Many historians and linguists see 17th century British colonialism as the global point of the departure of English language. The Industrial Revolution and the rise of America as economic and political superpower in the subsequent two centuries consolidated the expansion of English language.
Today, English is spoken in at least 118 out of the total 195 countries in varying degrees. In other words, basic fluency in English language gives you the power to communicate with people on six continents. Add to that the fact that the international language of trade, aviation and oil industry among other sectors is English. Science and technology are also overloaded with English — more than half the content on the Internet is in the English language.
Yet there is an alternative discourse emerging that challenges the hegemony of the English language. The dominant new language on the world map is Mandarin Chinese. About 1.2 billion people in the world speak some form of Chinese as their first language. With the Chinese economy booming in the 21st century, as evident in how the Chinese products are flooding industries all over the world, some analysts would have you believe that Mandarin Chinese is the language of the future.
But China is not the only country that saw social and economic prosperity without some form of dependency on the English language. France, Germany, and Japan are also prime examples of countries where not only do the local languages remain dominant, but English speakers usually have a tough time until they learn French, German and Japanese in order to survive in each one one of these countries.
According Dr Rizwan Ahmad, Associate Professor at Qatar University’s Department of English Literature and Linguistics (DELL), the significance of English language in the international communication is important, but it has been blown out of proportion by people and institutions that benefit from the dominance of the English language.
“Success of China, Japan and Turkey is a great example in that economic success is not dependent on or facilitated by English. Of course, international political and trade agreements are negotiated through translators if the leaders themselves are not able to communicate.”
The socio-linguistic expert argues that the relevance of the English language in a given country varies and it largely depends on the social and market situation.
“It is a myth that the ability to communicate in English is gateway to success everywhere. The skills and content are often times more significant from a market perspective than the language to communicate them.” He quotes the example of leading economic powers such as France, Germany and China, where local languages have given English a hard time in terms of market share and penetration.
“Similarly, the fact that English is the official language in Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya does not necessarily mean that they are economically powerful countries,” says Dr Rizwan, who is currently teaching a course at Qatar University in which the issue of native and non-native varieties of English is discussed extensively.
Speaking about the expansion of the English language, Peter Prystupa, Principal of Edison International Academy, says there were a number of reasons that led to the spread of English language globally.
“In the past, it was the French language that was used in the high society circles but English was spoken by the common masses. I think one of the reasons of the rise of the English language was the ease of grasping it due to its simple syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation, but most of all, it was through the quality of English teaching science that has developed greatly over the centuries.”
Peter suggests that development of the British Academia during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century played a huge role and its effects can be seen on many sectors, including educational institutions, trade and technology.
As an educationist, Peter believes that the use of English language in communication in diplomacy, industry and scientific world seems to be rooted so deeply into the global societies that it seems irreplaceable.
On the other hand, Dr Irene Theodoropoulou, Associate Professor of Sociolinguistics at Qatar University, argues that although it important to qualify as an effective communicator in spoken, written and also computer-mediated communicative English, the idea of effective communication goes beyond the grammar and syntax of a language. The socio-cultural conventions of a language are of equal importance.
“The knowledge of other linguistic, paralinguistic, exolinguistic resources is equally important to professional, social and personal success in life.”
She explains that the linguistic context refers to culturally specific words from languages that are not necessarily spoken fluently; paralinguistic is a variation of pitch, tempo and loudness of voice, including the knowledge to use pauses effectively and strategically; and exolinguistic resources teach how to use body language and facial expressions as per cultural and social norms.
“Just to give an example from my own linguistic trajectory, I have found it really useful to use Allah-based Arabic expressions with my Muslim friends, students and colleagues, even though I am not Muslim, as a way to establish rapport with them and to express my respect for their religion.”
Similarly, when interacting with people from East Asian countries, the knowledge of bowing is important.
“If you use as your basis of communication English, because this is after all the lingua franca (i.e. a shared code of communication for the vast majority of people), but enriched with linguistic, paralinguistic and exolinguistic elements from other languages and cultures, which are tailored to your interlocutors, I think that you stand a good chance of engaging in successful communication against the backdrop of globalisation.”
According to Dr Irene, although recent sociolinguistic studies predict that Mandarin Chinese will be the emerging lingua franca, English remains the dominant language all over the world — not only because of the role of the US in all domains of global life, but also because technology, education, science and media are coded primarily in English, and that is something which cannot change very easily.
Meanwhile, Dr Michael Grosvald, Assistant Professor of Linguistics, at Qatar University’s Department of English Literature and Linguistics (DELL), says the significance of English language in anyone’s life varies depending on their circumstances and environment.
“It depends completely on one’s own life circumstances. Just as an example, if one is a reporter for the New York Times, good use of English would probably be very important. But many, many other people all over the world can do just fine in life without any knowledge of English at all.”
Dr Rizwan shares a similar idea when he says that in a country like Qatar, effective communication in Arabic is just as important as English.
Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world with an estimated 300 million Arabic speakers across the world. Some linguists suggest that it is one of the most difficult languages to learn.
Earlier this year, Qatar issued a new law on the protection of the Arabic language. The Law No. 7/2019 consists of as many as 15 articles and stipulates that universities and higher education institutions teach, conduct studies and scientific researches in Arabic language. There are other measures such as negotiation procedures, memos and correspondences of government institutions, and agreements that the State signs with governments, regional and international bodies and organisations that need to be in Arabic. Institutions that found to be violating the law can be fined up to QR50,000.
Dr Rizwan says that with the advancement in the field of communication technology in the last few decades and the emergence of social media, a new challenge has emerged for communicators world over.
“We are facing what is referred to as “information overload”; we are constantly bombarded with information from multiple platforms and sources. So there is a real challenge in today’s world for all communicators to figure out how to deliver their message in an efficient and effective way. The communicator knows who their audience or client is and based on that information they would choose the language of communication. In a country like Qatar, where Arabic is the official language, effective communication in Arabic is equally important, if not more.”
He says that regardless of the challenges, it is crucial that countries chalk out ways to develop local languages. “A consequence of the push for English, especially by the elite, has been that in many countries local languages have not been able to develop and flourish.”
Then, there is the issue of bilingualism.
“I think most people would agree that all else equal, it’s better to have two skills than one. With respect to brain development specifically, I believe the consensus among experts whose research focuses on bilingualism and cognition is that in general, it is more advantageous to be bilingual than monolingual,” says Dr Michael Grosvald.
But then who is better-off — a native English speaker or a bilingual? That’s another myth surrounding the English language according to Dr Rizwan.
“There is an assumption that a native variety of English is somehow ‘better’ or more ‘superior’ to other varieties of English such as Indian English or Arabic English. This is nothing but a myth about English. There is no one variety of English that is better than others.”
The expert says that English developed differently in different parts of the world to serve the interests of the people. For instance, Indian English developed many expressions that are different from British English or American English but that does not mean they are incorrect.
“In Indian English people ask, “what is your good name?” From a native English perspective this is incorrect but from an Indian English perspective this is correct.”
But the niceties of any language take many years of experience to master and, as Dr Irene suggests, they are not monolithic, in the sense that nowadays new varieties of English or World Englishes such as Hinglish and Chinglish, to mention a handful have emerged.
“Both native and non-native speakers should be always alert and try to expand their sociolinguistic knowledge, in order to be effective communicators when interacting with the numerous users of these varieties,” she says.
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