English Around the World

I’m not biased.  At least, I don’t think so.  But English really does seem to be becoming the new “lingua franca”.  Almost every country in the world is full of people wanting to learn English.

Here in Mexico, the cities are loaded with language schools teaching English.  other languages are taught, but the classes are overwhelmingly English.  Bilingual schools are becoming more common.  Most secondary and university courses have compulsory English classes.  People here truly believe that English is essential to them advancing in the workplace and in life.  Almost no-one speaks English in everyday life here.  But many know English to a greater or lesser extent for their job or for travel. 

The need for English follows from Mexico’s economic dependence on the United States.  Mexico has a large proportion of the U.S.’s manufacturing, call centres and casual labour.  Other latin american countries perhaps are not so closely linked to an English-speaking country, but as the language of business it is becoming more common in those places as well.

I’m going to Europe for the first time in a month, for two and a half weeks.  I’ll visit the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and France.  I know virtually nothing of Dutch, French or German.  But I’m not worried.  The majority of people in Europe know at least two, if not three or more languages, and English is the primary second-tongue.  They say that the French dislike speaking English, and understandably so given their history.  But I’m expecting that most can still communicate with me in English if they want to. 

India, China, Japan, Korea – the major asian nations are teaching their citizens English.  The demand for native English speakers to do the teaching is high.  Many young people from English-speaking countries head to these countries to teach English to adults and kids alike.  It’s a common way to experience a different culture and get paid for it.  Unfortunately teaching English in Mexico is paid poorly.  But some countries pay a lot more – a friend of mine taught English in Dubai, and was paid $US 60,000 per year, with minimal taxes. 

The other language that is starting to challenge English as a business (and therefore worldwide) language is Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese).  Two schools here in Guadalajara are trilingual – they have classes in Spanish, English and Chinese.  China is rapidly becoming a world superpower with approximately 1.4 billion inhabitants, a massive and exploding economy, and increasingly more influence on the world stage.

Excluding a few schools that are up with the play, most schools in New Zealand still only offer three language classes – French, Japanese and Maori.  Maori is important as an official language of the country.  However my recommendation is for schools to 1) make a second language compulsory and a third language optional, 2) broaden the language options available to students, and 3) make the compulsory second language a choice of Maori, Spanish or Chinese.

But that’s a side topic from my main observation – how much English is dominating as a global language.  A science-fiction series Dave and I are listening to on audiobook describes “Common” – a slightly-modified English – as the language of the world.  Give it a decade or so, and this could well become science fact. 

I’m not exactly sure why this is happening.  I have a few theories though.  Maybe the dominance of the United States of America in the world economy has pushed it, combined with the reluctance of native English speakers (from the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, England etc.) to learn a second language.  If you need to communicate with someone, and he/she is arrogant enough to not bother to learn your language, you have to learn English.

“So if English is going to become the world language, why bother learning other languages?” you may ask.  A few reasons to think about:

  1. Knowing a language is an entry into a culture.  You can appreciate songs, sayings, idioms, stories, and values of different cultures.
  2. Not everyone will be able to speak English, especially less-educated people.  More importantly, foreigners may not want to speak English.  If you do not speak the language of the people you are visiting, your ability to influence, to understand, to enjoy, to effectively interact, will be limited.
  3. It is arrogant to assume that just because most people will be able to speak English, that English is the language that should be spoken.  If you truly believe this, you are a poor citizen of the world. 

So if you’re not bilingual, try to become so.  If you’re bilingual, try to become trilingual.  But if you have to travel or do business and you only have one tongue to talk in, just be grateful that English is becoming the common language of the world.