Saturday, September 30, 2006

Language Triumphant, Language in Decline

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

For two centuries – since the defeat of Napoleon – the globe has been dominated by English-speaking nations.

The first of these great powers was Britain, which used sea-power and the economic muscle of its Industrial Revolution to create an empire that planted English in all the populated continents. America rose as Britain’s rival, and decisively replaced her as the world’s global power after the Second World War – especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In both instances, these countries held diplomatic sway over most nations, and economic dominance over large percentages of the global economy. Both countries were leaders in science, technology and medicine, and they were great trading nations.

The result? Although it is the native language of perhaps half a billion people – a large number, but still only eight percent of the world’s population – English dominates the planet.

It is the primary language of world trade, business and management. It is the language of global travel, tourism and hospitality. It is the international language of science and medicine. It is the language of diplomacy and international cooperation. It is the language of global banking and Third World development. It is the dominant language in all forms of international media and publishing. Although many languages can now reach around the world cheaply over the Internet and satellite broadcasting, it is English that consistently reaches the biggest global audiences. English is the language of sports and glamour: both the Olympics and the Miss Universe pageant use English as the official language. It is the ecumenical language of the World Council of Churches.

And it is the language of academia. According to The Economist,
The top universities are citizens of an international academic marketplace with one global academic currency, one global labour force and, increasingly, one global language, English. They are also increasingly citizens of a global economy, sending their best graduates to work for multinational companies. The creation of global universities was spearheaded by the Americans; now everybody else is trying to get in on the act.


Not since the Tower of Babel has a single language had so powerful a presence. According to some forecasts, within just a few decades more Chinese will be able to speak English than in the rest of the world combined. Already, more people speak English as a second language in India than in all of Britain, where the language began. Indeed, in countries like India and Singapore, English is the language used for administration, broadcasting and education.

In the European Union, English is spoken by more people as a foreign language than by the combined populations of many of the region's smaller countries. The young in particular use this foreign language with unnerving fluency.

Alone among the world’s major languages, English is spoken by more people as a second or foreign language than by people who learned the language as their native tongue. According to one outstanding account of the growth of English from local dialect to global behemoth, we are now living in an English-speaking world. English is the first truly global language.

As an international language, English has a few regional rivals. These include Arabic in the House of Islam; Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America; Russian in much of Eurasia; and Chinese dialects in overseas Chinese communities. Except in Canada and a few former colonies, French long ago lost its claim to be the lingua franca. English has no equals.

The language has become the basis of a teaching and learning phenomenon that prospers in almost every country. Within English-speaking countries like Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States, huge numbers of new migrants must be taught English as a second language. Among prospering countries in the developing world, English is generally part of the public school curriculum, and language schools flourish.

As an international learning phenomenon, nothing comes close to the study of English. At any given moment, untold millions are studying the language. Some do so to integrate into British, Canadian, American, Australian or New Zealand life. Others hope to get a higher-paying job in a tourist resort in Phuket, say. And still others want only to benefit from the increasing mobility this language offers to travellers bound for Southeast Asia or virtually any other international destination.

Languages at Risk: At the other end of the spectrum from English are the world’s tribal languages. Most of these tongues - more than six thousand in number - are in steep decline. The process has been well documented. First, decreasing numbers of children learn the language. It becomes endangered when the youngest speakers are young adults. A language is seriously endangered when the youngest speakers have reached or passed middle age. And it is moribund when only a few moribund speakers are left. Then comes extinction.

Using Thailand as an example, one language, Phalok, is already moribund. Four other obscure languages – Bisu, Mlabri, Myu and Lavua – are in earlier stages of decline.

Every year the deaths of old people reduce the already small numbers of speakers of many marginal languages. Meanwhile, these tongues carry on in the fringes of most societies, with few advocates for their preservation. Obscure texts by linguists may preserve their grammar and vocabulary, but there is no likelihood that these languages will repeat Hebrew’s achievement, and rise alive from the tombs of dead languages.

Is this important? The followers of Chomsky would say "no", since the underlying idea behind universal grammar is that everybody speaks the same language. Most field linguists, however, believe that linguistic diversity represents a common good for mankind. According to the 2001 edition,
every language reflects a unique world-view and culture complex mirroring the manner in which a speech community has resolved its problems in dealing with the world, and has formulated its thinking, philosophy and understanding of the world around it.


The Status of Thai: Between these two extremes is the Thai language, which epitomises the development of national languages during the years since English began to take over the world. Thailand’s present dynasty was founded in the years after 1767, when Burma destroyed and looted the kingdom of Ayuthaya and its vassals.

As a resurgent Siam conquered Burmese armies and extended its domain, the new Chakri dynasty of kings found themselves heir to a much larger land, but one comprised of many peoples speaking many tongues. In Thailand’s far south, the people were Muslim, and the dominant language Malay. And in the mountains that dominate the landscape of northern Thailand, the rich fabric of hill tribes was woven with languages spoken in few other places in the world.

For most people living in valleys and on the plains the root language was Thai. However, there were so many variants that linguists have identified Thai dialects with six and even seven tones. Besides these tonal differences, dialects varied dramatically from region to region – and still do.

Speakers in Thailand’s northeast (Isaan) speak a language more like Lao (a Tai language spoken in Laos) than to central Thai. Along the Thai/Cambodian border, large numbers speak Khmer – another language still. In the new kingdom, even the scripts were different – the country’s north, for example, had a script that was widely used until the second half of the twentieth century.

From this Babel of tongues, Thailand has progressively developed the Thai language into an important national language: perhaps among the 20 most widely spoken languages on the planet. Through the tools of education, mass media and government influence and suasion, central Thai has developed into the national language.

At some level, it is spoken by most of the kingdom’s 63 million inhabitants, and only one script is now in common use. Thai is not much spoken outside the country, except to a small extent in adjacent countries – most of them (Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia) failed states.
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