Essay: “To what extent is a modern foreign language of your choosing under threat from the global rise of English?”

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  • Subject area(s): Linguistics essays
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  • Published on: August 9, 2018
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In 1600, English was a somewhat localized language with an estimated six million speaking it globally – most of them located in Great Britain. Currently, English is spoken by 1.5 billion people worldwide, across 75 different global territories. (Clayton, 2015, p.183). English is the third most widely spoken language in the world, following Mandarin Chinese and Spanish (as of 2015). In discussing the global rise of English, Nicolas Ostler (Clayton, 2015, p.183) notes “The current status of English is unprecedented. Simultaneously, it has a preeminent global role in politics … [and] … finance … [and] … education. With no challenger comparable to it, it seems almost untouchable…”

As a consequence of dispersal and migration, English is given the label “Global English” which refers to the notion that it is a worldwide language. As a first diaspora, English has spread from the British Isles to countries including Australia, the USA, and Canada, where it is a first language or “L1”. Diaspora is the “dispersal of people and their languages to different parts of the world.” (Clayton, 2015). In nations of the second diaspora, such as South Africa, English does not hold L1 status but is recognised as an official language and has a significant degree of power.

At present, French is sixth in the ranking of world languages after Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic. Despite its 220 million speakers, it is predicted that 750 million people worldwide will speak French by 2050 – making it the second most spoken language of the world after Mandarin Chinese. (Secorun Palet, 2015).

To some extent, French is under threat from the global rise of English as a second diaspora and lingua franca both socially and economically. A lingua franca is a “language… [that is]… adopted as a common language… [between speakers]… whose native languages are different.” (Oxford Dictionary, 2018.) However, with recent changes in the European political system and growth in use of French within education, it may be a smaller threat than anticipated.

This article will discuss the current status of French and English as global languages within two main areas of use: politics, and economics – and determine the extent to which French is under threat from the global rise of English within these contexts.

Within the European Union, there are 24 “official” languages recognised by the European Commission – yet English, French, and German are the only three that are deemed “working languages.”

This provides numerous opportunities for both English and French to be used within European politics. However, data taken from plenary debates within European Parliament in 2012 reveals that, in total, English was the most spoken language with a ratio of 129 spoken hours to 38 spoken hours in French. (Codrea-Rado, 2014). This suggests that English occupies dominance over the French language within the European political system.

According to Olga Cosmidou, director-general for interpretation within European Parliament, “If a Member of European Parliament (MEP) does not have a translator, or if their collaborators are not of the same nationality but both speak English, English is used as a lingua franca” (Codrea-Rado, 2014). The use of English as the principal language within parliamentary debate, as opposed to French or German, demonstrates the influence and importance of the English language within European politics.

The same idea that English as a lingua franca poses a threat to the French language can be supported further when assessing the role of English in political policy. The General Secretariat of the Council of the EU (GSC) follows three separate language procedures when releasing political statements, policies and documents to its members. (European Council, 2017). In two out of three of these procedures, content is to be published only in English and French – therefore providing an equal opportunity for both languages to be used, and eradicating the threat of the global rise of English over French.

However, there are more speakers of English as an L1, L2, or additional language across more EU member states compared to French – with only three out of the 28 EU countries (Belgium, France, and Luxembourg) holding a bigger population of French speakers. (Statistics from 2008, ISTAT). This means, in most circumstances, English is more likely to be used as the official language of publication due to the larger majority of English speakers in parliament.

In contrast, French is considered a working language of many international institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the United Nations (UN) alongside Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Russian and Arabic. (France Diplomatie, 2018). As the language used exclusively for EU Court of Justice deliberations, French is a language of reference which holds high status within European politics – a counter argument worth noting when considering the threat posed by the global rise of English.

Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union may also have a massive impact on the influence and application of English within Europe’s politics – making French the primary language across the EU Parliament and Commission. Following the UK’s departure from the EU, only 1% of its population will speak English as their first language – whereas 12% of the population will claim French as its L1. (European Commission, 2012). To highlight the significant impact Brexit will have on the English language within the EU, the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker states “slowly but surely, English is losing its importance within Europe.” This demonstrates, opposing the initial question “to what extent is French under threat by the global rise of English”, that French poses a threat to the English language once the UK has left the European Union.

Thus far, the thesis has argued that English is the fundamental language within European political policy and publication implies that it poses a threat to French as the other working language within EU politics. On the other hand, the counter-argument indicates that French maintains a prominent status of power and importance within the European Union. Consequently, it can be deduced that both languages have a major influence on the function and communication of the European political system. Despite English being the main language of governmental operations throughout the EU, Brexit could mean the threat that the English language poses to French is not as great as first predicted.

Similar to its prominence in politics, English is undeniably one of the most important languages used in business and trade throughout the world.

Providing significant contribution to the British economy, the English language brings an average of £2 billion per year to UK through foreign English language students alone – their studies in further education and tuition fees adding to British income. (British Council, 2013). On a global scale, multinational corporations in the fields of transport and technology have realised the benefits of endorsing English as their main operational language. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2012, 25% of corporate executives reported that over half of their workforce require fluency in English in order for their company to succeed.

Despite continuing market growth and business expansion in China, where large amounts of business are conducted in Mandarin, and Middle Eastern countries where trade deals in Arabic take place, English remains the dominating language of the economic world, with its 1.5 billion speakers worldwide using it as a lingua franca for business negotiations, corporate transactions and financial gain. When asked which language a company workforce needed to be of fluent proficiency in in order to execute expansion plans in principal markets overseas, 68% of respondents of an executive position said English – and 2% saying French. (EIU, 2012).

Through statistics alone, it is already evident that the English is superior to any other language within economic and business sectors across the world. Corporate giants such as Nokia and Samsung are becoming advocates for English as their “language of business”, to serve customers, build international connections, and overtake business competitors worldwide – using the English language as their lingua franca within business strategies.

Even as pidgin English, consumers and business executives alike are much more likely to use the English language in plans, projects and trade deals than other languages such as Mandarin Chinese which said to be vital to global economics. This is due to the complex nature of Chinese as a foreign language, and the embedded history of English in many parts of the world due to historical colonisation. Pidgin English is a “grammatically simplified form of a language … some elements … [are] … taken from local languages … [and] … used for communication between people … [as a] … common language.” (Oxford Dictionary, 2018).

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Although the English language may be of significance within the business world, French should not be neglected as an important language within economics and education. Examining the language needs of Great Britain as a nation, there are skills which the English language lacks when referring to indexes such as current exportation from the UK, language activities of the general public, and immigration/emigration within the European and French speaking population.

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