[GLOBAL EYE]English boosted by globalizationEnglish passes as the global language. Global communication is indispensable in a world that is being globalized, and the standard language of the world is English. In today’s world, English is the language of science, technology and business, as well as the Internet. However, a few movements that question the dominating power of English have caught our attention.
The first movement is a recent report by the British Council that the status of English as the world’s primary language has declined. About 380 million people are estimated to use English as their mother tongue or their primary language. In terms of the number of users, the English language ranks fourth in the world, after Chinese, Hindi and Spanish. The report points out that British people who cannot speak any foreign language are less useful and competitive in global business.
Le Monde Diplomatique, a French monthly newspaper, even published a feature report on seeking the possibility of alternative languages to English, including Spanish and Chinese, as well as French, proposing that English be replaced with languages that reek less of the hegemony of the United States.
A practical measure that further trampled the importance of English came from the United States. The U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee viewed the learning of the Chinese language as a national security issue and allotted $1.3 billion to public high schools to arm five percent of American high school students with the Chinese language by 2015. This measure reminds us of a global war on language.
Is the English language truly declining? The decline of English may give some comfort to us, who spend almost our entire lives surrounded by the “barrier of English” and burdened with early overseas education and a private educational cost of 10 trillion won ($10.3 billion) per year. But the reality is the opposite.
Although the proportion of English native speakers is not large, English is still the world’s primary language when we include the more than one billion people who use English as a second language. Even the French, who take great pride in their own language, speak English to taxi drivers when they travel in Germany. In a recent poll of German parents in their 30s and 40s, 71 percent of respondents said English must be taught for their children’s success in the international arena.
The dominating power of English is the product of the dominance of Great Britain and the post-war United States. But a substantial number of scientific theses had been written in German and French for more than two centuries before World War II. Even in the 1920s, the German language was essential for studies in quantum dynamics. The dominating power of language is directly related to the leadership of science and technology, and as long as technological innovation and information revolution are led by English speakers, the dominating power of English will not decrease. Even if China becomes the largest economic power in the world by 2050, the purchasing power of the average Chinese will not reach even half that of people in advanced counties. Former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt left a wise saying that “it is advantageous to speak the other party’s language when I sell goods, but I will speak German when I buy.” There is also a strong refutation that it is in the national interest of the United States to teach American students math rather than the Chinese language.
It is shortsighted to view the dominance of English as American hegemony and cultural dominance. The Latin language survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Not to mention the “English powers,” India and Pakistan, English learners in China amount to 110 million people. Even if English has few advantages as a language, it cannot help but become the standard language when others are eager to use it. In that sense, English is power.
Our English education is a symbol of a high-cost yet low-efficiency case. Achieving a high TOEIC score is one thing but speaking English is quite another. An official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris pointed out that most Korean government officials have difficulty carrying out their duties because they cannot make themselves understood in English well or draw up documents in English, which represents our reality concerning English as it is. In other words, Korea has a long way to go to become globalized.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the Joongang Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun