The Globalization of English
Newsweek has an excellent feature article in the 7 March issue (this week) of its international edition on how the English language is evolving and changing the way we communicate.
The article says “non-native English-speakers” worldwide now outnumber native ones 3 to 1. In Asia alone, Newsweek says, the number of English users has topped 350 million – roughly the combined populations of the United States, the UK and Canada. There are more Chinese children studying English – about 100 million – than there are Britons (that’s nearly twice as many).
What’s especially interesting about Newsweek’s article is that it analyses the different ways in which English as a means of communication is evolving, developing into literally separate languages, yet which are still understandable by those who speak any version of English.
The new English-speakers aren’t just passively absorbing the language-they’re shaping it. New Englishes are mushrooming the globe over, ranging from “Englog,” the Tagalog-infused English spoken in the Philippines, to “Japlish,” the cryptic English poetry beloved of Japanese copywriters (“Your health and loveliness is our best wish,” reads a candy wrapper. “Give us a chance to realize it”), to “Hinglish,” the mix of Hindi and English that now crops up everywhere from fast-food ads to South Asian college campuses. “Hungry kya?” (“Are you hungry?”), queried a recent Indian ad for Domino’s pizza.[…] All languages are works in progress. But English’s globalization, unprecedented in the history of languages, will revolutionize it in ways we can only begin to imagine. In the future, suggests [English-language expert David Crystal], there could be a tri-English world, one in which you could speak a local English-based dialect at home, a national variety at work or school, and international Standard English to talk to foreigners.
With native speakers a shrinking minority of the world’s Anglophones, there’s a growing sense that students should stop trying to emulate Brighton or Boston English, and embrace their own local versions. Researchers are starting to study non-native speakers’ “mistakes” – “She look very sad,” for example – as structured grammars. In a generation’s time, teachers might no longer be correcting students for saying “a book who” or “a person which.”
Linguist Jennifer Jenkins, an expert in world Englishes at King’s College London, asks why some Asians, who have trouble pronouncing the “th” sound, should spend hours trying to say “thing” instead of “sing” or “ting.” International pilots, she points out, already pronounce the word “three” as “tree” in radio dispatches, since “tree” is more widely comprehensible.[…] English has become the common linguistic denominator. Whether you’re a Korean executive on business in Shanghai, a German Eurocrat hammering out laws in Brussels or a Brazilian biochemist at a conference in Sweden, you’re probably speaking English. And as the world adopts an international brand of English, it’s native speakers who have the most to lose. Cambridge dons who insist on speaking the Queen’s English could be met with giggles – or blank stares. British or American business execs who jabber on in their own idiomatic patois, without understanding how English is used by non-natives, might lose out on deals. […] Technology also plays a huge role in English’s global triumph. Eighty percent of the electronically stored information in the world is in English; 66 percent of the world’s scientists read in it, according to the British Council. “It’s very important to learn English because [computer] books are only in English,” says Umberto Duirte, an Uruguayan IT student learning English in London. New technologies are helping people pick up the language, too: Chinese and Japanese students can get English-usage tips on their mobile phones. English-language teachers point to the rise of Microsoft English, where computer users are drafting letters advised by the Windows spell check and pop-up style guides.
(Clarity point: I added all the links in the italicised text above; none are in the original Newsweek text.)
This lengthy article is well worth reading for a keen insight into how much the English language is still evolving and how much you have to lose by not recognizing this reality.
It’s also a great reminder to communicators – especially those who work in organizations doing business internationally – that when communicating in English, it’s becoming more likely, if not probable, that a significant and increasing proportion of your audience will speak a different English than you do. People who no longer can patronizingly be described as “non-native English speakers” – they are creating their own versions of English.
Neville Hobson is the author of the popular NevilleHobson.com blog which focuses on business communication and technology.