The Past, Present, and Future of World English by David Crystal (Summary)

The prospect of English becoming a global language is uncertain as there is no historical precedence. That is why is necessary to have a look to what happened in its past in order to speculate about its future.

A language achieves a genuine global status when it develops a special role that is recognized in every country. According to this principle, a mother tongue used by itself cannot give a language world status. To achieve such a status, the language a language has to be taken up by other countries around the globe. Citizens have to decide to give it a special place within their communities, even though they may have few (or no) mother tongue speakers. There are two ways in which this may be developed.  First, the language can be made the official (or semi- official) language of a country, that is, to be used in different domains such as the government, the law courts, the media and the educational system. In fact, English has some kind of special administrative status in over 70 countries.

Second, the language can be made a priority in a country’s foreign language teaching, as currently happens in over 100 countries. Due to these special factors: a language as a first language, as a second language and, as a foreign language a language can become global and, English nowadays is estimated to be spoken by a quarter of the world’s population (recently passed 6 billion). No other language is used so extensively.

The current expanse, has its explanation in some key historical factors. An obvious factor, is the need for a lingua franca. A language becomes a world language for one reason only: the power of the people who speak it.  However power means can be revealed in so many ways:

  • The political power, which is related to the colonialism period that brought English around the world from the 16th century. This legacy have been carried over into the 20th century and currently, it is being continued by the Unated States.
  • The economic power. Most of the innovations of the industrial revolution were of British origin. Indeed, Britain was called the “workshop of the world”.
  • The cultural power, which is manifested in the press, the advertising (those commercials and advertisements with more financial and social impact are in English), broadcasting, motion pictures, popular music, international travel and safety (English has come to be used as a means of controlling international transport operations especially, on water and in the air), education (as English is the medium of a great deal of the world’s knowledge, especially when talking about science and technology), communications (as the Internet is another American invention).

However, when talking about global intelligibility, local identity should not be lose it out. According to Crystal, on the net, all languages are as equal as their users wish to make them, and English emerges as an alternative rather than a threat.

Regarding to the future of English as a world language, three questions may arise. Will English fragment into mutually unintelligible languages, as it spreads around the world?

The answer is probably yes, at one level, and no at another. Yes, because of the rise of what has been called “New Englishes”, which are the new varieties of English language depending on the territory or country where the concrete variety has been originated in. These varieties have arisen because of the need to express national identity. This is to continue with English, but to shape it to meet their own ends, by adding vocabulary, by focusing on local cultural variations and, developing fresh standards of pronunciation. Though, in some parts of the world, the kind of English which has emerged has turned unintelligible to outsiders. This phenomena, is already taking place at the level of popular speech, but not at the other level, which is called “standard English”.  In standard English, there is little sign of any fragmentation, as the standard variety is essentially written, printed English, seen in the textbooks, newspapers and on the World Wide Web, is largely identical in its global manifestation. Standard English can also be spoken and be heard in the international broadcasting media such as BBC and CNN. One of the consequences of globalization is that through the media people around the world have immediate access to Standard English. So, the pull imposed by the need for identity, which has been making varieties of English increasingly dissimilar from British English, will be balanced by a pull imposed for the need for intelligibility.

 Will English kill of other languages?

Addressing the effect of English on other languages, the situation is much gloomier. Minority languages are becoming increasingly extinct due to many factors which are or not related to the English language depending on the territory. Yet, governments can do a great deal by introducing sensible bilingual policies, and protection measures for minority languages. These can be reinforced by international statute, and the fostering of a generally positive climate of opinion. However the main problem for applying this measures is the shortage of funds.

Will English change other languages?

The answer to this third question is yes. This is simply due to the arrival of unprecedented numbers of loan words into other languages, as languages are in constant contact with other languages and cultures. Languages vary greatly in response to this influx. All languages have always borrowed words from other languages. However, attitudes towards these changes in the language are varied. Some people welcome them, seeing them as a source of enrichment, whereas, some people condemn them, seeing them as an attack on traditional language values.

The reality is that loan words always add semantic value to a languages, providing people with the opportunity to express their thoughts in a more nuanced way. When a language adopts words, sounds and grammatical constructions, it adapts them. This is how languages evolves and, this is also the story of English as a language itself.

What is more, language cannot be controlled, the more a language becomes an international and then a global language, the more it ceases to be in the ownership of its originators, and, the more is opened to the influence of all who choose to use it. Language is just too powerful, because too many speakers are involved.

Instead of attacking loan words, it makes much more sense to develop creative strategies to foster their integration in literature, school and society at large.

The Past, Present, and Future of World English by David Crystal (Summary)




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