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Language, culture, and the dominance of English

International Mother Language DayFebruary 21st is UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day, which is intended to “encourage people to maintain their knowledge of their mother language while learning and using more than one language”. This annual event was established to commemorate a protest march at the University of Dhaka (in what is now Bangladesh, but was then in the eastern part of Pakistan) on 21st February 1952. The government of Pakistan had tried to impose Urdu as the sole national language: Urdu was, and is, the dominant language of (West) Pakistan, but in the eastern part, the great majority had Bengali as their mother tongue. The demonstration was violently broken up by police, with the deaths of four students.

Regrettably, this is a familiar story. In Spain during the Franco era, the government tried to impose Spanish (Castilian) on the people of Catalunya, and banned the use of Catalan in public institutions. The British don’t have much to be proud of in this area either. In colonial Ireland, for example, the indigenous Irish language was systematically suppressed and – for most of the 19th century – it was banned in primary schools. It wasn’t until the “Gaelic revival” of the late 19th century that the steep decline in the use of the Irish language began to be reversed.

I’m not sure if there are still places where people are banned by law from using their first language. But language shift – “the process whereby a speech community … shifts to speaking another language” – continues in more subtle ways. The usual mechanisms now are not legally-enforced proscriptions, but there may be a climate in which a local language is stigmatized and seen as “backward”, whereas a more dominant language is regarded as having higher status and offering greater chances for economic advancement.

As the current lingua franca of science, business, IT, and higher education, English finds itself at the centre of this debate. The rise of English appears unstoppable. In Austria, for example, applications for official funding of scientific research programmes have to be submitted in English: the researchers may all be German-speakers, but the experts who review the proposal probably won’t be. Similarly, the most prestigious journals, where academics need to publish their research in order to disseminate their ideas (and progress in their careers), tend increasingly to be in English. Alongside these trends, we see a gradual increase in English-medium programmes of study in many universities outside the English-speaking world (if that expression still makes any sense). So we have a vicious circle where English becomes ever more entrenched.

The ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) movement could be seen as a response to the growing dominance of English in global communication. ELF doesn’t get a very good press in Paul Emmerson’s post on the subject, but the ELFers make a good point when they advise “native-speakers” to avoid culturally-loaded words and expressions which are likely to be unfamiliar to many of the people they’re dealing with. But as Emmerson says, this recommendation pre-dates the arrival of the ELF lobby, and it’s really an argument for the importance of intercultural competence. In a recent lecture, available here, David Crystal focussed on this topic, and showed – with several entertaining examples – how a person can be fluent in English but might nevertheless be mystified by the cultural assumptions made by other speakers in a conversation. Successful communication, in other words, depends not only on language skills but on an understanding of other people’s cultures. And the people most in need of this are Brits, Americans, and others whose first language is English: the fact that one’s professional or academic colleagues all speak English “so we don’t need to bother learning about their language or culture” is a recipe for disaster. So the goal of International Mother Language Day, “to promote linguistic and cultural diversity”, is a not only desirable in itself, but vital for successful communication across cultures.

In a follow-up to this post next week, Lars Trap-Jensen will give his perspective as a speaker of Danish. English is widely used in Denmark – so what is the status of the country’s own language? Is it under threat, and if so, what can be done about it?

For more blog posts in this series discussing the dominance of English, or English as a lingua franca, please see this page.

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Michael Rundell


  • Ignorance on the part of first-language English speakers doesnt help. Bill Bryson recounts a story (apparently true) about American Educators being concerned that fewer students, each year, were taking foreign language courses, or bothering to learn a second language. Congress was asked to support a Bill to provide large amounts of money (millions) to invest in American colleges to encourage language studies. One opponent of the Bill – a congressman – didnt see the point, stating – and i quote: “I dont see the point in learning a foreign language. If English was good enough for Jesus, then its good enough for everyone.”

  • Great article. Allow me to point out that between “places where people are banned by law from using their first language” and “language shift”, there are a lot of government policies that limit language. In DRC, for example, most of the country’s languages are banned from formal education Some language communities have developed their language and want to use it in primary school in spit of this ban, but the efforts are still considered illegal by the authorities who resist them. One could cite many other cases of government policy that is quite hostile to language without actually banning it.

  • Thanks, Kenneth. The “good enough for Jesus” story is also discussed in an interesting and entertaining lecture by Raf Salkie, titled “Does English have a Future?”, available as a PDF from his homepage. And thanks to Ed for pointing out the middle ground between outright bans and “organic” language shift – an area where there must be many other examples like your DRC one, of languages being marginalized.

  • Nowadays is Catalan which is imposed to Spanish speakers here in Catalonia (very much like French in Quebec),please remember that.

  • Languages don’t exist as such, in the way that actual living people do; languages are performative acts by people. All languages are equal — that is, they’re all of roughly equivalent semantic efficiency, so it really doesn’t matter which language(s) are spoken. Your culture (of which language is a part) is not like your skin color. It’s more like your clothes. It’s something you chose, and can change.

    So the reason people do one set of performative acts rather than another is their usefulness. When most people were peasant farmers who rarely moved around much, the local patois would do. In a nation-state, the national language was more useful — hence the eclipse of Breton or Provencal by French. And nowadays, English is more useful.

    It’s more useful not because of any inherent superiority but simply because its more widespread than any other language, and particularly so among the urbanized and affluent. If an Indian executive and a Japanese executive and an Indonesian executive are sitting down making a business deal in Mombasa, chances are they’ll do it in English.

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