Kong) was the place that I first began to realize that English really *isn’t* as prevalent as I was often told, even before my assignments in Eastern Europe. I’m sorry that I sound so contrarian here—like you I’m an avid traveler (business and pleasure alike) and I suspect I’d probably agree with you on 95% of travel-related topics.  You all sound like the type of fascinating people that I delight in hanging out with and learning from whenever I’m overseas, and I’m not doing it just to be a Devil’s Advocate—but as I (and sorry to say, my kids) learned the hard way, there’s a terrible amount of misinformation on this topic especially as peddled by the WSJ and the financial press in general, which is what I read and leads to a lot of terribly shortsighted educational policy in the States. 

Again, I myself used to be of the “English triumphalist” variety, so much so that my wife and I disregarded the importance of languages for our own children and neglected to provide them with early language training. This turns out to have been an awful mistake which is hindering their own fledgling careers now. (My nephews and nieces fortunately—I was the Big Brother in the family—have been getting early immersion in Spanish, with German or Chinese often following.)  So this kind of misinformation, as put forth by uninformed financial journalists in particular—which is where, I suspect, a lot of the inaccurate assumptions about global English derive from—has damaging real-world consequences, the reason I’m so serious about it.

Back to the point of India—if anything, what shocked me about India is how much English really is *not* a common communications link there, as I’d once been told, and how rapidly English is losing ground there.  (India’s future potential as a superpower is another matter entirely—a lot of my colleagues in the tech biz are down on India these days due to the Satyam fraud scandal and the sovereign debt downgrading, but I’m a committed Indophile for my part—India finds ways to deal with its problems and emerge stronger, and I have little doubt that India will come through this current crisis as well.)

Among all India’s languages, English is something like the 20th-most spoken language on the Subcontinent.  Only about 4% of the country actually speaks it, and perhaps only a little over 1% does it fluently.  Even among educated circles and the media, English is constantly eroding.  All the top TV stations are in Hindi with some in Tamil or Marathi, the popular Bollywood films are in Hindi, even the publishing newspaper has become Hindi-dominated—almost all the top newspapers are in Hindi, with a few in other languages.  The English-language papers are something like 10th on the list and dropping fast—IOW, when it comes to English-language papers and circulation ranking, India is if anything *behind* such countries as Malaysia or even Indonesia (where the large expat population, in particular, keeps Straits Times readership high). 

Note that this also punctures the myth that “English is the language of India’s elite, educated and literate”—even the literate and educated population in India doesn’t use English much.  I’d always thought that English was at least a “linker” or neutral language in India, but even this isn’t the case—during my trips in South India, where I’d always thought Hindi wasn’t very popular, the younger generation in particular (unlike their elders) have no qualms about speaking it.  Granted, it’s colloquial “Bollywood” Hindi and not the formal kind in New Delhi, and they all clearly speak Tamil (or Telugu) as well, but Hindi no longer carries a stigma or hang-up the way it used to.

Here’s one link I’ve been sent multiple times, illustrating this point:

Note that this was over a year ago, and even then, English-language papers were way down on the list.  Today, this trend has accelerated—all of the English newspapers *combined* don’t amount to the circulation of *any single one* of the Top 4 or so Hindi newspapers (don’t remember the exact stats offhand, it was at a sales conference interestingly enough), and the top Tamil and Marathi dailies also outsell all the English dailies. 

This has been borne out in my personal experience.  When I’ve gone out into India and actually mingled with people, English simply is not spoken, period, and I always have a Hindi phrasebook along (and a Tamil one if I’m in the south).  Business transactions are done in Hindi—even outside of the Hindi belt (e.g. in Gujarat and places outside Mumbai, the common tongue was Hindi).

Lezick 01.14.09 | 9:40 PM ET

If anything, during my periods in Vietnam and Thailand—neither of which was ever within the British Empire or even the American sphere (we tried in Vietnam after the French left but, I guess that didn’t turn out too well)—it’s always been much easier to find an at-least passable English speaker, whereas in India it’s just not used.  My most successful colleagues who do more long-term work in India, almost invariably know Hindi to a high standard, and at least one other Indian language—usually Tamil or Telugu. (Or Malayalam—sorry, meant to cite Malayalam for Marathi, in regard to newspapers above.)

Also, in Vietnam and Thailand, the television and especially film media were generally dominated by foreign imports—mainly Hollywood fare, but also German films, Hindi films, and a smattering of Spanish and French fare.  (They love those Spanish telenovelas out there, a fascinating little factoid about India and SE Asia in its own right…)  Even in Taiwan this tends to be the case, their own Chinese-language films getting lower billing compared to US and European imports.

Whereas, India is one of the very few countries I’ve worked in, where the native film industry (and it’s overwhelmingly Bollywood Hindi) utterly dominates over Hollywood and all other foreign imports.  So much so that even Hollywood films invariably get Hindi dubbing!

The erosion of English has also been significant in other ex-British colonies like HK and Singapore (as well as in the Philippines, a former US colony).  I’ve been to HK many times, and it’s shocked me how much people there don’t speak English.  Cantonese is of course the main dialect there, but with increasing migration from the mainland, Mandarin is spreading fast as a common tongue.  Only 25% of the people there are even reported to speak English, and I can tell you they don’t really speak it there—the people I’ve met up who are supposedly “English-speakers” in HK, simply can’t communicate in it for the most part, b/c it’s not actively used.  I’ve been to Singapore only once, but the young folks were all talking Chinese to each other, and at the market stands, even the Malays were generally using Mandarin with the customers.  Again, when you look at more humdrum stats like newspaper circulation, you see something similar—with Mandarin papers gaining heavily with the increasing economic strength of both China and Taiwan.

The Philippines was maybe the one place where there was more of a colonial English residue, and I found more enthusiasm and familiarity with it there than in India or HK, by leaps and bounds.  But even in the Philippines, English is disappearing as a language of actual discourse.  The natives in Quezon City never used English with each other, all the media were in the Filipino language, and when I had to do business, the English communication quality was so poor, that I simply opted to speak through an American-born interpreter, who translated for me into Filipino. (Interestingly enough, Chinese is rising at incredible speed as the international language for the Philippines, probably due to trade—large numbers of Filipinos in China and Taiwan.  Many Filipinos also speak Arabic for whatever reason, something to do with OFW agreements though I don’t know much about it.)

India—as well as HK—really was *the* eye-opener several years ago that forced me to realize that my previous beliefs about “global English,” were nothing but a foolish myth, usually peddled by uninformed and often unprofessional financial journalists who—frankly—are generally monolingual English speakers themselves.  Since they don’t speak anything but English, they inevitably wind up in settings abroad where English is used, which just reconfirms their confusions and prior assumptions.  It’s only when one speaks several foreign languages with proficiency—preferably with geographical distribution—that one can really comment on this topic in an informed manner, and even then, one has to be very rigorous.  And when one does speak these languages, you realize that all that interchange you may have once ignored, is the sound of other international languages being used at a level much higher than we appreciate in the USA.

And as far as the future of international languages go, it’s really going to depend on whichever country hosts the most robust economy in 20 years’ time, and I don’t see that being the USA let alone Britain—our debt is just too crippling, much to my dismay.  Foreign language studies represent a long-term choice by nations’ educational systems, and the precarious, over-leveraged, debt-saddled economy in the US and UK, still mired in two bloody guerrilla wars and frittering away our capital on expensive anachronisms like nuclear arms and Cold War-era warjets—the bitter truth is, it’s just not attractive to other countries anymore as a secure place to park and grow capital, which is why capital flows have been seeping away so much.

Lezick 01.14.09 | 9:44 PM ET

Whatever China’s internal problems, over the past 2 years at least, I’ve noticed a profound change in the perceptions of the country compared to the USA: Foreigners see China as a place that still needs reforms and modernizations, but which is overall much calmer, more reasoned, stable, less precipitate and overall less unhinged (especially in financial and foreign policy) than the USA, while delivering steady growth based on true innovation and product improvements.  It’s a sounder, savings-driven economic model that the rest of the world is inclined toward, and I don’t just mean in Asia—I’ve seen this in South America and even Europe, with the past 3 months of US financial woes accelerating the perceptions shift even more rapidly.

I noticed you mention that there’s no real rival to replace English yet, and while I guess this is true for the present moment, I wouldn’t count on this even for the short-medium term—I’ve been dumbfounded at the spread of Chinese as a business language in just the past 2 years alone.  Admittedly, it’s often a pidginized Chinese—written in Roman characters and simplified—rather than the standard Chinese used in Beijing or Shanghai, but this is hardly unusual for any international tongue.  One of China’s biggest exports has been these language institutes—forget what they’re called—and they’re all over the world now.  China’s Olympics performance has undoubtedly heightened the country’s prominence, but it’s truly astounding how quickly China’s become a genuine innovator, and technological and business leader.  For me personally, I don’t have the affinity for China that I do for India as an Indophile for so many years, and I haven’t visited China as much.  But when I do go to China, I can’t help but be awed at how well they have their act together in terms of innovating things—and thankfully, they also seem to be introducing more and more freedoms and open discourse each time I go.  There’s a lot that needs to be done on this front, but it’s the right direction.

As I mentioned before, Chinese is already overtaking English in its own near-abroad as the main foreign tongue, for trade reasons, and not only Koreans but even Japanese—despite their history—often prefer to write technical and academic papers in Chinese rather than English.  For totally humdrum reasons—it’s much easier for them due to their more than a millennia of co-evolution, with Chinese as a civilizational center providing so much basic vocabulary to its neighbors.  But even in South America and Africa, Chinese is becoming a major international tongue.  Admittedly, China isn’t anywhere near as prevalent in Europe yet, but Russia does have a robust level of interest in Chinese, and France recently has been making moves in this direction.

So I wouldn’t say that Chinese is “knocking English off a pedestal,” but I’m not sure English has been on a pedestal to begin with—it’s maybe “first among equals” at the present time, but not nearly so widespread as often assumed. 

As I mentioned, even outside of Chinese, German ranks as an extremely important international language as well, certainly in my field and for technical pursuits in general—in much of Europe, it is the most common “second language” I encounter.  And the Spanish/Portuguese “Iberian zone” is strong in many places throughout the world.  Even French and Arabic still have some international cachet. 

But none of these others has quite the international pull, in business and technology, that Chinese has (and German to a lesser extent).  So I doubt that English is in any way “threatened,” it’ll remain a useful and respected international language—it’s just that in relative terms, Chinese is already taking over as a business language a lot faster than we think.  If the USA could find some way to bring ourselves out of debt, cut our overleveraged expenses (especially nukes and Cold War weapons systems), we might be able to at least hang in there a little better, but right now, there’s just too little confidence in our system long-term. 

So Chinese, with German as a junior partner from a global perspective (and Spanish as a critical regional language in economically critical locations within the USA), is going to be crucial in about 2 decades.  How critical, of course, is difficult to predict—but US schools have to start taking language fluency a lot more seriously, and quickly.

Lezick 01.14.09 | 9:57 PM ET

As far as travel—I see what this article is trying to communicate, I just wish it had been expressed in a less apparently “Anglo triumphalist” way, with all the damaging misconceptions and inaccuracies that brings about.  The crux of the article as far as I can tell, is that a traveler can more or less get by on just English in many if not most of the really attractive places in the world, and this I would definitely agree with.  Again, I’m not sure I’d be so prone to single out English as “the global language” on that point—as I mentioned above, speakers of other foreign languages (like the well-traveled Frenchman I met in Vietnam) can do the same.  (And it’s true that English is the most common “second” or “third” language on signs, though multilingual signs in tongues like Chinese, German, French, Japanese are common all over.  Even in the USA, where I grew up in Arizona and in neighboring California, the signs all over the place are in Spanish—sometimes to the exclusion of English, depending on where you go—and you’ll find Hawaiian, Sioux, even Midwestern German on signs depending on where in the country you go.) 

But if the net effect is to encourage more Americans to get a passport and visa, to be comfortable with foreign travel—then I guess, that’s a good thing after all.  I’d just hope that, in the process, Americans simultaneously see that—while the familiarity with English in many places can smooth the trip—it’s imperative to be aware and embracing of the need to learn other international languages as well, especially Chinese and German, but also Spanish in the USA itself.  And IMHO, one is never too old to learn these languages.  I once thought I was too old to learn German some years ago (and for my job at that, where it really is compulsory to get good at it and the motivation is strong), but I was inspired by American and Australian colleagues who’d mastered languages like German, French—even Japanese in one case—in their 30’s and 40’s.  It just takes practice, and it really is doable.  And foreign travel and immersion are indeed the best ways to help in that!

Kate 01.14.09 | 10:38 PM ET

Interesting article. As a Canadian, I enjoyed reading an American perspective on language. (BTW, I see no evidence of “English triumphalism” in this article.) People the world over adopt second languages either because they live in a multi-lingual milieu (eg. Europe) and it’s relatively easy to do so, or because of perceived economic benefit. Language is alive. Even if a second language is learned by children, if it is primarily an academic exercise and the language can’t be spoken regularly, they are unlikely to remain fluent. When English-speaking North Americans perceive second language acquisition as an economic imperative, no doubt we will prove as capable of bi- or multi-lingualism as any other people.

David 01.15.09 | 8:08 AM ET

I do see more and more people studying languages such as Chinese, but I argue that it is still concentrated in Asia. The study of German is concentrated in Europe. English is more widely studied. Why is it that English crosses more borders? Why is it that songs in movies in English travel all over the world while music and film in other languages remain culture specific? I mean, could the average French speaker or German speaker or Hindi speaker name one Chinese singer? Do Bollywood movies play to the masses in Finland or Brazil?  Is English more palatable? I always wonder why a singer like Madonna or a group like U2 can sell out stadiums around the world. Name a non-English speaking singer who has such global appeal. Name a movie in a language other than English that is universally known. I am in no way saying that English is superior. I simply wonder WHY it has such appeal. One of my Brazilian friends told me that it’s “comfortable” to use English because there is less chance to offend (no formal “you”, he explained). A French friend said “Thank God it’s English that is a universal language rather than Chinese….who has the time to learn all those characters.” I know there are all sorts of historical reasons for the widespread use of English, but I am more interested in why English doesn’t remain culture specific.

Eva Holland 01.15.09 | 3:19 PM ET

Hi again Lezick,

History’s pretty tricky to pin down at the best of times, and particularly on a subject as emotional as colonial and post-colonial history (just check out the differences in the way the War of 1812 is taught on the US/Canadian sides of the border! or, for that matter, the American revolution) but I have to say that very little of what your Indian colleagues have told you resembles what I learned over the course of a couple of degrees in British imperial history. (And I wasn’t taught by fusty old imperial apologists, either; I feel fairly certain that, had they been aware of an indiscriminate slaughter of 25 million Indians by the British in the 1880s, my Marxist profs would have been thrilled to mention it.) None of that is to say that the British didn’t do some reprehensible things in India - but it’s precisely the emotionality of that past that distorts the history so much. (Though, for what it’s worth, I’ve never encountered anything approaching vitriol among the Indians I’ve met - in fact, I’ve been struck by the seeming indifference many of them seemed to have towards their colonial past.)

I think that your experiences with India and Indian history (and, for example, the opposing impressions the two of us have gotten of vitriol vs. non-vitriol) help show the difficulty of debating to what extent English is a truly dominant global language. You’ve obviously traveled a lot, and your anecdotal evidence says that it isn’t; others, including the author, have had different experiences. I expect that “the truth” lies somewhere in between.

shamsdlavar 01.21.09 | 3:48 AM ET


i want to this kind of a news to recived in my emil


Sandra 02.02.09 | 7:07 PM ET


Very interesting discussion on languages and history.

When I was teaching in an English Immersion kindergarten in Taiwan I had a student, 4 years of age, who spoke Taiwanese with her mother, Mandarin as it is the lingua franca of the country, Japanese to her grandparents (due to the occupation of Taiwan until the end of WWII it was the officail language of the country) and English in school.  It was a treat to listen to her at school open house days as she switched languages to accommodate her audience. 

I would like pass on a tip for Emily who found it difficult to learn a second language because everyone found it easier to communicate in English.  When I was studying Chinese I had a similiar problem although it had more to do with prople wanting to practise their English than finding it easier.  We compromised.  I spoke Chinese to my friends and they spoke English to me.  We each had to speak the other’s language well enough to be understood and the practise really helped.

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