[SCMP Column] Language lessons

July 09, 2016

Whatever the pace of Britain’s decline as a global colonial power, there is one area where the sun still never sets on Britain’s hegemonic reach – the use of the English language.

English language is today the undisputed ruler of world languages, spoken by approximately 1.5 billion people across 110 countries. Only Spanish comes close, spoken as a mother tongue in just 20 countries, mostly in South America. English is the official language of 66 countries and the de facto main means of communication in many more. It is arguably Britain’s biggest and most significant export. And yet the paradox of becoming the world’s first global language is that it has taken on a life of its own: the UK does not own it any more.
Ironically, in the wake of the awful British referendum voting the UK out of the European Union, it may be the fact that the UK no longer owns it that saves English, even as little England slides further into global insignificance.

Among the EU’s 28 members, only one – the UK – names English as its official language. The Irish say their official language is Gaelic, and the Maltese say their official language is – you guessed – Maltese. This is even though officials in Brussels jest that the only people in Malta who are fluent in Maltese are the translators working in the EU. So in technical terms, the moment the UK leaves, English no longer exists as an EU official language. EU regulations (originally drafted in 1958 in French) will have to be changed if the status of English as one of the 24 official languages, and one of the three working languages (French and German are the others) is to be preserved.

There are some – mainly French – who are celebrating this setback to the hegemonic march of the English language. Robert Ménard, mayor of the southern French town of Béziers, is on record last week as saying that the English language no longer has any legitimacy in Brussels. But I have a sense that he is spitting in the wind. It is true that of the world’s 7,100 official languages, almost 1,500 are in trouble and 900 are dying – but English is not going to be one of them any time soon. When a Polish member of the EU meets a member from Slovenia, the only language they can share is English. So too with a Lithuanian sitting down for a coffee with an Italian. Whatever the regulations say, and no matter how keenly the sentimental French wish it, the reality is that English will remain alive and kicking for quite a long time to come.

While English language is likely to prevail, the kind of English that people use, and how “pidgenised” it becomes, is altogether another matter. Already circulating in the corridors of the European Commission is a bristling publication entitled “Misused English words and expressions in EU publications” which lists 100 words and expressions that have become Baudlerised by EU officials. So the word “actual” has come to mean “happening now” (i.e. “the meeting is actual”), rather than “real”; and the word “punctual” does not mean “on time”, but “occasional”.

Of course, the report’s prim punctiliousness will be ignored – just as were my priggish efforts a decade ago to get Hong Kong market stall holders to stop misusing apostrophes (“Fresh tomato’s HK$30/lb”). English is now so widely used in diplomacy and business that almost all conversations happen without native English speakers in the room, with not a language policeman in sight.

As one Italian diplomat friend noted recently: “Everyone gets along fine using English until an actual Englishman or woman turns up and starts using colloquialisms.” I was reminded that over three decades working in Asia as a journalist, interrogating most interviewees in their second language, I quickly learned that life was much less confusing if I purged all English colloquialisms from my conversation. It is really surprising to realise how much of the vocabulary of native English speakers is peppered with cricket idioms, or Shakespearean references, which are gobbledygook to most non-native English speakers. So you can’t say something is a “red herring”, or that an audience was “in stitches”, or that it was “raining cats and dogs”, or that the executive team would have to “play it by ear” – at least, not if you want to be understood.

While I am confident that for the foreseeable future English is likely to retain its hegemonic throttlehold on business, diplomatic and scientific conversations across the world, I am far from certain about the long term. As language historian Nicholas Ostler has noted: “A business lingua franca lays shallow roots – and what politics in Europe has given (to the English language), politics can take away.” While he notes that a habit of language use can be very sticky (English cannot be removed as an official language in India until it is given up by every state), he believes that Brexit may be a dangerous and damaging development for the English language. Note that while many of the 53 countries in the British Commonwealth have retained English as their official language, those that have not (for example Malaysia adopting Malay, Sri Lanka adopting Sinhala, of Tanzania adopting Swahili) have seen declining English fluency in the younger generations that now study in their official native language). Here in Hong Kong too, many would argue that fluency in English has declined sharply among the younger generation in the 20 years since Britain relinquished colonial control.

But let’s not make too big a deal about this. Latin remained the main European language for almost a millennium, long after the Roman Empire collapsed. And Turkic conquerers sustained the use of Persian throughout west Asia and India for seven centuries “as a mark of Muslim civility”. Today it is arguable that the language of the world’s most ambitious people remains English, and whatever the xenophobic mess our little Englanders have got the UK into, this means that the English language will continue to be cherished worldwide for long to come.
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