E is for English

21 05 2017

 

Salvador Sobral

Salvador Sobral and his sister Luisa, who wrote the winning song (AFP)

The fact that the winner of this year’s Eurovision contest sang his sister’s song in his native Portuguese, and not – like the majority of contestants – solely or partly in English, has attracted comment in the European press. In fact (according to a Guardian article that appeared in advance of the final) only four of the total 42 songs in the Eurovision final were sung entirely in a language other than English: as well as the Portuguese entry, these were the Belarusian, Hungarian and Italian entries. Of the rest, 35 were sung entirely in English. ‘That’s over 83%, and the highest-ever proportion in the history of the competition,’ notes The Guardian. The fact that the contest’s slogan was ‘Celebrate Diversity’ seems not to have impacted on the choice of language.

Eurovision stats

The rise and rise of Euro-English – as sung in the Eurovision Song Contest (from The Guardian)

 

That the successful Portuguese song bucked this trend has given grim satisfaction to those who (like me) suspect that the dominance of English may be experiencing the first signs of a reversal, especially in Europe. Only a week or so before Eurovision, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commision, is reported to have opted to make a speech in French rather than in English, on the grounds that, in his words, “slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe.” As The Guardian noted, his snub was received with applause.

Of course, the negative perception of English has been fuelled by Brexit, but also, I would guess, by the election of Trump in the US. As I commented a few months ago, on the TEFL Equity blog, in response to a post that argued that these events will hasten the demise of ‘native speakerism’:

The ideology that underpins the Brexit and Trump ‘debacles’ threatens – not the hegemony of native-speaker teachers or native speaker models of English – but the very survival of English as a global language itself. When two of the countries that are (still) most closely identified with English succumb to antiglobalizing, protectionist and xenophobic political discourses, the ‘symbolic capital’ of the language is devalued. With fewer students studying in the US or UK, and fewer companies trading there – even with fewer tourists – the incentive to learn English will weaken. Maybe not by much, but maybe by enough for another global language – e.g. Spanish or Russian (don’t laugh!) – to edge it off first base – or maybe the increasing sophistication of translation software will render the notion of a lingua franca redundant in any case. Either way, we can’t simply shrug off the effect that Brexit/Trump will have on global perceptions of English. Maybe we should rebrand it ‘Canadian’, and teach that!

As we know, even lingua francas (linguae francae?) are not immune to language change and even language death. Latin, after all, was kept alive (in ‘a state of suspended animation’, as one writer puts it [Coleman 1990, p. 181]) mainly because of its liturgical function, long after it had ceased to be the lingua franca of what had once been the Roman Empire.

english-next.jpgMore than decade ago, David Graddoll (2006, p. 62) made the point that ‘English is no longer the “only show in town”. Other languages now challenge the dominance of English in some regions. Mandarin and Spanish, especially, have become sufficiently important to be influencing national policy priorities in some countries.’

More recently, writing about language and globalization, Ammon (2013, p. 120) notes that ‘it appears likely that other languages besides English will gain, or maintain, international or global function. The gist of their use will probably be bilateral, but the possibility of multilateral usage, including as a lingua franca in special situations, remains, irrespective of the role of English as the predominant world lingua franca.’

And even within the English-speaking world, English is subject to hybridizing influences that threaten its uniformity and which suggest it could go the way of Latin, metamorphosing into a proliferation of mutually unintelligble varieties. Romaine (2009, p. 604) writes of demographic shifts ‘within the US and Europe which may have a dramatic effect on the future position of English. Immigration and migration have brought about increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in both these regions.’ And she adds, ‘unprecedented mobility the world over is creating new hybridised identities. This is no less evident in the English language itself, with its multiple varieties’ (p. 605).

Meanwhile, back in the UK, The Independent reports that a video has been released that ‘shows a British man hitting 27-year-old Tomás Gil, from Valencia, in the face with a wooden plank after shouting at him to “speak English”’.

Great language. Great future.English only t-shirt

 

References

Ammon, U. (2013) ‘World languages: trends and futures,’ In Coupland, N. (ed.) The Handbook Of Language and Globalisation, London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Coleman, R.G.G. (1990) ‘Latin and the Italic languages’ in Comrie, B. (ed.) The World’s Major Languages, Oxford University Press.

Graddol, D. (2006) English Next: Why global English may mean the end of ‘English as a foreign language’. British Council.

Romaine, S. (2009) ‘Global English: from island tongue to world language’. In van Kemenade A. & Los, B. (eds) The Handbook of the History of English. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

 


Actions

Information

25 responses

21 05 2017
RobinD

Seems to me much more likely that before English starts gets round to dying in any real sense we will be facing nuclear armageddon or ecological disaster.
Just sayin!

23 05 2017
zverenysh

Completely agree with you )))

21 05 2017
James Quartley

Interesting post, Scott. A view that I have discussed with friends and students, here in Germany. Notwithstanding the way that English has imposed itself on the world (see Phillipson’s books on Linguistic Imperialism – with some arguments I do not entirely agree), it has certainly profited from its position of the contact language of choice. This makes the current political direction in the US/UK all the more puzzling, for the reasons you have stated. As many [German] friends have said, ‘Britain never really fully turned up to play, always keeping a distance’. I certainly appreciated this from the EU time, but it also holds true for much of the colonial period. As Davies (1996/1997? – not sure which) points out it was individuals in colonies, like India, that chose to learn English for their own ‘gain’, not through the charity or benevolence of the British. Interesting times.

22 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, James. Yes, Alistair Pennycook, in English and the discourses of colonialism (1998) points out that the colonizing powers in places like India, Malaya and Hong Kong deliberately withheld an English education from all but the most privileged of their subjects in order ‘to maintain local populations in a state of “happy innocence”‘ (p. 99). Arguably, and despite the global spread of English, these class divisions – between those who are privately educated in elite institutions and those who, even after 8 or more years of English at a state school, cannot speak or write English sufficiently well to use it for professional purposes – are still perpetuated, which suggests that although the spread of English has been wide, it has not been very deep.

21 05 2017
Tyson Seburn

As I read through this and think of all the factors involved in the ‘slow’ demise of any dominant language, I’m reminded that when the decisions are made that start these factors in play at different time periods, the only people who really consider the long term implications on language dominance are the historians who look back on this time period.

PS – I think I speak for all Canadians when I suggest that we don’t want ownership over English. 😉

22 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Agreed Tyson – like climate change, language change has already happened and any attempt to arrest it comes too late. (Another reason to move to Canada?)

22 05 2017
Tyson Seburn

Unlike owning English, I also think I speak for all Canadians when I suggest that we’d welcome your move here. 🙂

26 05 2017
phoebe30

Who does have ownership over English? Scott you seem to imply it is the thug with the plank…I am not sure that it truly belongs to anyone

26 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Hi Phoebe… certainly, the view that English has escaped, or otherwise ‘slipped out of the hands’ of its original owners is part of the ELF (English as a lingua franca) discourse: English is no longer ‘owned’ by its native speakers.

There are some, though, like Robert Phillipson, who would claim that it is not a lingua franca in the technical sense, where a lingua franca is defined as a language shared by many as a second language but has no native speakers of its own – as was the case with Latin for a long time, and is the case with pidgins. As he says, ‘I would claim that lingua franca is a pernicious, invidious term if the language in question is a first language to some people but for others a foreign language, such communication typically being asymmetrical’. Phillipson, R. 2009. Linguistic Imperialism Continued London: Routledge, p.167.

The fact that English is still strongly associated with the dominant political-military economies where it is spoken as a native language may explain why not only do Eurovision contestants sing in English, but they sing in English with an American accent (even the UK entries!).

22 05 2017
Evan Frendo

I think that there is plenty of evidence in international business contexts that English is not always the lingua franca (if it ever was). The reality is much more hybrid than that – people just mix and match using whatever linguistic tools they have at their disposal to get the job done. Sometimes English dominates, and sometimes it is local languages. I have even observed European meetings where everyone just spoke in French, German or English, whatever felt most comfortable. The others in the room could understand enough to get the gist of what was happening.

22 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Evan – what you say supports the view that we should be teaching – not ‘a language’ – but ‘languaging’, – that is to say, getting things done using whatever semiotic means, rather than a system that is frozen in a grammar book and dictionary.

23 05 2017
Evan Frendo

Ah the eternal question – are we teaching English, or are we teaching people to communicate? 🙂

23 05 2017
Justin Willoughby

1,500 million people worldwide speak English and 375 million are native speakers. No other language comes anywhere near that number of non-native speakers. So then, if you want to reach a wider audience you should use English. Mind you, the English version of Enrique Inglesia’s “Bailando” got just over 200 million hits and the Spanish version got over 2 billion. Having said that, I would like to know how many non-native speakers will be watching the Game of Thrones season finale live in English as it airs on HBO.

24 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

As I said, earlier, the 1500m figure doesn’t distinguish between those who speak English at A1 level and those who are at C2. David Graddol has suggested that the vast majority are somewhere round B1. Maybe good enough to follow an episode of Game of Thrones, but not good enough to do business in. I.e. English use is broad but not deep.

24 05 2017
Justin Willoughby

In my own particular case, I work at an American TECH company whose offices are in Spain. My students do business in China, Germany, the UK, France, Brazil, and many other places. They send emails, make calls and have meetings in English with CEOs and executives from huge multinational companies to broker multi million euro deals. To do this they have to develop good rapport and earn trust to build long lasting relationships (all in English).

Other guys from the same company must travel to international summits to give talks and workshops to raise awareness of their product, which also requires mingling and networking with foreign counterparts (all in English). I had a couple of the guys try to do the above with a Portuguese translator and he told me afterwards that it had been a total disaster. There were delays and confusion and misunderstanding. He wished he had done it in English.

The same guys have to watch and read about new technologies every day and all of the texts are in English. Almost all of the guys are huge fans of American TV shows like ‘the Walking Dead’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ and really enjoy watching and listening to TED talks and interviews. I think these guys have a genuine need to master English, but I wouldn’t know exactly how many other cases there are out there. From someone who has quite a lot invested in ELT, I honestly hope there are.

25 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin: your context is certainly not untypical, and the English use that you describe fits well into the ‘bandwidth’ that Graddol (again) ascribes to an international elite, i.e. those who do business in English, and/or use English for academic or other professional purposes. In a sense, this perpetuates the colonial distinction between those who served the imperial bureaucracy – and hence were ‘allowed’ to learn English – and the toiling underclass from whom English was withheld on the grounds that it would give them ideas above their station. Nowadays, of course, you can’t withhold English – in fact, you can turn it into a cash-cow – but, through the insistent, invidious imposition of native speaker standards, e.g. of accuracy, idiomaticity, and fluency, you can make it unattainable. (Do I sound cynical? I hope not!)

28 05 2017
no

English use is broad but not deep. You would need to specify here. If you’re comparing entertainment to business what makes one deeper than the other? I’m sure entertainment is more ubiquitous than business.

23 05 2017
eannegrenoble

But it’s the grammar innit ?
After a lifetime of teaching EFL I recently tried to teach French to absolute beginners (Sudanese migrants) Gosh it was tough. I was dreading getting past je veux, je peux, il faut because using I want, I can, you have to means you only need the infinitive. After that I just had to go straight into explanations of the grammar.
Which reminded me of how my children came home from their first week at school with their first verb to conjugate,

It seems to me that it’s precisely because other languages are frozen into grammar books that English will remain the lingua franca of choice.

24 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

It’s true that many languages are more inflected than English (French being a case in point), a feature of English that is often used to argue for its lingua franca adaptivity. But this doesn’t seem to hinder children acquiring inflected languages from learning them in more or less the same time that it takes children of English-speaking parents to learn English. If the inflections don’t slow the process down in an L1, why should it necessarily slow down the learning of the same language as an L2?
Moreover, English seems to make up for its lack of inflections by having a complex system of auxiliary verbs, not least the (to most language learners) completely inexplicable ‘do’ auxiliary.

24 05 2017
Andrea VItali

Thank you for another thought-provoking post, Scott. I’m not entirely convinced that the role of English as the international language of communication is at risk since there isn’t any other language which is in the condition to take its place (yet). However, I believe that the role of British English in Europe should be challenged, especially in ELT. I cannot see many reasons for teaching a native model of British English (which British English by the way?) to students in countries like Germany or Italy as learners there are more likely to use English to speak with other non-native speakers and British idiomatic expressions or pronunciation might actually impede intelligibility. Furthermore, aren’t people sick and tired of the old British cultural stereotypes still used in some coursebooks? Why should we put up any further with irrelevant texts about the Royal family and the tradition of the afternoon tea?

With Brexit there will be even fewer reasons to teach British English since the contacts between the UK and the rest of Europe are likely to decrease and immigration from the EU to Britain might be dramatically reduced. I personally believe that we should move from an EFL model to the ELF model proposed by Seidlhofer and Jenkins as it would better meet the needs of learners across Europe. In fact, we shouldn’t aim to create imperfect imitations of British native speakers, but our students should become expert bilingual speakers and be ready to accommodate diversity to be successful during cross-cultural encounters.

25 05 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Andrea . and your comment anticipated my response to Justin (above) on the pernicious effects of ‘native-speakerism’. If there is any good to come of Brexit, maybe it will be to topple this hoary old edifice (enshrined in coursebooks that still put pictures of Big Ben on their cover!).

27 05 2017
Jagatha V L Narasimharao

It is really an interesting post.Though it may be impossible to replace English with some other language in the near future, English, I think, will lose its dominance like England lost its power over the years. We are living in an era of democratization in the world. No language can claim superiority to others and English is no exception to this rule.

4 06 2017
Olga

Thank you for your post, Scott. Though you might be right about some political changes that affect our perception of English, still the dominance of English as a global language is reinforced not by the political situation in the world but by the technological, scientific and cultural lead of the USA in the first place and possibly of the UK. Suppose you want to do scientific research, you will, undoubtedly, turn your attention to papers written in English or to conferences held in English. I get the impression that US and British universities still set high educational standards. As far as culture is concerned, to me, personally, US TV series such as ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The House of Cards’ are a cut above the shows produced in my home country. To sum up, I think it is more about culture\science\technology than politics and as long as the lead in these areas is held by the countries associated with English, English will maintain its status as the world’s global language.

4 06 2017
Steve

Interesting post. I agree, I don’t think English will lose its’ dominance any time soon. However, I do believe other languages will become more important as trilingualism becomes the norm!

On another note, take a look at my blog! Any pointers would be appreciated!
http://www.englishabroadteaching.co.uk

6 06 2017
Olga

Ok, Steve, I will)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s