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This article was posted on the China Daily website on April 21, 2000


"If you don't speak English, you won't get the job!" Like it or not, that's the message millions around the world are already hearing, reflecting the awesome, ever-growing power of the Internet, where the English language reigns supreme.

Even France had (briefly) to swallow its fervent pride in its national language. "Pardon My French, But It's English Only On the Flight Deck for Air France Pilots," said the Wall Street Journal in March 2000. "At its Charles de Gaulle hub, Air France will Thursday do what once seemed unthinkable: jettison French. Predictably, that decision aroused so much indignation that it had to be reversed after a fortnight, so confusion still reigns.

In Asia, the use of English as a global language is being hotly debated in Japan and South Korea, where few people speak it. In India, Pakistan and Singapore, English is an official language, spoken by increasingly large numbers of the work force, and more importantly, school and college students.

Then there's Singlish, Singapore's unique variation of English. This is how the Singapore Tourist Board's website describes it: "English is widely spoken in Singapore ... or is it? Many first-time visitors have been confounded by the colloquialisms that pepper Singaporeans' speech. This is because we speak very quickly (or so it's been said) and with a distinct Singaporean accent.

"Through the years, Singaporeans have developed their own brand of English fondly referred to as Singlish. With our multi-racial background, it's not surprising that 'Singlish' borrows from the many different languages spoken in Singapore."

But there's a serious downside. Dr Hugh de Glanville, retired tropical physician and a committee member of the Queen's English Society, a group intent on preserving the language, says "While the spread of English to become a lingua franca on earth, at sea, and in the air may introduce many perhaps useful new words and expressions, as generally used it will be a very truncated form of its immensely versatile and beautiful source.

"What is more worrying is that even in England the language is being dumbed down as more and more of younger generations, poorly taught English grammar and literature, discard usages they do not understand.

"Inevitably, generations yet unborn will learn their English from parents speaking such simplified English, who have never read our greatest writers, and hopes of preserving the greatness and the glory of the language will become unrealistic."

Michael Quinion, of Bristol, emails a free weekly newsletter, World Wide Words, to 10,000 wordlovers in nearly 100 countries. He reports that a marketing consultancy, The Fourth Room, has discovered that the Internet is spawning an informal global language, free of capital letters and apostrophes but full of abbreviations and badly spelled words, which they call Weblish.

American wordsmith Anu Garg, who was born in India, recently invited linguaphiles (word-lovers) around the world to express their views on various facets of English as a global language. Here is a selection of their replies, quoted with their permission:

Martin Bruczkowski, computer engineer, Singapore: My first language is Polish. For me it's a simple, natural fact, because I was born in Warsaw, Poland, lived there for the first 20 years of my life, and people around me spoke nothing but Polish.

My wife is Malaysian Chinese and doesn't really know what her first language is. Her parents' native tongue is Hakka (a dialect of Chinese), but they come from different parts of the Hakka-speaking region of China, so they could not communicate too well. Eventually they settled on Cantonese, a different dialect, that they could both understand.

However, their children were strongly encouraged to speak English. Chinese is viewed as a language of the lower classes, and English of educated people. English is thus viewed as a ticket to better jobs, better salaries, safer future. It's a bit like in my country in the Middle Ages - Polish was for peasants, educated people spoke Latin... or even 200 years ago, when Polish was again for peasants, while upper classes switched from Latin to French...

Now my wife speaks to her brothers and sisters in English. It's very sad, really, this scorn for your own language. The result is that here in Singapore, a large percentage of the society does not have a first language at all! I know it sounds somewhat unbelievable and contradicts most established linguistic theories.

Many Singaporeans come from homes where parents speak bad, simplified Chinese. Then the kids go to school, where they speak Singlish - a grossly simplified and misshapen form of English. As a result they have a real problem expressing themselves in any living language - hence the exaggerated use of gesticulation and onomatopoeic grunts.

The government is very much aware of this and in the 1970s-80s was heavily pushing the use of English. Then, in the 90s, the wind changed and the Government was telling everyone to start speaking Mandarin... what a mess.

Anyway, my wife thinks that her first language is Cantonese, except that she has problems building a correct sentence in that language without peppering it with English words. Fortunately, she went to Malaysian primary school and speaks fluent Malay, then to high school in the Netherlands, where she picked up pretty good Dutch, and then graduated from Queens University of Belfast, which resulted in English with lovely Irish inserts... so we have no problems communicating. But she does have to attend classes in Mandarin in order to speak to our son in correct Chinese... isn't it a wonder, that a mother has to take evening classes in her first language so that she can speak correctly to her son...? Truly, this is an interesting part of the world...

Sylvia Leng, of Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: I work for a newspaper company as a technical assistant for the editorial computer system. We have to help our users on all sort of requests - problems on the system, e-mail, Internet usage, almost every day.

I'm Chinese, and English is not my mother-tongue language. I speak and use simple English words to express myself. Though I can handle my Mandarin well, I'm doing a computer course in English, because most of the information on the Web is in English, and I would like to communicate better with my colleagues. I want to enrich my vocabulary and enhance my English, so that my second pair of eyes will help me to explore the world better.

Bill Heaney, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., retired policeman: English should be the universal language, because the U.S. and Britain lead the world in communications, science, space travel, and medicine, and maybe music. The English language is rich with foreign words and easily borrows them for everyday usage. It is a language that continues to grow, unlike some languages that are limited to territorial zones or religions. The Internet makes English all the more global.

My son, who plays ice hockey in Europe, tells me that only in the east, the Czech Republic and the Balkans, do the people not speak English, but they are beginning to.

Lee Kennedy, analytical chemist, Melbourne, Australia: The rise and rise of English is more fortuitous than anything else. Certainly English, or the Australian version of it, is my first tongue. I love it. It is a harlot of a language, stealing from anyone shamelessly.

The question came up at work (a food laboratory) recently about the differences between a relish and a chutney. A little hunting found that they are basically the same; relish is old English, chutney Hindi; but both are equally accepted. A vast array of pilfered or borrowed words are welcomed and absorbed seamlessly into English. I love it. I do feel for speakers of other languages, though.

It may be apocryphal but the story goes that the Russians believed the first US nuclear reactor was built in a pumpkin patch - a mistranslation of "squash court." An Australianism, "Sure. Go for your life" is commonly given as a "yes" response for permission to do something. It does not translate well. So, English it is!

Mind you, I lament the loss of skills in using English. Thanks to bureaucrats, advertisers and TV, the core vocabulary of the average English speaker is being (seemingly at least) constantly eroded.

Susan Yoo works in corporate donor relations at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC: England, and of necessity the English language, have become associated first with British hegemony and now with American hegemony. Foreigners often use English words to describe their most mechanical and least-liked activities and objects, such as the Big Mac.

I lived in Korea for two years, and noticed that Koreans butcher English with gleeful abandon. They call it Konglish. I dislike Konglish. I'm Korean-American, but I love the English language.

I have mixed feelings of allegiance and comfort, natural enough I suppose, to Korea and to America. As much as I have come to desire a better understanding of Korean culture and society, I feel like a lamb in the woods when I hear overtones of hostility in the butchering of American English, a language that was one familiar comfort to me in a largely foreign land.

Spencer Allen, language arts teacher in Jefferson City, Missouri, US: I've had debates against an entire class concerning the importance of English as the official language of the United States, which it currently is not. My opponents argue that by making English the official language, we are stifling another culture. I argue just the opposite: by NOT making English the official language, we are stifling the AMERICAN culture.

Of course people are upset when their children or grandchildren lose a part of their culture; they should be. Similarly, parents are and should be somewhat upset when their daughter or son moves out of the house and marries. In both cases, something is lost, but theoretically, something greater is gained.

Even if English were a world-wide "official" language, it would not turn us into clones. Nor would cultures be bulldozed in the process. Rather, a wonderful thing happens: we learn to communicate in ways that help us grow into a united culture, where people are allowed more diversity than ever before because they see so many different ways of living life.

Geoffrey Keyworth, a systems engineer from Ottawa (Canada), living in Toyota-city, near Nagoya, Japan: The simple fact that I am living in a country which is considering adding English as a second national tongue (after Japanese, of course) means that I am often an unwitting ambassador for my native language.

I am frequently involved in conversations where, after some initial pleasantries, we talk about the differences between the two languages, and little else. It seems a strange thing to discuss over drinks, but it's so interesting that I rarely even notice.

Perhaps educators in English-speaking nations should consider that their students will likely travel, at least once in their lives, to a country where English is not the first language. What a shame it would be if the visitors proved unable to give a good account of themselves in their native tongue!

Elizabeth Glover, a text designer with a New York publishing company: I have taught English writing to college students from many nations: I think the loss of any polyglot ability is a tragedy. I have no facility with language other than English, and I wish I did. However, I strongly feel that parents should raise their children to have both their native tongue and the language of wherever they are raised.

I live in immigrant-heavy Queens, New York, and those who don't speak reasonably competent English are restricted to business dealings with their own ethnic group, possibly only within their own neighborhood. Perhaps this is all they want, but wouldn't it be nice to have other options?

I think English is in a period of flux, much as it was during the late Elizabethan era (there must be something about long-reigning queens named Elizabeth). Whether this is to the better or worse remains to be seen. One of the most beautiful aspects of English is its flexibility. We have endless synonyms for things, each with its own connotation. As any native English speaker can tell you, something HUGE is bigger than something merely BIG.

What kills me the most is that grammatical errors are often perpetrated not by foreigners, who could understandably be confused, but by Americans and perhaps Canadians and Brits as well. I suspect American TV and movies are the biggest culprits.

Ann H. Sakai, San Diego, California (US): I am Japanese American and of course English is my first language. My grandparents came here in the early 1900s from Japan. My parents were born here. I was born in an American concentration camp during the war. I attended Berkeley in the 60's and earned my degree in Spanish (major) and French (minor). I taught Spanish for 25 years in Northern California.

I am working as a conversation coach with ESL students mostly from Japan. They are as curious about me as I am about them. I wonder if they think I actually speak standard English, being that I look like them. English is a very important language. People from all over the world come here to learn English. I believe that the more people travel and learn each other's language, the closer we come to understanding one another.


Wordsmith Anu Garg, born in India, where English is taught as a second language, is doing his bit to help the peoples of the world speak and improve their English. From his home in the United States, he and his wife Stuti email A Word a Day free of charge to more than 330,000 men, women and children in 190 countries.

"After sending out more than 2000 words in 186 million messages, we still haven't run out of the love for words," he said on the sixth birthday of what must be the world's largest school. "We are still tickled on discovering a curious word, and we still believe a dictionary is the most fascinating book ever created."

Garg, a 33-year-old Internet professional who works for AT&T, began his education sitting under a mango tree in a small Indian village, with a few broken sticks of chalk and a blackboard made by painting a flat piece of wood with soot.

He went on to learn English, and become so fascinated with what he calls "the music and magic of words" that he now shares them with the Internet world. (His Web site is

"English is a global language," he says. "With the rise of electronic communication, worldwide trade and international travel, its status has far surpassed that of a link language. English is equated with success. Wherever you go, you're sure to find someone who speaks English, albeit in an accent far different from yours. If nothing else, English makes a disguised appearance in hybrids such as Franglais, Spanglish, Hindlish or Singlish.

"This rise in popularity of English is not without a downside. Talk with someone for whom English is not a first language and you sense a feeling of loss. Reactions range from the trace of helplessness of parents whose children can't appreciate a poem in their native language, to lawmakers making it mandatory for a company to have a Web site also in the language of their country before the company can do business there."

Garg recently invited his subscribers to send him their views on the globalisation of English. He received more than 400 replies from around the world, including the (edited) opinions quoted on this page.


Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted May 2003

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