How the English Language Conquered the World


Global politics and the power of language
By Rosemary Salomone

“Whenever the question of language arises”, wrote the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, “in one way or another, a series of other problems arise”, such as “the enlargement of the ruling class “, the “relations between governing groups and the national-popular mass” and the struggle for “cultural hegemony”. Justifying Gramsci, “The Rise of English” by Rosemary Salomone explores the language wars waged around the world, revealing the political, economic and cultural stakes behind these wars, and showing that so far English is winning.It is a panoramic book, infinitely fascinating and revealing, with a gripping fact on almost every page.

English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with some 1.5 billion speakers, although it is native to less than 400 million. English accounts for 60% of global Internet content and is the lingua franca of pop culture and the global economy. The 100 most influential scientific journals in the world publish in English. “Across Europe, almost 100% of students study English at some point in their education.”

Even in France, where countering the hegemony of English is an official obsession, English is winning. French bureaucrats are constantly trying to ban Anglicisms “like player, dark the Web and false newswrites Salomone, but their edicts are “quietly ignored.” Although a French law called the Loi Toubon “requires radio stations to play 35% French songs”, “the remaining 65% are flooded with American music”. Many young French artists sing in English. By law, French schoolchildren must study a foreign language, and although eight languages ​​are available, 90% choose English.

Salomone, Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law, tends to explain why English won, simply stating that English is the language of neoliberalism and globalization, which seems evade the question. But she is meticulous and nuanced in chronicling the battles fought over language policy in countries from Italy to the Congo, and in analyzing unexpected winners and losers.

Exactly who benefits from English, it’s complicated. Obviously, this benefits native English speakers. Americans, with what Salomone calls their “sufficient monolingualism,” are often blissfully unaware of the advantage they have due to the global dominance of their mother tongue. English also benefits globally-connected market-dominant minorities in non-Western countries, such as English-speaking whites in South Africa or the English-speaking Tutsi elite in Rwanda. In former French colonies like Algeria and Morocco, the switch from French to English is seen not only as the key to modernization, but as a form of resistance against their colonial past.

In India, the role of English is spectacularly complex. The ruling Hindu nationalist Indian People’s Party prefers to portray English as the language of the colonizers, hindering the vision of a unified India through Hindu culture and Hindi. In contrast, for speakers of languages ​​other than Hindi and members of lower castes, English is often seen as a shield against majority rule. Some reformers see English as an “egalitarian language” unlike Indian languages, which carry “caste heritage”. English is also a status symbol. As a character in a recent Bollywood hit put it: “English is not just a language in this country. It’s a class. Meanwhile, Indian Tiger parents, “from the richest to the poorest”, are pushing for their children to be educated in English, seeing it as the ticket to upward mobility.

Salomone’s chapter on South Africa is among the most interesting in the book. Along with Afrikaans, English is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and although only 9.6% of the population speak English as their first language, it “dominates all sectors”, including government, internet, business, broadcasting, press, etc. traffic signs and popular music. But English is not just the language of South Africa’s business and political elite. It was also the language of black resistance to the Afrikaner-dominated apartheid regime, which gave it enormous symbolic importance. Thus, recent years have seen poor and working-class black activists push for English-only education in universities, even though many of them are not fluent in the language. Opponents of English, however, argue that moving away from teaching Afrikaans disproportionately harms the poor of all races, including low-income blacks, whites, and mixed-race South Africans.” of color”. Meanwhile, young “activists of color are challenging the English-Afrikaans binary and exploring other forms of expression, such as AfriKaaps”, a form of Afrikaans promoted by hip-hop artists. For now, however, “the constitutional commitment to linguistic equality in South Africa is ambitious at best” and “English reigns supreme for its economic power”.

Learning English pays off, with “positive labor market returns across the world.” Today, in academia, even in Europe and Asia, “the rule is no longer ‘Publish or perish’ but rather ‘Publish in English…or perish'”. percent (Tunisia) to 200% (Iraq) more than their non-English speaking counterparts. In Argentina, 90% of employers “believed that English was an essential skill for managers and directors”. In all the countries she studies, higher income is correlated with English proficiency.

Salomone concludes with a brief discussion of American monolingualism, describing the waves of political angst over threats to English as a national language, while arguing for more multilingualism in English-speaking countries. Beyond the economic benefits of speaking multiple languages ​​in a globalized world, Salomone cites studies that show that learning new languages ​​improves overall cognitive function. Moreover, she argues, “observing life through a broad linguistic and cultural lens leads to greater creativity and innovation.”

“The Rise of English” has its weaknesses. More importantly, the book lacks a clear thesis beyond suggesting that “language is political; it’s complicated.” Also, the book does not relate or reflect on the divergence of its case studies; I have often wondered why the experiences of (say) France, Italy or Denmark were different , and what we should learn from it.

Finally, the book offers no clear evaluation framework. Salomone focuses primarily on simple economic factors (which often boil down to the same thing: access to global markets), but there are also some underdeveloped discussions of other, more elusive themes, such as race, gender, and gender. equity, colonialism and imperialism. This hodgepodge of immeasurables perhaps goes back to the origins of the book. In his preface, Salomone writes: “My initial project was to write a book on the value of language in the global economy. But “the deeper I dug…the more I looked at the issues from a broader holistic perspective, the more the links to educational equity, identity and democratic participation became apparent”. Unfortunately, she never fully understands these deeper issues.

Will Mandarin, with its 1.11 billion speakers, eventually replace English as the global lingua franca? Will Google or Microsoft Translate fix the problem? Salomone’s painstakingly thorough book also addresses these issues (probably not concluding).

The justifications for English – or any language – as a global lingua franca rest primarily on economic efficiency. On the other hand, the reasons for protecting local languages ​​resonate mainly in different registers — the importance of cultural heritage; the geopolitics of resistance to the great powers; the value of Aboriginal art; the beauty of idiosyncratic words in other languages ​​that describe all the different kinds of snow or the different flavors of melancholy. As Gramsci reminded us, the question of who speaks what language invariably puts all of this on the table.


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