English: Whose language and Why?

By Dr Beena Giridharan

“There has never been a language so widely spread or spoken by so many people as English. There are therefore no precedents to help us see what happens to a language when it achieves genuine world status,” stated David Crystal, an eminent British linguist.

The English language and its variants are claimed by many speakers today as the language of choice rather than it being their first language. So how did English attain its status as the most preferred language among its speakers and potential speakers?

If one were to delve into the history of the English language, one would find that its origins lie in an Indo-European language which coalesced into a blend of many contributing dialects of people inhabiting what is today Britain. The arrival of Germanic tribes comprising Angles, Saxons and Jutes during the 5th century A.D. into what was essentially a Celtic speaking land heralded the beginning of modern day English. The Angles came from Englaland and their language was called Englisc – from which the words England and English are derived.

The presence of a vast vocabulary in the English language can be attributed in part to the colonies established by Britain in lands far and near. Meanwhile, French, the language of diplomacy in Europe for centuries; Latin, the language of the church; and Greek, the language of philosophy and science, also contributed many words to the English language. These contributions effectively established English as the language of academia.

Today, one in five of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence. Braj Kachru’s ‘Three Circles of English’ is a tripartite model which defines and categorises World Englishes.

The inner circle is recognised for its native speakers, the outer circle includes speakers of English as a second language, whereas the expanding circle consists of ‘English as a Foreign Language’ speakers. The inner circle comprises UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. The outer circle consists of countries in the Indian subcontinent, African countries like South Africa, Kenya and Zambia, as well as Malaysia and Singapore. The expanding circle, true to its name, includes many countries and in particular, China and Indonesia, which have large populations that are beginning to recognise the significance of English as the language of trade and commerce, and bestowing the title of ‘language of currency’ to English in the process.

However, the tripartite model is a highly contested one in the present scenario of English language growth across the globe with a growing population of speakers of ‘different Englishes’.

While the clarion call for a range of varieties of English to be accepted finds its way to the forefront of academic discourse, what it signifies is the undiminished global thirst for the English language and for ownership of varieties of English. The growth of technology, TV, social media, the world of entertainment and business has strategically placed the American version of English as the language of entertainment and infotainment.

While each variety of English represents the very fabric of culture and history in many parts of the world, in the Indian Sub-continent, the British exercised considerable leverage for almost 200 years, which has had a compelling influence on the literature and psyche of the people. Colonial imperialism was seen at its best in the creation of a class of Indians who would be able to interpret between the rulers and the people whom they governed.

Thus began the introduction of the elite Indian society to English literature which soon developed an insatiable appetite for British novels and writings on a host of subjects. “To the literature of Britain… which has exercised an influence wider than that of our commerce and mightier than that of our arms… before the light of which impious and cruel superstitions are fast taking flight on the Banks of the Ganges!” stated Baron Macaulay as he paid homage to the successful indoctrination of the Indian minds.

To date, at least 250 million Indians use English every day, ranking it third in the world in terms of English speakers. Indian writing in English continues to dominate readership in India and abroad, and has won accolades including the Nobel Prize for Literature – a far cry from the original intention of its colonial masters.

What is clear is that proficiency in written English for cultural and personal expression is possible only with good forms of schooling and immersion in the literature of the language. The post-Second World War era saw the contracting of the British Empire, but nevertheless English continued to spread zealously far beyond its native and colonised communities into non-native areas – from the United Kingdom into mainland Europe, beyond North America into Latin America, and beyond both the United Kingdom and the United States into Asia.

The momentum has been intensified by social and political factors such as the efforts of education ministries worldwide to incorporate English-as-a-second-language in school curriculum, efforts to adopt it as an official language, and the determination of millions of non-native-speaking parents to educate their children in English from the earliest possible age, with or without state help.

This phenomenal drive gave English its global status, which can only be attained when the demand for a language is taken over by speakers from countries where it is not a first language. English is currently an official language in seventy countries, being the language of communication of governance, courts and educational institutions, in addition to being a semi-official language in far more countries.

The writing is clear – with the attainment of global status, English speakers are irrefutably placed in a position of power, being able to communicate to the scientific community with ease, to engage with the international business world successfully, or work with TV and entertainment industries and gain access to large audiences. This is also the raison d’etre why the middle class and upper strata of society provide their children with English language competence starting from an early age as early and continuous language training with the right resources is required for bridging the gap to being a near native speaker.

The emergence of English as a global language should not be seen as a linguistic threat to other languages. National languages define cultural and national identities while a global language allows individuals to find expression and interact beyond their national borders.

Dr. Beena Giridharan is an Associate Professor and Dean of Teaching and Learning at Curtin Sarawak. She is a recipient of the 2006 Carrick Award for Australian University Teaching, and the 2006 Curtin Excellence in Teaching Award, and has been a fellow of the Higher Education Research and Development Society Australasia (HERDSA) since 2006. She is the project member at Curtin Sarawak for an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) project entitled “Learning Without Borders”. Dr. Beena can be contacted at +60 85 443939 or by e-mail to beena@curtin.edu.my.