Faculty of International Studies
【国際学部】リレー・エッセイ2018(15) Lillian Swain "English in the World"
“English is an international language” is an expression we often use, but what does it really mean? How long will English continue to be as important as it is now?
There are only six countries where English is the native language (the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand) but many more countries give English some kind of official or semi-official role. Estimates vary, but there seem to be between 500 million and more than one billion speakers of English, either as a first or second language.
Most important for the spread of English as an international language in the age of globalization is that it is currently the most common means of communication between nonnative speakers. There are probably more nonnative speakers using English with other nonnative speakers than native speakers using English with other native speakers or with nonnative speakers.
These are all well known facts, and are the main reason why students all over the world are studying English as hard as they can, including Kyoritsu students. But a recent article by Nicholas Ostler of the Foundation for Endangered Languages claims that we have "reached peak English in the world", and the prominence of English is bound to decline as China becomes more important.
The same kind of thing happened to previous transnational languages, or lingua franca. When historical changes occurred, they fell out of use. In the 17th century, French replaced Latin as the common language of Europe, after Latin held that position for 1500 years. Farsi was the common language of Muslim countries for 800 years until it was replaced by Russian and English in the 19th century. If we have indeed reached "peak English", then it will have been the dominant world language for only about two hundred years.
So why study English, one might wonder, if it's on its way out? First of all, it's good to remember that being multilingual is normal in a large part of the world, although English is not necessarily always one of the languages spoken. Southeast Asians, Europeans, and Latin Americans learn languages without considering it a particularly special accomplishment. The story of Adul Sam-on, one of the young soccer players recently rescued from the cave in Thailand, is a good example. He was born in the border region of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, and speaks Thai, Burmese, Mandarin, and English, as well as his native tongue, Wa, the language of his ethnic minority. That was a good thing, as it turned out, since he was able to interpret for the two British divers who found the team trapped in the cave.
For most of us, knowing more than one language might not be a matter of life or death, or at least we hope not. But in a sense it can give us a similar lifeline out into the world. The goal is not just to learn the rules of grammar and lists of vocabulary items. It's to make a connection.
Ostler, Nicholas. "Have We Reached Peak English in the World?" The Guardian. 27 Feb. 2018.
Thurman, Judith. "Maltese for Beginners". The New Yorker. Sept. 3, 2018.