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THE BIG THREE: CHINESE, ENGLISH, AND SPANISH
Tom McArthur, Ph.D.
THE WIDER REACH OF ENGLISH AT PRESENT
It is an honour and a pleasure to be here with you today at this Kongress Bahasa Utama Dunia (Congress of World's Major Languages).
The language that goes by the name English has grown very large indeed, and in recent decades its variations and the distribution of its users have become so widespread that I have taken to talking and writing not only about English but also about the English languages, presenting this supposedly single very large language as in effect a language family, like the Romance languages, all of which 'emerged' as it were from Latin, or the Semitic languages, which have spread out immensely widely from their place of origin in West Asia.
PLURAL FORMS OF ENGLISH - ENGLISHES!
Many scholars of English worldwide have, since the 1980s, been referring not simply to English but using a radical plural form Englishes, a practice initiated and successfully promoted since the early 1980s by the Indian American linguist Braj Kachru. And he has succeeded in this despite the fact that many people - Indian, American, British, and other - consider the usage Englishes to be grammatically barbarous. Try, for example, to talk and think about the Frenches, the Spanishes, or indeed the Malays, which would be thoroughly ambiguous.
"VARIETY OF ENGLISH"
Interestingly enough, however, although the plural form Englishes has been widely taken up, and even occurs in the name of a relevant journal, World Englishes, we do not often encounter language scholars or others who talk about, say, Canadian we do not often encounter language scholars or others who talk about, say, Canadian English or Malaysian English as an English; they generally prefer to say a variety of English. Clearly, in linguistics, just like language at large usage can be tricky. So, the form Englishes has been widely accepted and put to use, but the phrase an English has not, or not yet, become 'normal,' and the phrase the English languages, although it has made some progress and I will certainly continue to use it, nonetheless remains rather odd.
TRE AND TERE
More recently, however, I have found the expression the English language complex helpful, because the English language (or languages, or Englishes) as it is or they are used on a global scale constitute a vast and intricate system, whose many varieties include at least two acknowledged kinds of standard English, one of them "centred" (TRE) on the United Kingdom while the other is "centered" (TERE) on the United States.
ENGLISH - A VERY LARGE LANGUAGE
Of course English, whether it can have a plural or not, is a language as we conventionally understand the term, but it is more than that, because there are many kinds of English whose speakers have trouble understanding one another, at least at first. One can certainly call it a very large language, whereas Scottish Gaelic, the language of my ancestors, has nowadays about 70,000 speakers, which makes it a pretty small language by present-day standards. A thousand years ago Gaelic was the primary language of Scotland, among at least four others, and over the centuries it accumulated a rich literature which however very few people indeed are able to read.
NOT AN UNUSUAL FAMILY STORY NOWADAYS!
So, I come here from a family that recently and access to both a small local declining language and a large international expanding language. My three now adult children however do not know a word of that original family language, of which indeed I acquired only a little myself as a youngster, but all three of them know French, mainly as a result of living for some years in the province of Quebec, in Canada, while my older daughter by choice and through great effort and application is fluent in Japanese, while my son speaks very passable Italian. And that, for better and for worse, is increasingly the way of the modern world. Certainly, my grand-parents could not have predicted the languages that their great grand-children would and would not be speaking.
This is not such an unusual family story nowadays. Many generations of people worldwide have gone through equally complex experiences with languages, indeed to such an extent that it may be useful to have some models of the world they - we - live in.
DIVISION OF WORLD LANGUAGES INTO SEVEN CATEGORIES
In recent years, therefore, I have found it helpful to divide the world's languages and their condition into seven categories. These categories are not absolute, their edges are fuzzy, and not all languages fit neatly into them, but I have found them helpful, and hope that you may too. From the largest to the smallest, they are:
- English - a language complex with two pre-eminent forms (historically British and American, currently American and British) and many other varieties worldwide, world-regional, national, and national-regional. At the present time, English is used by at least a billion people, as a first, second, or other language, is being learned globally by millions more, notably the young, can be heard or seen virtually everywhere, and is the primary global medium for commerce, technology, science, education, the media, warfare, peace-keeping, and a Western-derived culture that is currently universalizing itself. Its primary focus in the later 19th century was Britain, an offshore island in Western Europe, but by the second half of the 20th century its centre (or center) of gravity had shifted across the Atlantic to North America, and especially the United States. Ethnically, its key historical communities have been identified as predominantly Anglo-Saxon, and are in the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.
- Chinese, Spanish, Hindi-Urdu - three language complexes, each used by many millions of people. Chinese is the largest such complex in the world, but, uniquely, is based on a single ethnicity and culture, the Han Chinese. It ahs over a billion user, the vast majority of whom are located in East Asia, in Greater China (the People's Republic, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) and more thinly in neighbouring territories, most notably Singapore. Spanish is widely disseminated on the other side of the Pacific, in the Americas, its centre of gravity, with a limited focus in Europe (where, like English, it originated). There is no key cultural centre, despite the ancient prestige of Spain, but its geopolitical centre, like English, is in the western hemisphere, not in its place of origin. It is also found in several parts of Africa and in the Philippines. Hindi-Urdu, on the other hand, has its massive population based in a single historical region; mainly northern India and Pakistan, with diaspora communities in the UK, the US, Canada, Fiji, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere. Hindi-Urdu is not socio-culturally one. It Hindi component is the national language of India, is written in the Devanagari script, and is in the main a medium for Hindus. Its Urdu component uses the Perso-Arabic script and is primarily a medium for Muslims, in both India and Pakistan. Each of these complexes is central to a large, specific, and distinct culture and region.
- A range of widely-used historically and culturally significant languages includes Arabic, French, German, Japanese, and Malay, strong languages socially, culturally, demographically, and economically. Arabic, for example, is used densely across North Africa and from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Philippines, as the key language of the Arab world and the primary vehicle of Islam. It is notable for having a conservative Classical form strongly associated with the Qur'an and a range of Colloquial and not always mutually intelligible forms that are more or less co-extensive with the populations of nation-states that are wholly or predominantly Muslim, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, and Egypt. The Malay complex is uniquely focused on a large peninsular and insular region, and as a result ahs had distinctive associations with many languages, including Sanskrit and Arabic in relatively local terms, and Portuguese, Dutch, and English as a consequence of the arrival by sea from the West of successive traders, sailors, soldiers, and others from least three European maritime nations.
- Major national and regional languages such as Hausa in West Africa, Swahili in East Africa, Italian and Hungarian in Europe, Persian in Western and Central Asia, Tamil in India, Guarani in Paraguay, all used in communities with significant populations, social histories, and cultures.
- Smaller but socially strong languages within one or more territories, such as Catalan in Spain and France, Berber in Morocco, Ilocano in the Philippines, and Nahuatl in Mexico.
- Small languages that belong to politically less powerful communities, often depleted by social circumstances or emigration, such as Gallego in Spain, Welsh in Wales, Maori in New Zealand, and Navajo in the United States.
- Finally, the majority: very small languages whose numbers of users are in the low thousands, hundreds, tens, or less, spoken by shrinking communities in or across the boundaries of nation-states, and often being assimilated into more powerful societies, as with the Aboriginal languages of Australia, such as Aranda, the 'heritage languages' of Canada, such as Ojibwa and Inuit/Eskimo, and the so-called "American Indian" languages of the United States, such as Apache, Cherokee, and Sioux.
INTER-TWINING OF ALL LANGUAGES
Although I am concerned today primarily with the first and second of these categories, I cannot talk in any detail about either of them without bringing into the discussion languages listed in the other categories, because in many instances individuals and communities are using large languages alongside their own smaller and less influential languages or are giving up, or have given up, their inherited languages in favor of one or other of the languages that belong in especially categories 1 and 2.
"WORLD ENGLISH" IS NOT QUITE ALONE
In particular, the accelerating spread in recent decades of what is now increasingly being called 'world English' has been remarkable by any standard. However, the English language is not quite alone at the top, although I have (necessarily, I believe) given it a category all to itself, on the basis of both its increasing global distribution and the numbers of its users, whether as a mother tongue or other tongue.
THREE OTHER LANGUAGE COMPLEXES IN THE SAME LEAGUE AS ENGLISH
The key point, especially for this discussion, is that three other language complexes currently operate on a scale that is in virtually the same league as English: Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi-Urdu. But none has it matching global distribution, and one in particular (Hindi-Urdu) is so massively concentrated in one region that it has minimal impact elsewhere. Indeed, the combination term 'Hindi-Urdu' is not (yet) well known on the international scene. In effect, therefore, this vast complex removes itself from the global discussion, despite its vast regional strength, complexity, and significance.
THREE IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT APPLY TO OTHER COMPLEXES AS WELL
Indeed, the following three factors also apply to Hindi-Urdu, but in global terms they relate more immediately to Chinese, Spanish, and English:
- There are far more users of Chinese and Spanish learning English than there are users of English learning Spanish and Chinese.
- There are far more users of Chinese and Spanish learning English than are learning one another's language.
- There are far more users of other languages learning English than are learning Chinese and Spanish, and this because of its size, distribution, utility, and gravitational pull.
POSITION OF SPANISH VIS-A-VIS ENGLISH IN AMERICA
However, we can at the same time note that Spanish occupies a unique position as the only language that is currently making territorial inroads into the English-speaking world, and this in its most powerful region, the United States. The demographic and linguistic advance of Spanish-speaking 'Latino' migrants into the US (mainly from Mexico, but also from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean) has been so marked in recent time that alarmed linguistic conservatives in the US have for years been campaigning for English to be made the official US federal language, and also for Latino children to be taught English and taught only through English in the nation's schools. Thus, intriguingly and ironically, in its most powerful fortress, and most creative focal point, enough people have been nervous enough to band together to protect a language that is in no need whatever of protection.
ENGLISH IN COMPARISON WITH OTHER LANGUAGE COMPLEXES
The English language complex, with its unique mix of distribution and variation, is currently used more, and more widely, than any other language has ever been used. The Chinese language complex is statistically larger, but the vast majority of its speakers are the ethnically and culturally homogeneous Han Chinese. The distribution of Chinese is massively centred (and continues to expand) in one place, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the vast majority of the world's non-Chinese learners and users of Chinese are the non-Han citizens of the PRC, with a small but growing number of learners in neighbouring East Asia.
Spanish is widely distributed, and is powerfully present in America, but is absent from Europe beyond the Pyrenees, is in contention in Spain with the regional languages Catalan, Galician, and Basque, and is minimally present in Africa, Asia, and Australasia.
Other large languages are all less widespread than English, but may be more widespread than Spanish and Chinese. Arabic is most notable in terms of its distribution, being in daily use from Morocco on the Atlantic to the Gulf states, with its influence extending to wherever Muslims may be found. It therefore has considerable potential as a world language: witness its already increased use in Europe. Both Malay and Russian are highly significant in terms of regional distribution while German and Japanese are associated with strong economies and populous nation-states, but without any distinctive cultural role to play internationally.
Again, however, and crucially, there are more speakers of all these languages investing time and effort in learning and using English than in learning any other language, large or small. This is the current and apparently indefinitely on-going global pattern, but we cannot assume that it will be a permanent condition in the world. The rapid decline in the role of Russian after the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrates how rapidly sociolinguistic conditions can change.
PROFIT (AND LOSS) IN LEARNING LARGE LANGUAGES
In a world subject to such patterns, there is profit (in all senses of that word) in acquiring and using any of the world's large languages (if one is not already a competent speaker of that language), and most particularly at the present time in acquiring and using English or, significantly, in ensuring that one's children acquire and use it. However, as David Crystal has shown in his study entitled Language Death (Cambridge University Press 2000), there is immense social, emotive, and intellectual loss in the steady current extinction of hundreds of languages. The depredations of the English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French languages in the Americas, in relation to a once large and rich store of original languages, already constitute a case in point. But few people in fact mourn the passing of these languages. We tend, by large, to be pragmatic about such matters.
PRE-EMINENT CHARACTERISTICS OF LEADING LANGUAGES
Certain things have traditionally been required of languages at the large end of the social spectrum, pre-eminent among them an 'educated' or 'standard' variety with its own cultural tradition of writing and print, and perhaps also with a distinctive and demand for a standard international form of the language that can be taught and then used consistently and well worldwide.
This demand is still far from being addressed globally, but we can note that where it is being addressed the people and organizations with most to gain are publishers and the media, primarily at the present time in the UK, but also in the US, and increasingly in Australia and New Zealand, which might well, with Anglophone Canada, be regarded as the five cardinal English-language states. The 'added value' which their possession of English gives these states is difficult to quantify in such areas as publishing and, perhaps more importantly, in places in schools and universities for those who can afford them for their children.
A PARADOX OF ENGLISH
There is however a paradox here too. The entity called 'English' is known to be highly varied, yet in spite of knowing this we expect a high degree of communicability. In other words, we all expect a manageable, teachable, and learnable socially and academically valuable 'high' language. In technical terms we are looking for an acrolect, as opposed to a basilect - something that serves the ends, in effect, of what we have for at least the last ten years been calling globalization: that is, world commerce, world travel, world culture, world education. This is what has occasionally even been called, half-humorously, a 'Mandarin English'.
There are at least two technical terms for such a variety of English, although as yet neither is much used beyond the publications of David Crystal and myself: one 'World Standard English'; the other is 'International Standard English'. It is an indication of the distinctness of English from the other vast language complexes that no one talks about 'World standard Chinese' or 'International Standard Spanish', although there has been considerable success in talking about, and promoting, the idea of le franšais international ('International French').
ARE THERE NO RIVALS?
Are there then no rivals to WSE/ISE? Perhaps there are. For example, in The Future of English?, published by the British Council in 1997, the ELT adviser and language commentator David Graddol suggests three options for English as the lingua franca at least of Asia. His first suggestion is that English might well keep this role indefinitely, his second that it might be supplanted by Mandarin Chinese, but his third that there might not in future be any real Asian lingua franca: that is, even English may not achieve this particular goal.
THE GROWING IMPORTANCE OF CHINESE
It may however be too early to write Chinese out of the script. It is after all (however one defines it and however one contrasts the 'national language' and the 'dialects') the largest communicative complex in the world and may well already be beginning to compete with English, at least in East Asia. It is pretty certain that in the next few decades tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and others, not only in Asia but in Africa, Australasia, Europe, and even North America, will study Putonghua/Mandarin in order to do business with, and operate freely in, mainland China, as well as communicate electronically on a worldwide basis in Pinyin (the roman script for Chinese in the People's Republic). However, Chinese currently has no significant role in South and West Asia, although it is likely to increase its role in North and Central Asia, where the shrinkage of Russian has served to extend the use of English, which formerly had little significance there, but may yet, entirely logically, share the space as 'a window on the world' with Chinese.
ASEAN AND THE FUTURE OF ENGLISH IN ASIA
We cannot at present know this. We do however know enough to say that English will indefinitely sustain its key role in Asia, as illustrated by recent developments in ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, which has used English as its common medium since its creation in 1967. One must suppose that, when ASEAN members meet other prospective Asian trade partners, most notably China and India, English will sustain (and perhaps expand) its current role. In that role, however, it will no longer be operating as an offshore European language that trespassed its way to power in Asia, nor even as a global medium, but as first a South East Asian lingua franca, then quite possibly a pan-Asian lingua franca: much as Latin in Europe once spread far beyond Rome, and took on roles that the old Romans could never have imagined, such as the foundation language of international medical science.
A key reason, of course, for the use of English as an Asian lingua franca is its support role as a global language. Asia however differs from all other continents save mainly Spanish-speaking South America in having no large native English-speaking with English as the key medium first of the British Empire then of its imperial successor, the United States. In the Americas, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, tomorrow's key languages will be English and Spanish. In East Asia, they will probably be English and mandarin Chinese, while elsewhere in that vast continent it will be English and Hindi-Urdu and English and Arabic. This is a vast development with centuries ahead of it. It may even mean that one day a truly universal medium will emerge, to which all the great languages contribute. And, if we're really lucky, some of the small ones as well.
This paper was presented in the Congress of World's Major Languages, conducted by the Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka (Department of Language) of the Government of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur from October 5-8, 2004.
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ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF LANGUAGE PLANNING IN MALAYSIA - Looking Ahead to the Future | THE BIG THREE: CHINESE, ENGLISH, AND SPANISH | CONCEPT OF TIME | FIFTY YEARS OF LANGUAGE PLANNING FOR MODERN HINDI - The Official Language of India | DEWAN BAHASA DAN PUSTAKA, Institute of Language and Literature Malaysia - A Brief Overview | TOWARDS SOME "STANDARD" TELUGU | UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF LINGUISTIC RIGHTS | TRADITION, MODERNITY, AND IMPACT OF GLOBALIZATION - WHITHER WILL TAMIL GO? | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR
Tom McArthur, Ph.D.
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