How the English Language Conquered the World – The New York Times

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Global Politics and the Power of Language
By Rosemary Salomone
“Every time the question of language surfaces,” the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote, “in one way or another a series of other problems are coming to the fore,” like “the enlargement of the governing class,” the “relationships between the governing groups and the national–popular mass” and the fight over “cultural hegemony.” Vindicating Gramsci, Rosemary Salomone’s “The Rise of English” explores the language wars being fought all over the world, revealing the political, economic and cultural stakes behind these wars, and showing that so far English is winning. It is a panoramic, endlessly fascinating and eye-opening book, with an arresting fact on nearly every page.
English is the world’s most widely spoken language, with some 1.5 billion speakers even though it’s native for fewer than 400 million. English accounts for 60 percent of world internet content and is the lingua franca of pop culture and the global economy. All 100 of the world’s most influential science journals publish in English. “Across Europe, close to 100 percent 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 constantly try to ban Anglicisms “such as gamer, dark web and fake news,” Salomone writes, but their edicts are “quietly ignored.” Although a French statute called the Toubon Law “requires radio stations to play 35 percent French songs,” “the remaining 65 percent is flooded with American music.” Many young French artists sing in English. By law, French schoolchildren must study a foreign language, and while eight languages are available, 90 percent choose English.
Salomone, the Kenneth Wang professor of law at St. John’s University School of Law, tends to glide over why English won, simply stating that English is the language of neoliberalism and globalization, which seems to beg the question. But she is meticulous and nuanced in chronicling the battles being fought over language policy in countries ranging from Italy to Congo, and analyzing the unexpected winners and losers.
Exactly whom English benefits is complicated. Obviously it benefits native Anglophones. Americans, with what Salomone calls their “smug monolingualism,” are often blissfully unaware of the advantage they have because of the worldwide dominance of their native tongue. English also benefits globally connected market-dominant minorities in non-Western countries, like English-speaking whites in South Africa or the Anglophone Tutsi elite in Rwanda. In former French colonies like Algeria and Morocco, shifting from French to English is seen not just 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 depict English as the colonizers’ language, impeding the vision of an India unified by Hindu culture and Hindi. By contrast, for speakers of non-Hindi languages and members of lower castes, English is often seen as a shield against majority domination. Some reformers see English as an “egalitarian language” in contrast to Indian languages, which carry “the legacy of caste.” English is also a symbol of social status. As a character in a recent Bollywood hit says: “English isn’t just a language in this country. It’s a class.” Meanwhile, Indian tiger parents, “from the wealthiest to the poorest,” press for their children to be taught in English, seeing it as the ticket to upward mobility.
Salomone’s South Africa chapter is among the most interesting in the book. Along with Afrikaans, English is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and even though only 9.6 percent of the population speak English as their first language, it “dominates every sector,” including government, the internet, business, broadcasting, the press, street signs and popular music. But English is not only the language of South Africa’s commercial and political elite. It was also the language of Black resistance to the Afrikaner-dominated apartheid regime, giving it enormous symbolic importance. Thus, recent years have seen poor and working-class Black activists pushing for English-only instruction in universities, even though many of them are not proficient in the language. Opponents of English, however, argue that shifting away from Afrikaans instruction disproportionately hurts the poor of all races, including lower-income Blacks, whites and mixed-race “colored” South Africans. Meanwhile, younger “colored activists are challenging the English-Afrikaans binary and exploring alternate forms of expression, like AfriKaaps,” a form of Afrikaans promoted by hip-hop artists. For now, though, “the constitutional commitment to language equality in South Africa is aspirational at best,” and “English reigns supreme for its economic power.”
Learning English pays, with “positive labor market returns across the globe.” Throughout academia today, even in Europe and Asia, “the rule no longer is ‘Publish or perish’ but rather ‘Publish in English … or perish.’” In the Middle East, “employees who were more proficient in English earned salaries from 5 percent (Tunisia) to a stunning 200 percent (Iraq) more than their non-English-speaking counterparts.” In Argentina, 90 percent of employers “believed that English was an indispensable skill for managers and directors.” In every country she surveys, 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 the national language, while advocating for more multilingualism in Anglophone countries. Beyond the economic benefits of speaking multiple languages in a globalized world, Salomone cites studies that show learning new languages improves overall cognitive function. In addition, she argues, “observing life through a wide linguistic and cultural lens leads to greater creativity and innovation.”
“The Rise of English” has its weaknesses. Most important, the book lacks any clear thesis beyond suggesting “language is political; it’s complicated.” In addition, the book doesn’t tie together or reflect on the divergence of its case studies; I frequently found myself wondering why the experiences of (say) France or Italy or Denmark were different, and what we should take from that fact.
Finally, the book offers no clear evaluative framework. Salomone focuses primarily on straightforward economic factors (which often boil down to the same thing: access to global markets), but there is a smattering of underdeveloped discussion of other, more elusive themes too, like race, equity, colonialism and imperialism. This hodgepodge of incommensurables may trace back to the book’s origins. In her preface, Salomone writes, “My initial plan was to write a book on the value of language in the global economy.” But “the deeper I dug … the more I viewed the issues through a wider global lens and the clearer the connections to educational equity, identity and democratic participation appeared.” Unfortunately, she never quite gets a handle on these deeper issues.
Will Mandarin, with its 1.11 billion speakers, eventually replace English as the world’s lingua franca? Will Google or Microsoft Translate moot the issue? Salomone’s painstakingly thorough book addresses these questions too (concluding probably not).
The justifications for English — or any language — as a global lingua franca are based primarily in economic efficiency. By contrast, the reasons to protect local languages mostly sound in different registers — the importance of cultural heritage; the geopolitics of resistance to great powers; the value of Indigenous art; the beauty of idiosyncratic words in other languages that describe all the different types of snow or the different flavors of melancholia. As Gramsci reminded us, the question of who speaks what language invariably puts all this on the table.


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