The English language’s world dominance is a historical phenomena we all know well. It is a story of conquest and colonialization. This is a story in which the English are not unique. It has been an on-going story throughout the history of humanity as groups fought their neighbours; primarily for resources. But the English did exceptionally well. Their empire broke records in terms of size and extent. Their language spread everywhere.
From Mesopotamian bronze age warriors fighting each other under the watchful eyes of their gods, to Roman centurions battling local tribes on European plains; from the 7th century Arabic conquests spreading Islam from Central Asia to Spain, to Crusaders invading and desecrating ‘The Holy Land’; from Spanish conquistadors searching for Aztec gold, to Napoleon plundering Europe – all nations, tribes and peoples have sought to invade other lands. We are all guilty of that. Isn’t that right, Genghis Khan? The English simply conquered the world more extensively than others. And that’s quite impressive for one small island in the north Atlantic Sea.
As we all know, England ruled the waves in being the most successful colonizer, implanting its language on whichever soil it set its flag. In this, they showed an extraordinary arrogant self-confidence in English cultural and linguistic superiority:
And who, in time, knows whither we may vent
The treasures of our tongue, to what strange shores
This gain of our best glory shall be sent
To enrich unknowing nations with our stores?
(Musophilus. Samuel Daniel. 1599)
This may now be embarrassingly archaic, but here’s a quote from an English language textbook from the 1960s ( Passport to Britain):
“You must not refuse a cup of tea, otherwise you are considered an exotic and barbarous bird without any hope of ever being able to take your place in civilized society”.
“Aie!” Don’t you just squirm on your seat as you read that?
Thankfully, times change. This is now the 21st century. Independence has been achieved by most countries shaking off the colonial mantle, although the English language still remains strongly embedded. Remember – Latin was once the European dominant language but slowly, as a daily spoken language, it died out. Or rather, it blended in with various vernacular dialects. Languages mutate parasitically in order to survive.
So, will English follow the same path as Latin as the British Empire shrinks in global influence; or will the English language continue to hold its global dominance? Take note – some people (see here) are already asking for the English language to be ousted as the EU’s working language following the Brexit vote.
Several prominent linguists suggest yes, English will continue in its global dominance. The English language, they say, has now infiltrated global cultures to such a degree that it is impossible to dislodge. ‘Within the whole of human history a global language can emerge only once – and this is it’ (Crystal, D). ‘Across the world, to know English is to be educated’ (Warschauer, M ). ‘One third of the world’s population will soon be studying English in this multibillion dollar industry’ (Graddol, D).
Be careful of making sweeping statements, I add. Let’s not jump the gun. Francis Fukuyama’s 1990s neoliberal thesis that we had reached ‘The End of History’ looks increasingly daft as the years stretch forward from that date. (see here). The future can be exasperatingly capricious in the path it takes. Fortune tellers would not exist were that not so. Fate and destiny are only known when you reach them.
As previously discussed, we may (or may not) have entered a ‘Postmodern phase’ in world history, but change is the only constant we really know (to re- recite Heraclitus speaking 2,500 years ago). We live in a state of flux. Global issues race along, side-by-side, like pooh sticks sweeping under a bridge. The big issues of today (climate change, refugee migration and terrorism) have yet to be solved or played out; however much politicians may try to sweep them under the carpet. These issues are still mid-stream, pulled along by the current, bobbing around the rocks and eddies. But they are not going under and disappearing.
Considering the English language’s world dominance as coexistent with these issues raises questions of implication. That may sound accusative, and in a sense it is – for the expansion of English culture, industry, business and language around the world is coterminous with these issues, even (or especially) in this period of post-colonialization. So, we should really take these issues on board – even more so as English language teachers. Let’s take a look at them:
Industrial climate change deniers lobbying governments to turn blind eyes so that pockets can be lined, have great political power: The fortunes their industries make help turn political cogs; especially at election times. World-destroying climate change, despite Naomi Klein’s superbly-reasoned and passionate call to prevent this (Klein, N), looks set to continue. In consequence, an era of unpredictable environmental and global demographical change is likely to follow which, in turn, could lead to unpredictable consequences as millions are forced out of flooded lands and fertile land turns into desert. I don’t wish be a fear-monger, and I hesitate to make any forecasts, but this is a story we’ve all had warnings about for a long time. Like most people, I hate to consider these consequences, even though I first became aware of them as a young man in 1976 and have since watched the debacle of numerous climate change conferences failing to actively address the problem of global warming with increasing cynicism. But burying heads in the sand does not prevent the arrival of the consequences.
Should this doomsday scenario come to pass, and we know it is a possibility, will the English language continue to maintain its global dominance? The die that is cast may then change so dramatically, unrecognisably, that who can foretell the result? New York and London under water? How would that upset global geopolitics? How would that change the global linguistic balance?
The current refugee ‘crisis’ – stemming from the troubles in the Middle East and The Maghreb – can not be divorced from the processes of decolonialisation; although it very often is. Again, this is an issue we fail to address. We fear to acknowledge we’re seeing the kick-back of European exploration and exploitation around the world which was responsible for the massacres and exterminations of indigenes from the American Indians and Australian Aborigines, to the slave trade which financed the explosion of the industrial revolution, to the mass slaughters of Maghrebians, and finally American/European global dominance.
This failure of acknowledgement adds justification to the demands of economic migrants to enter Europe – not solely for those seeking asylum through the ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ (UNHCR 1951 convention), to whom we are sympathetic and open armed, but to all who consider themselves, in their collective national consciences, as victims of European colonialization. These peoples are now seeking reparation, through demanding access to the European wealth created through property theft and the enslavement of their colonialized peoples and lands stretching back generations (see Fanon,F.). In such light, more recent European/American involvement in the Middle East is easily interpreted as part of an on-going colonial history (through gaining access to other country’s resources: oil), fuelling radicalization and terrorist actions.
When global stability is threatened, how much more difficult it is to predict the future.
These issues are not significantly listened to, or addressed – adding fuel to the fire. Reconciliation entails accepting fault and responsibility – this has not happened. Without this happening – we see radicalization and its path towards terrorism. There’s the logic. Time to own up and give everything back – along with the Elgin marbles? Not for me to answer that polemic, although I doubt that we will and I doubt that we can. But awareness of the issue is a start. At least a little admission of culpability may help. I write this on a day when France admits is own culpability regarding Algerian Harkis. Overdue, yes, but finally the day has arrived (see here or here).
On a larger scale, global geopolitics is continuously active – in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. Time does not slow down for them, nor stop. We may speculate on the projects of the world’s powers but who, individual or government, can predict the future?
To hypothesise that we are now at ‘a critical point in time and growth for the English language beyond which a global language will truly arrive’ (Crystal, D. see above) sees global development evolving along a straight-line. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, which changed the direction of world politics, showed that not to be the case. Similarly, Francis Fukuyama neither saw that coming, nor saw the ideological threat of Islamic fundamentalism (nor its reification), nor the financial crisis of 2002 casting serious doubts about the global banking system when run under the mechanism of deregulated neoliberalism. The future can not be foreseen.
Nothing is certain except change (Heraclitus).
There is no end of history, no post-ideology stasis as proposed by Francis Fukuyama.
Colonial arrogance raises its head when we think our ideologies are final and best,
That precept is certainly challenged within postmodern thought.
In the world of postmodern thought – everything is multifaceted, and changing.
There are always multiple perspectives to consider: Ours and theirs; mine and yours.
Nothing is certain.
English language may rule the roost 100 years from now…
… but don’t bank on it.