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English: The Killer Language? Or a Passing Phase?

Whether we consider English a "killer language" or not, whether we regard its spread as benign globalization or linguistic imperialism, the expansive reach of English is undeniable and, for the time being, unstoppable.

There are reasons to believe that the English language will eventually wane in influence. For one, English actually reaches and is then utilized by only a small, atypically fortunate minority. Furthermore, globalization has also encouraged regionalization, and with it the spread of regional languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hausa, Spanish. Finally, the spread of English and these regional languages collectively has created a squeeze effect on small communities, producing pockets of anxious localization and local-language revival resistant to global change.

For all the enthusiasm and vitriol generated by grand-scale globalization, often heavily associated with the spread of English, it is the growth in regional interactions?trade, travel, the spread of religion, inter-ethnic marriages?that touches the widest array of local populations. These interactions promote the spread of regional languages. In Africa, for example, where a third of the world's approximately 6,000 languages are spoken and where 13 percent of the world's population lives, English is neither the only nor even the best means of communication. Throughout East Africa, Swahili is typically the first language that two strangers attempt upon meeting. In West Africa, Hausa is often the language of choice.

Some [non-English] regional languages are spreading in part due to the efforts of organizations and government agencies. France spends billions of francs annually to support French language and culture abroad. The German government funds seventy-eight Goethe Institutes, scattered from Beirut to Jakarta, that promote German language and arts. And Singapore, a tiny country with four official languages, is in the nineteenth year of its national "Speak Mandarin" campaign.

The importance of regional languages should increase in the near future as more and more regional lingua francas are used by merchants, writers, and relief workers to reach larger populations. In many developing areas, regional languages are used to facilitate agricultural, industrial, and commercial expansion across local boundaries. Wherever the local vernaculars are just too many to handle, regional languages come to the fore among ordinary "rank and file" citizens.

For all the pressures and rewards of regionalization and globalization, local identities remain deeply ingrained. Local languages often serve a strong symbolic function in most communities as a clear mark of "authenticity," which represents a sum total of a community's history. They also foster higher levels of school success, participation in local government, and knowledge of one's own culture and faith. Like regional languages, many of these smaller tongues, even those with far fewer than one million speakers, have benefited from governmental or voluntary preservation movements. The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, created by the European Parliament in 1984, protects the language rights of the nearly 50 million European Union citizens who speak one or more of Europe's forty recognized minority languages. As a result, never before in world history have there been as many languages of literacy as there are today: roughly 1,200.

Multilingualism?where each language is assigned its own distinctive societal functions?may be the wave of the future. The language characteristically used with intimate family and friends, the language generally used with coworkers or neighbors, and the language used with one's bosses or government, need not be one and the same. Many West Africans, for example, are trilingual on a fully functional basis: they use local mother tongues when among "their own," Hausa for regional trade and secular literacy, and Arabic for prayer and Koranic study. As long as no two or more languages compete for the same functions, a linguistic division of labor can be both amicable and long-standing.

What is to come of English? It may well gravitate increasingly toward the higher social classes, as those of more modest status turn to regional languages for more modest gains. Or it might become widely disliked as a linguistic bully, even as it is widely learned. Resentment of both the predominance of English and of its tendency to spread along class lines could in the long term prove a check against its further globalization.

There is no reason to assume that English will always be necessary, as it is today, for technology, higher education, and social mobility, particularly after its regional rivals experience their own growth spurts. The decline of French has not irreparably harmed art or diplomacy, nor has the similar decline of German harmed the exact sciences. Just because the use of English around the world might drop does not mean the values associated today with its spread must also fade. Ultimately, democracy, international trade, and economic development can flourish in any tongue.