No language has spread as widely as English, and it continues to spread. Internationally the desire to learn it is insatiable.

In the twenty-first century the world is becoming more urban and more middle class, and the adoption of English is a symptom of this, for increasingly English serves as the lingua franca of business and popular culture. It is dominant or at least very prominent in other areas such as shipping, diplomacy, computing, medicine and education. A recent study has suggested that among students in the United Arab Emirates “Arabic is associated with tradition, home, religion, culture, school, arts and social sciences,” whereas English “is symbolic of modernity, work, higher education, commerce, economics and science and technology.” In Arabic-speaking countries, science subjects are often taught in English because excellent textbooks and other educational resources are readily available in English. This is not something that has come about in an unpurposed fashion; the propagation of English is an industry, not a happy accident.​

English has spread because of British colonialism, the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, American economic and political ascendancy, and further (mostly American) technological developments in the second half of the twentieth century. Its rise has been assisted by the massive exportation of English as a second language, as well as by the growth of an English-language mass media. The preaching of Christianity, supported by the distribution of English-language Bibles, has at many times and in many places sustained the illusion, created by Wyclif and Tyndale and Cranmer, that English is the language of God.​

The history of English’s global diffusion is littered with important dates: the planting of the Jamestown colony in 1607; Robert Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which ushered in the dominion of the British East India Company; the creation of the first penal colony in Australia in 1788; the British settlement at Singapore in 1819 and establishment of a Crown Colony in Hong Kong in 1842; the formal beginning of British administration in Nigeria in 1861; the foundation of the BBC in 1922 and the United Nations in 1945; the launch by AT&T of the first commercial communications satellite in 1962. This list is condensed. It takes no account, for instance, of the various waves of Anglomania that swept much of Europe in the eighteenth century. But it will be apparent that the diffusion of English has had a lot to do with material reward, the media, and its use as a language of instruction. A fuller list might intensify the impression of a whiff of bloodshed.​

Wherever English has been used, it has lasted. Cultural might outlives military rule. In the colonial period, the languages of settlers dominated the languages of the peoples whose land they seized. They marginalized them and, in some cases, eventually drove them to extinction. All the while they absorbed from them whatever local terms seemed useful. The colonists’ languages practiced a sort of cannibalism, and its legacy is still sharply felt. English is treated with suspicion in many places where it was once the language of the imperial overlords. It is far from being a force for unity, and its endurance is stressful. In India, while English is much used in the media, administration, education and business, there are calls to curb its influence. Yet even where English has been denigrated as an instrument of colonialism, it has held on – and in most cases grown, increasing its numbers of speakers and functions.

Today it is English, rather than any created alternative, that is the world’s auxiliary tongue. There are more people who use English as a second language than there are native speakers. Estimates of the numbers vary, but even the most guarded view is that English has 500 million second-language speakers. Far more of the world’s citizens are eagerly jumping on board than trying to resist its progress. In some cases, the devotion appears religious and can involve what to outsiders looks a lot like self-mortification. ​

According to Mark Abley, some rich Koreans pay for their children to have an operation that lengthens the tongue because it helps them speak English convincingly. The suggestion is that it enables them to produce r and l sounds, although the evidence of the many proficient English-speakers among Korean immigrants in America and Britain makes one wonder whether the procedure is either necessary or useful. Still, it is a powerful example of the lengths people will go to in order to learn English, seduced by the belief that linguistic capital equals economic capital.​

In places where English is used as a second language, its users often perceive it as free from the limitations of their native languages. They associate it with power and social status, and see it as a supple and sensuous medium for self-expression. It symbolizes choice and liberty. But while many of those who do not have a grasp of the language aspire to learn it, there are many others who perceive it as an instrument of oppression, associated not only with imperialism but also with the predations of capitalism and Christianity. (It is mainly thanks to Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet about imperialism and capitalism that the two words have come to be pretty much synonymous.) The Australian scholar Alastair Pennycook neatly sums up English’s paradoxical status as ‘a language of threat, desire, destruction and opportunity’. Its spread can be seen as a homogenizing (some would say, Americanizing) force, eroding the integrity of other cultures. Yet it is striking that the language is appropriated locally in quite distinct ways. Sometimes it is used against the very powers and ideologies it is alleged to represent. Listening to Somali or Indonesian rappers, for instance, it seems sloppy to say that the use of English in their lyrics is a craven homage to the commercial and cultural might of America.​

The main challenges to English may come from within. There is a long history of people using the language for anti-English ends – of creative artists and political figures asserting in English their distance from Englishness or Britishness or American-ness. For instance, many writers whose first language has not been English have infused their English writing with foreign favors; this has enabled them to parade their heritage while working in a medium that has made it possible for them to reach a wide audience.​

Two challenges stand out. I have mentioned India already; English is important to its global ambitions. The language’s roots there are colonial, but English connects Indians less to the past than to the future. Already the language is used by more people in India than in any other country, the United States included. Meanwhile in China the number of students learning the language is increasing rapidly. The entrepreneur Li Yang has developed Crazy English, an unorthodox teaching method. It involves a lot of shouting. This, Li explains, is the way for Chinese to activate their “international muscles.” His agenda is patriotic. Kingsley Bolton, head of the English department at the City University of Hong Kong, calls this “huckster nationalism.”​

It certainly has a flamboyant quality; one of Li’s slogans is “Conquer English to Make China Strong.” A few dissenting voices suggest that he is encouraging racism, but the enthusiasm for his populist approach is in no doubt, and it is a symptom of China’s English Fever: the ardent conviction that learning English is the essential skill for surviving in the modern world.​

The consequences are complex. Some, it would seem, are not as intended. Even as vast amounts are spent on spreading British English, the reality is that English is taking on more and more local colour in the different places where it is used. Accordingly, while the number of languages in the world is diminishing, the number of Englishes is increasing.

Henry Hitchings was born in 1974, in Nottingham, UK. He studied English Literature at Oxford, then went to University College London where he gained a PhD. He is the author of “The Secret Life of Words,” “Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen?” and “Defining the World.” He has contributed to many newspapers and magazines and is the theatre critic for the London Evening Standard. ​

The above article is an edited version of an excerpt that he wrote from his book “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English” published in 2012.

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