Thursday, May 28, 2009
Usually TED videos are extremely good, but this one pointed out yesterday on Auxlang strikes me as a bit odd / lazy. Take a look at the video:
Fads don't actually last that long, and English doesn't owe its success as a language due to this but rather due to geopolitical reasons. The idea of English as an international language has actually been around for quite some time, and it's easy to find examples of articles claiming this even in the early 20th century when French was still quite strong. China may still be taking in English as a fad, but in the rest of East Asia this stage has passed and a harder reality has set in: a certain knowledge of English is necessary to get ahead, but true fluency is hard to achieve, and life without fluent English is pretty comfortable as well.
One other thing to take note of is the fact that English textbooks and learning methods are a huge business, and it's in the interest of those that have written these books to market English as the key to a new international self and success in life. Covers for these textbooks almost always look the same:
There's nothing wrong with marketing English in this way; it's a business and it only makes sense to market one's product. But at the same time there's no reason to conclude that English is about to become the world's second language due to large participation at these events alone.
For some numbers on why English is not going to become the world's second language, see this post of mine from last year. The short answer (and this is the conclusion of the British Council as well) is that it will remain at the top for at least 50 years (no other language is even close to taking its place), but the final victory will still elude English, and other languages will continue to strengthen themselves and remain worth learning. The competitive advantage that a functional knowledge of English gives will vanish, and only by knowing another language in addition to this will one be able to stand out. A linguistic deadlock will emerge, and that's where IAL advocates may be able to make their case again, and hopefully be listened to this time.