The Rise and Fall of the English Language — Part 2: Money and Politics
In the first piece of this series, we discovered that English had got lucky. Of the spoken in the world today – an ever-changing list as dialects flex, grow and die out – English became dominant.
It’s historical good fortune and the practicalities of trade that gave English its position by the late 20th Century, and it’s no surprise that circumstance and practicality are equally responsible for the new world of language we find ourselves in today.
At the turn of the century, there was still complacency in the English-speaking world that the language would continue to dominate. The British Council (a respected organisation and a tremendous source of ‘soft power’ for the UK) was worried enough to in 2006, which warned:
- “Even as the number of English speakers expands, there are signs that the global predominance of the language may fade within the foreseeable future… [The] analysis should end any complacency among those who may believe that the global position of English is so unassailable that the young generations of the United Kingdom do not need additional language capabilities.”
Online (where we have most readily available data), UNESCO found in the percentage of webpages in English from 75% in 1998 to anything from 20%-40% (depending on the metric used) today.
Follow the money
Most important are the twin engines of population and economic development.
For a language to become prevalent, it’s not enough for a state just to be populous. The Indian subcontinent, for example has always been heavily populated, but the cultural ties of tribalism which take precedence over statehood mean that local dialects and languages retain their meaning and value – which is why English is still the overriding language of business and diplomacy in many Indian contexts.
More important than a united population is economic growth. In 2014, Cambridge University reported on new cultural diversity research which showed that economic development swept away (for better or worse) exactly those tribal dialects and differences:
- “As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold – economically and politically,”
– Dr Tatsuya Amano, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.
As particularly the BRIC countries make economic progress, it’s no surprise, then, that their languages are becoming more prevalent. Today, , less than 1% behind English (20.3%).
Then there’s technology itself.
You might have thought that all that English online would have pushed the English language further into the culture of other countries, but we only have to look to films to see that that was not going to happen.
Hollywood may be the source of thousands of English-language films which are widely distributed across the world, but the effect has been twofold. Certainly it has helped more people learn English. But at the same time, it has encouraged local creatives to develop their own film industries, reinforcing local values and storytelling heritage. Hence, we see the musicals of Bollywood, the brash and urbane output of Lagos’ Nollywood or, less obviously, centres of excellence like Hungary’s exceptional skills in animation.
In the same way, the internet has made English familiar to more people around the world, but it has powered local interactions: why speak English when you can speak your own tongue?
Another key technology development is the way mobile infrastructure has allowed developing countries across Africa and Asia to leapfrog the first evolution of the web (wires and desktop) and go straight to a mobile economy. It’s given both regions a ten-year leap forward; for example analysts report:
- “In recent years, populations in Africa, Asia, and Oceania surged online with the aid of cheap data plans and government investments. In Myanmar, for example, the mobile grid went up in 2014 and a total population of 53 million now shows 80% smartphone penetration”.
The Asian explosion shows no sign of abating: showed growth in the online subscriber base in Asia of 15% YoY — compared to a saturated 3% in Europe.
Of course, all those new connections mean new interactions in new languages, particularly as the social web means that we are all now content creators.
The politics of language
Finally, language is quite a political issue. Especially with Brexit. Britain is only a small part of the English-speaking world, but just as Britannia punched above her weight in the seafaring 1600s and 1700s, so Britain is creating disproportionately violent waves of anti-English feeling across Europe with Brexit — which is why EC President Claude Juncker is only too happy to advocate that as the ‘language of the European Union’.
And because ordinary people understand the importance of the language they speak to their culture, it has become politicised in a way which means English can become a global casualty.
Belgium, for example, has been pretty much at linguistic civil war (including operating several times without a valid government at all) because the country is split between speakers, Flemish and Walloons. Both include many English speakers, but cultural regionalism encourages the use of local dialects.
In fact, you don’t even need conflict for English to suffer. In 2008, the Academie Francaise, guardians of the French language, presented a list of over to the French language which they wanted to ban (including ‘supermodel’ and the thoroughly unlovely ‘low-cost airline’). It didn’t happen – and was as much a PR stunt engineered by the Academie every few years (similarly, last year, the Minister for Culture pushed for a new , because QWERTY keyboards were affecting the correct use of French grammar), but the fact remains, we should expect national loyalties to easily beat English in the coming years; and for the internet to be a source of new national pride rather than a sudden adoption of English.
So the British Council’s analysis was spot on. Globalisation, economic rebalancing, new technologies, the fact that creative tools are now in everyone’s hands, and (dare we say it) bloody , have all served to reduce the prevalence of the English language; online and in business.
Silicon Valley may still be the economic powerhouse of the planet, but paradoxically, because we live in a more connected world than ever, the Valley is helping languages and the regional identities they represent to flourish.
In the next blog post, we’ll find out what that means for business.