The Globalisation of English

Imagine that at some point in the near future, say in 2020 to 2030, the country that has the most English speakers is India. And this might be an understatement. Already there is an estimate that one third of India is already speaking English, although it might include speakers in its rudimentary form. Still, with fast communication across the globe, those that could speak professionally are taking an overheated drive.

Just a few centuries ago, English was spoken by just five to seven million people on a few islets off a continent, and the language consisted of dialects spoken by monolinguals. Today there are more non-native English speakers, and the language has become the linguistic key used for penetrating various borders. As a global medium with local identities, English has become an international language, spoken by at least 750 million people. It is more widely spoken and written than any other language, except for, perhaps, Mandarin. But English can indeed be said to be the first truly global language and, unlike Mandarin, English is nowadays the dominant or official language in over 60 countries.

English during colonial times was considered as a “road to the light”, a tool of “civilization”. The British thought that they can bring emancipation to the souls; they considered this as their duty. With missionary zeal, they sincerely thought they would contribute to the well-being of the natives in the colonies, and their language was elevated into being almost divine.

The British from 1600 onwards were given a lot of political stature due to their political and technological power In India, and they were required to adopt a pose that would fit their status. Language became a marker of the white man’s power. A Passage to India said: “India likes gods. And Englishmen like posing as gods”.

The English language became part of the global pose and power. Indians accepted it, too, as English provided a medium for understanding technology and scientific development. Non-western intellectuals admired accomplishments of the west. European literature was made available in colonies. Macaulay shows his ignorance towards the native languages in India by saying:  I have never found one amongst them (the Orientalists) who would deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.

By the 1920s in India, English had become the language of political discourse, intra-national administration, and law, a language associated with progressive thinking. Even after the colonial period ended, English maintained its power over any of the local languages.

Today, conservative estimates of the total number of speakers of English in India vary from around 4 to 10 percent of the population, which given India’s current population of around 1 billion makes it one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world. Consequently, English is an ‘associate official’ language used alongside the national language, Hindi. The usefulness of Hindi as a lingua franca, however, appeared to be regionally based, which is spoken mainly in the north of the country as in other regions few people know it, or they dislike speaking it. In fact Hindi has become a vehicle of obscurantism, communalism, blind nationalism and, to top it all, casteism.

India is a vast nation and in terms of number of English speakers, it ranks third in the world after USA and the UK. An estimated 5 percent of the population use English and even though this may seem like a small number that is about 50 million people. This small segment of the population controls domains that have professional and social prestige. But another great percentage of Indians are speaking English in its rudimentary form.

And as the Internet and cellular phones have revolutionized the way we communicate and at a faster pace, the globalization of English has grown in importance. Now it has impacted the youth as well as in the professional sphere. And since India has a severe shortage of higher education institutions and a booming population with more than 30 per cent of its 1.1 billion people under 14 years old, the explosive use of English is expected. And one estimate predicted that one third of India would soon have English as their lingua franca.

Some Indians complain that English brings in too much Western thought, but English in India also exports a vast amount of Indian culture and thought to the rest of the world. Rather than worrying about whether or not English should be used, Indians had focused on extending their children education which allows them to learn and use an international language for communication as in all practical terms, the English language is the most compatible for communication gadgets, email, chat and SMS.

Under new legislation proposed by the government in India, a report said, the world’s leading universities such as Harvard and Yale could soon be allowed to open colleges there. Just imagine that at some point in the near future, say in 2020 to 2030, universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton would be operating side by side with Oxford and Cambridge in India, competing against each other for the best students! Expect the unexpected, but a new educational focus would take place and such a scene could be drastically different from what we have today.

Joel Huan, researcher and author (Over Mount Fuji in Amazon and Barnes&Noble)

~ by Joel Huan on August 2, 2009.

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