English around the world

The spread of a universal language, English, is the greatest cultural event of the last 25 years, argues Matthew Parris in The Times of London. He’s just back from visiting a school in Ethiopia where rural children are learning English.

Speech is fundamental not just to communication but to the process of thought itself. No single language has ever before approached universality. English is now doing so. No other language has ever advanced as far, as fast, as ours. This is the first time in history that it has been possible to denote one language as predominant.

. . . Within a few generations and for the first time in the story of Homo sapiens, most of our species may be able to communicate in a single language.

As a fan of Stargate SG-1, I know that even inhabitants of other planets speak English.

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Comments

  1. It’s one of the greatest sources of the Anglosphere’s soft power. And that English is the language of computing helps it along, as well.

  2. It’s cultural imperialism.

  3. Don’t wrooy about Clutural Imperialism. We’re doing all we can to reverse it here in our own country.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Sell my Esperanto books?

  5. Robert Wright wrote:

    It’s cultural imperialism.

    And, of the worst sort.

    The devious plan is to offer them wealth and freedom for their souls…. Oh wait, we don’t give a damn about their souls. OK, wealth and freedom if they build us cheap DVD players and over-priced athletic shoes.

    All they have to give up is their beautiful, colorful cultures which are typified by a) ignorance, b) poverty, c) brutal authoritarianism, d) overt, institutionalized discrimination or e) all or some combination of the above.

  6. Wow … two typos in my one sentence comment – and I thought I had proof-read it! If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that Joanne uses a scrambler to make posters she disagrees with look bad. But, since they only do that at those ultra-conservative right-wing sites, I guess I’ll have to just blame these errors on my tired old eyes. And besides, I tend to agree with her about 90% of the time … or more.

    Seriously, I saw the irony in your comment. I hope you saw it in mine.

    We will give new arrivals freedom – and we’ll give up our souls. They don’t have to give up all those beautiful aspects of their cultures. Instead, we’ll modify ours so that they feel more comfortable here. And if we don’t do it well enough, they can sue us for discrimination, and then they can get the wealth too.

  7. Bob B, this isn’t about new arrivals to the U.S. It’s about U.S. cultural imperialism. And yeah, I caught your ironic comment but I think the high-water mark for the multi-culti crowd is passed.

    See, the problem is that in a lot of places in the world people compare their poverty and repressive governments to, well, the U.S.

    Right away they jump to the conclusion that just because we’re rich and free that that’s somehow better then their culture of repression and poverty. But that’s because they’re unsophisticated and in need of the guiding hand of people who know that all cultures are equal and that being judgemental is the sign of a narrow mind.

    But before I get carried away on a rant about self-indulgent and selfish lefties, I’ll just say that I find the idea comforting that, even in the boonies of Ethiopia, I can probably find someone who can speak English. It might save me from having to learn a third language.

  8. How is it Anglosphere cultural imperialism that Japanese and Dutch businessmen who come in contact with each other in the Spice Islands find it practical to speak to each other in English?

  9. “How is it Anglosphere cultural imperialism that Japanese and Dutch businessmen who come in contact with each other in the Spice Islands find it practical to speak to each other in English?”

    Triticale,

    You swiped my question. Seriously, are we forcing these people to speak English, or are they making a choice they feel is in their own best interest? And if we are forcing them, how are we doing it?

  10. “It’s cultural imperialism.”

    When facts and personal opinion are not enough bolster a point of view, one has to pump it up with a big dose of self-righteousness. Of course, we all know how awful it is to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’m not quite sure where all of this cultural self-loathing and global double standards comes from.

    If I lived in any other country, English would be the second language I would learn – for very practical reasons. I can also understand the argument that English has achieved a sort of critical mass.

  11. To the cultural imperialist argument I can point out that in the early days of the British empire (ie in the days of real imperialism), the locals were often discouraged from learning English on the grounds that this would be aspiring beyond their natural station in life.

    Anyway, Parris is on weak ground: he’s seems to be suggesting that there’s something completely unique happening, but the difference between English, Latin and Swahili as linguae francae is only one of scope, in this case enabled by technology.

  12. Sorry, knee-jerk anti-Americans. Imperialism is when you force somebody to do something. Commonsense is when somebody wants to do something of his or her own volition because it makes his or her life easier or more prosperous.

  13. Fascism is alive and well.

  14. “Fascism is alive and well.”

    Would you mind telling all us stupid people who believe that people acting in their own self-interest is NOT facism how we are wrong? I’d like to know. If you know of cases where people are forced to sit in English class at gunpoint and learn our language, please inform the rest of us.

  15. Robert Wright wrote:

    Fascism is alive and well.

    Careful Robert. You’re perilously close to breaking Godwin’s Law.

    http://www.faqs.org/faqs/usenet/legends/godwin/

  16. Silicon valley Jim says:

    I think that the proliferation of microbreweries is the greatest cultural event of the past twenty-five years, myself.

  17. As a fan of Stargate SG-1, I know that even inhabitants of other planets speak English.

    Not only do they speak English on other planets they speak it in other galaxies!

  18. Today Ethiopia, tomorrow… Quebec!

  19. Bart: Now you’re reaching for the impossible.

  20. Allen, thanks for the link to Godwin’s law.

    I’m not sure I agree, but it is interesting.

    The psychopathology of Nazism sure comes to mind when I come in contact with the Talk Radio Right.

    Perhaps I need to read more history so I’ll be able to make less chiched comparisons.

    But I think there was much to learn from the troubles with Germany. And there’s much not to forget.

  21. Robert Wright wrote:

    The psychopathology of Nazism sure comes to mind when I come in contact with the Talk Radio Right.

    Yeah, you’ll probably be interested to know that I just got a call from the vast, right-wing conspiracy and we’re going to pick you up Friday night. Be ready for a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Don’t bother to pack.

    But I think there was much to learn from the troubles with Germany. And there’s much not to forget.

    And there’s also a great deal of value in not indulging in hyperbole.

    Maybe I missed it at one of the meetings of the vast, right-wing conspiracy but I haven’t heard about the formation of a legion of brownshirts. Perhaps you have?

    You know, Robert, one of the dangers of throwing around the “N” word so promiscuously is that you’re liable to end up believing it. At the very least, that sort of self-indulgance demeans the suffering caused by the Nazis, and all other authoritarians. At most, it blinds us to the continuing danger of authoritarianism.

  22. But I think there was much to learn from the troubles with Germany. And there’s much not to forget.

    There are lessons to be drawn from Nazi Germany, but I really fail to see how they apply to this topic. There is no central will pushing English at this point. The colonies are gone, and as the decline of French shows, colonial influence probably isn’t the reason the Ethopian children in the Times article are learning English. Instead, I see a convergence of individual decisions and circumstances. It was in the US that much of the world’s computer software has been developed. It was in the US that the internet had its genesis. It is the US that is the nexus of world commerce, precisely because we aren’t a facist state. People around the world see these circumstances, and they choose to learn English as a result. Without a centrally controlling force behind all this, I really don’t see how we can learn anything from the history of Nazi Germany in this particular instance.

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