For much of the previous millennium, a pidgin language was used around the Mediterranean for trading, diplomatic, and military purposes. Based originally on Italian and Occitano-Romance languages, it had indirect ties to the Germanic Franks and thus gained the term lingua franca.
Nowadays that phrase tends to be applied to Latin or English. Latin’s time as the default international language of learning ended long ago; English’s status as a lingua franca is still broader but very much in flux – and politically fraught, simultaneously uniting and dividing the world.
Tackling this topic is a new book, The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language, by Rosemary Salomone, a linguist and law professor in New York. Her impressive book (sent to me by OUP for review) does much to clarify the forces behind English’s position as a lingua franca and what the future might hold.
Having a lingua franca brings great benefits for travel, business, politics, and research: witness the speed at which Covid-19 vaccines were developed through international scientific collaboration. But English’s primacy rests on centuries of violence and exploitation. The power dynamics have shifted but remain unbalanced and entangled with complex threads of post-colonial identity.
‘A core strategy of colonialism was to control language,’ Salomone writes:
The system of government, education, and worldview that English, like other colonial languages, carried left a lasting linguistic and cultural legacy in countries from Asia, to Africa, to the Caribbean, not to forget North America, Australia, and New Zealand.
And, I could add, Ireland, or I might be writing this in Irish. The scope of Salomone’s book is correspondingly large – though still necessarily just a partial view, such is the subject’s extent and the sheer reach of English: one fifth of the current world population of almost 8 billion speak it, though it is a first language for less than a quarter of these.
The EU, for all its multilingual ideals and commitments (‘The language of Europe is translation’, in Eco’s aphorism), functions mainly in English. It has yet to resolve the tension, Salomone writes, ‘between promoting multilingualism as a marketable commodity and linguistic diversity as matter of human rights’.
Higher-education institutes, driven partly by international rankings and the need to attract students from abroad, have embraced English-medium instruction, fuelling a feedback loop. English there is no longer just a boon to graduates but ‘akin to computer literacy in necessity’.
In the sense that languages form a cultural marketplace, the progress of English’s rivals – Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, et al. – is salient and is given due attention. French is pressing its influence in Africa and elsewhere. ‘At first glance,’ Salomone notes, ‘it might seem that money is the cement of France’s post-independence relationship with its former colonies. The real cement, however, is the soft power of language and culture.’
Countries like Tunisia have considered replacing French with English in government and in schooling but have backed off in the face of public opposition and a realization that their fortunes were best tied to the francophone world. Yet even there, enrollment in English language schools is on the upswing, as are English language blogs and news websites.
Brute economics often underlie these patterns. All else being equal, a command of English currently opens more doors than any other language. But its linguistic capital entails a cost to other tongues that is not always immediately apparent. How English is marketed taps into hopes of a better life, but attaining it can be logistically and emotionally treacherous in unforeseen ways.
In South Africa, we see linguistic diversity ‘bumping up against race in a country where racial lines are blurred, marginalization crosses the language divide, and language has come to be used as a proxy for race’. In India, despite English’s lingering popularity, only a small minority speak it proficiently:
Over the seven decades since independence, English in India has evolved from a much-resented instrument of colonial domination, to a grudgingly adopted lingua franca, to a symbol of social status, and most recently to an essential second language (and even a first language for a thin layer of elites).
The obvious benefits for Anglophone countries of being immersed in English can mask the downsides: what privileges them also isolates them, removing the incentive to gain – or to encourage their children to gain – ‘linguistic skills and intercultural understandings’ that would enrich their personal, intellectual, and economic lives.
Lost in the discourse of marketability are the many reasons for learning other languages beyond landing the job of one’s dreams . . . . Languages open windows to other people, their culture, their literature, their way of viewing the world, the context in which they live, and how they interact.
A manifesto presented to the British parliament in 2014 asserted that poor language skills were costing the UK economy over £50b a year in ‘lost contracts’ and that in the current century, ‘speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English’. Salomone concludes that this call to action ‘is likely to become louder and more pressing’ now that the UK has left the EU.
The modest appetite for language learning in the US, meanwhile, runs up against entrenched monolingual ideology: each wave of immigration ‘has brought another surge of angst over potential threats to English or to national identity and security’. These conflicting movements played out dramatically in California, where controversial legislation that effectively eliminated bilingual classes in 1998 was reversed in 2016.
The Rise of English throws an ambitious net over this whole subject, connecting themes of colonialism, globalization, and nation-state identity with recent political and societal events like Brexit and the pandemic. Salomone marshals a panoply of sources that range from official reports and scholarly surveys to politicians’ tweets and Netflix series.
The amount of detail may daunt a casual reader unless they pace themselves. If you want analysis only of a certain country or continent, then you may decide to skim some chapters that don’t directly apply. But should your interest be broad, keen, or professional, then prepare for a feast.
English’s linguistic hegemony has sweeping implications – personal, educational, cultural, political, legal, economic, and ideological. Anyone keeping an eye on its development will welcome the expert treatment in this thoughtful, timely, deeply researched work. The Rise of English is available now from OUP or your local bookstore.