Friday, June 15, 2007

who speaks Global English?

I just read "A global reach for mind and mouth", an article in the 8 June Times Higher Education Supplement by Nick Saville of the Cambridge University English for Speakers of Other Languages program(me). They're the people who make up (some of) the exams that non-native speakers of English take in order to have their ability in English certified. The article concerns a study that Cambridge ESOL commissioned on the future of the English language, and says:
Demos [the thinktank that did the study] paints a picture of a world in which English is presently dominant as the leading language of international commerce and government. This position has largely been consolidated by English being the predominant language of computing and the internet. However, of the estimated 1.3 billion speakers of English in the world, there are only 330 million native speakers -- and this puts Britons in a minority within a minority.

The report says, moreover, that the UK had rested on its laurels and that its approach towards English is more suited to days of empire than to a world of global commerce and travel. The British have failed to address the need to learn other languages adequately (we have the lowest levels of bilingualism in the European Union) and are equally disdainful of those who speak other forms of English than our own, especially new varieties such as Spanglish (a Spanish-English dialect), Hinglish (a mix of Hindi and English) or Singlish (a Singaporean, Malay, Indian and English melange).
It goes on to discuss how Cambridge ESOL copes with this. I started reading this article expecting something completely different than what I got, however. The article takes up about 3/4 of a tabloid page and never once mentions American English (or the United States or North America) by name. It doesn't mention any other nations whose main language is English either, but in discussing the role of English in the global marketplace, it just seems weird not to namecheck AmE--particularly in pointing out the spread of English through computing and the internet and British disdain for other varieties of English.

American English: the elephant in the global English living room.

18 comments:

Lowell said...

The 'disdainful of other varieties of English' seems to me to be a very BrE peculiarity, but isn't the rate of bilingualism a symptom of most major variants of English? Native AmE, CaE, SaE, AuE, etc. I thought had about the same low rate of bilingualism as BrE. Also, does the article entertain the idea that the lack of bilingualism is caused by the globalization of English? It seems it could very easily be that native English speakers don't learn other languages simply because there is not the imperative to learn language X for English speakers as there is to learn English for non-English speakers - language X is not the 'leading language of international commerce and government', English is.

I'm not saying it's not a problem that more native English speakers aren't bilingual, but that possibly the causes of it are being ignored by the article?

PS - Thanks for being my reference for the OUP thing! Am in to the next and have to take an aptitude test to decide if I get the job. Thanks! :)

lynneguist said...

I suspect that the bilingualism rates may well be worse in other English-speaking countries, just because BrE speakers at least get to the continent a fair amount. But that was another missed opportunity for the article to mention other native Englishes!

The article does get to the point that our lack of bilingualism is related to the global status of English, also noting that people who take English as their 2nd language are less likely to go on for a 3rd language.

Good luck with OUP!

James said...

Another weird thing is the statement that there are only 330 million native English speakers in the world. US+UK is already a population of 360 million, of which all but a few percent are native speakers, and there are still many more countries to count.

Lowell said...

James - as I remember it's only about 70% (~215 million) of Americans whose first language is English, and those make-up about 65-70% of the global native English speaker population, giving a figure of about 310-330 million. I've heard figures as high as 380 million, but never higher than 400 million. I think the figures in the article are close the accepted figure.

It's the '1.3 billion speakers of English' that interests me, as I'd like to know what benchmark they're using for a 'speaker of English'. As I recall you can get anything from 300 million to over a billion non-native English speakers depending on how much mastery is required to be called a speaker. I expect that on the higher end of that spectrum I'd be considered a Spanish and possibly Italian speaker simply because I am very basically conversant, but I don't see how that's statistically significant except to be able to point to a bigger number and thereby have bigger impact.

dearieme said...

The international language of science is Broken English.

angelina said...

I would imagine the ESOL tests only deal with BrE, right? In the States the main test for English as a second language is the TOEFL, I believe (administered by ETS, who also does the SAT and GRE). So I suppose that the Cambridge organization would only ever be thinking about the people interested in BrE in specific as their second language rather than English in general? That doesn't mean it's not an oversight, of course, but I would guess that they are always sort of working from that constrained world view.

Fnarf said...

Spanglish and Singlish are pidgins, not full-fledged languages. There's a borrowing of words from each, and an ultra-simplified grammar but no real synthesis.

Native English speakers in America have got to be considerably more monolingual than Britons -- they have all those Gaelic speakers, virtually all of whom are bilingual, plus a very large proportion of French and Italian and German speakers -- they are neighbors, and in the economic sense of that word more so than we are to Mexico. We have a lot of Spanish speakers but the vast majority of them are not native English speakers -- our native English speakers are far, far more likely to speak ONLY English.

It is a question of domination. We don't have to, so we don't. They DO have to, so they do. The majority of continental Europeans have English, in many cases (throughout Scandinavia, for instance) better than your average American.

Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa combined have quite a few people, most of whom are native English speakers. English is one of the official languages in both India and Nigeria, which have huge populations.

varske said...

The Cambridge people should also be considering the dialect "EU English" spoken by people who work in or with the EU. It contains many words that have been invented and are not used in any other context (eg subsidiarity, reciprocity. There are also words which are not English but which are imports from other languages and seem like English. Restructurisation (should be restructuring) and corporatisation (incorporation) as well as "to expose" meaning to explain. If you work in the EU for a long time, your English becomes simpler and less flowery, but more jargon ridden at the same time.

angelina said...

I've always used reciprocity normally in my AmE; is that really something specific to the EU?

Now that I'm thinking about it, I realized that I don't know how places outside the UK and US decide which foreign English to teach. Is it based primarily on colonial history, or something else?

Anonymous said...

Reply to fnarf:
Your comment about Singlish is grossly misinformed, I'm afraid. It is not a "pidgin" with an "ultra-simplified grammar", as you've dismissively put it, but perhaps best described as a "creoloid" (e.g. Platt, 1975) or a semi-creole. Indeed, its grammatical system is as complex as the next language over (sometimes bewilderingly so, as those who've attempted to research it might have found). For example, at first glance, it might appear to have optional wh-movement in content questions, but a deeper investigation shows that the apparent optionality in fact hides an intricate set of rules which determine when a wh-word may remain in situ and when it must front - rules which interlock with other components of the syntax, e.g. the rules governing non-overt subjects.

It would seem prudent to get the facts right before one makes potentially derogatory remarks!


Reference
Platt, J. T. (1975). The Singapore English speech continuum and its basilect "Singlish" as a "creoloid". Anthropological Linguistics, 17, 363-374.

Fnarf said...

I'm sorry if you thought I was insulting anyone, anonymous. "Pidgin" is not a term of opprobrium. But apparently I am out of date; Singlish is a creole, not (primarily) a pidgin, the difference being that no one learns a pidgin as a native language. There are apparently quite a few Singaporeans who speak Singlish as a first language.

It did start as a pidgin, though.

I also note that the "acrolect", or high-class, most formal, form, of Singlish is in fact just English, a Singaporean-flavor of British English. It's not really any less British than, say, Australian English.

The government is trying to stamp out the more colloquial forms of Singlish, but appear to be losing ground, at least according to Wikipedia.

dearieme said...

I asked a Malaysian Chinese friend about his languages once. He said "I speak four languages. All badly".

Lien said...

The comment by dearieme reminds me of a linguistic question that I've been wondering about:

Is it possible for someone to be fluent (I mean native speaker fluency, here) in more than one language? I'd always assumed it was possible (I did grow up in California, after all), but I had read some authors saying otherwise. Embarrassingly, I cannot recall where now. The argument was that one language emerges dominant and the other(s) will never be spoken with true native fluency.

Is that true?

johnb said...

A nephew and two nieces were bought up in France, and spent their whole lives in France. I am told they speak fluent French with a French accent (although my French isn’t good enough to confirm that). Their parents spoke English at home, and all three speak English with a fairly indistinguishable south east accent. Apart from a slightly limited vocabulary, they speak fluent English and are taken as native. Too be fair to them. Their vocabulary is good as many native English people that I know, although not as extensive as their French university educated vocabulary.

johnb said...

Ohhh. That looks like my nephew and neices are dead. They aren't. They are aged 18-23.

lynneguist said...

Angelina--yes, but...the point of the article was that Cambridge is moving with the times and embracing other languages, so it's still pretty weird.

Varske, I'm with Angelina on this one. Reciprocity is a perfectly normal word! (If one's 'normal' includes long, latinate words!) The OED has it in British English as far back as 1766--long before the EU was even imaginable!

Lien, definitely possible to be fluent and even native-like in many languages.

Chris said...

"Native English speakers in America have got to be considerably more monolingual than Britons -- they have all those Gaelic speakers, virtually all of whom are bilingual"

There aren't that many of them. There are about 700,000 Welsh speakers and less than a hundred thousand Gaelic speakers in Scotland. I'm not sure how many there are in Nor'n Ireland but given that the rate in Ireland proper is only a few percent I doubt it's many.

Shefaly said...

I think the important thing to remember is that if 1.3B people start to pronounce an English word a certain way, then that is how it may begin to be pronounced. Goodbye 'ac-a-demic', welcome 'a-cad-emic' (this one from the unofficial Indian English school of pronunciation, and there is more where this came from!)