If aliens conquered the earth and decided to give their colony a new constitution, in what language would they draft it? If you didn’t say ‘English’, I bet you are just that humble alien who is yet to visit planet earth. You don’t need to be as intelligent as an alien anyway to know that speaking in English is the best option if your audience includes the entire humanity. Some humans don’t know English, but they surely know somebody or the other who does. Aided by the internet, English has turned out to be such a linguistic Big Bang that the question to ask is no longer whether or not your lives are touched by English, but to what degree, or how soon.

No, this is more than a restatement of the obvious, or another invocation of the ‘universal language’ myth. This is the developing story of the English Cosmopolis.

IMG_6582In the words of the British Council, the pre-eminent English teaching agency in the world, ‘English has come of age as a global language. It is spoken by a quarter of the world’s population, enabling a true single market in knowledge and ideas. It now belongs to the world and increasingly to non-native speakers – who today far outnumber native speakers.’ [1]

English Means Business 

Mario Monti

Defending the continuation of English as an official language of the European Union in a recent BBC interview, the former EU Commissioner and Italian prime minister Mario Monti said, ‘The language is of immense universal value. English has become the first language in many sciences, technical professions, business and commercial activities. Also the economic implications of a greater use of English should be considered when we consider the gap in productivity, for example the EU has, relative to the US and other parts of the world. […] Every European, especially of a young age, who does not speak English should be strongly encouraged to learn [it]. […] Whether I fear a Trojan horse of the English language within the European Union, I think it will be welcome.’ [2]

Tsedal Neeley

Monti in fact is just another of the Trojan horse’s influential admirers. It has been the darling of policymakers, educators and businesses around the world for quite some time. Harvard Business School professor and author of the book The Language of Global Success Tsedal Neelay writes: ‘There’s no question that unrestricted multilingualism is inefficient and can prevent important interactions from taking place and get in the way of achieving key goals. The need to tightly coordinate tasks and work with customers and partners worldwide has accelerated the move IMG_6583toward English as the official language of business no matter where companies are headquartered.’ These practical considerations have implications way beyond daytoday convenience; they make English a key component of the globalization jigsaw, along with technology and capitalism. English could sometimes be the only difference between winners and losers. ‘Companies that fail to devise a language strategy are essentially limiting their growth opportunities to the markets where their language is spoken, clearly putting themselves at a disadvantage to competitors that have adopted English-only policies,’ [3] adds Neeley.

Pichai’s Progress and the English Imperative

Sundar Pichai

Sundar Pichai’s ascent as the CEO of Alphabet led to a thunderous social media celebration in India. In fact, he has been the ultimate hero of an aspirational Indian middle-class story in which the nerdy front-bencher follows a scripted path to ultimate success collecting every gold medal available along the way. The Pichai story is both a vindication of a didactic myth and an illustration of the humble realism of trust in education. 

It will be interesting to ask how far English, besides whatever else Pichai learned in his Indian college, helped him in the world of technology and business. The accounts of his life in India have wisely skipped such impertinent questions as what languages he knew and spoke. If factually told, the story of Pichai’s progress would talk of migration, international markets, the knowledge economy, and it will be impossible to skip the catalytic role of English in talent export and migration. 

If leadership is communication and the public projection of organizational values, linguistic competence has to be critical for a role that commands global spotlight. English arguably has been one of Sundar Pichai’s major advantages that gave him parity, if not supremacy, in relation to his first-world peers and competitors in technology and business. India has produced a large – remarkably large for a third world country – number of global leaders not only in business and technology but other knowledge streams too. As this is being written, another Indian American, Arvind Krishna, is set to take over as the CEO of IBM. India receives the highest foreign remittance among all countries (USD 78.6 bn in 2018) [4] from a thriving diaspora, which is the largest in the world (17.5 mn) [5]. India’s early investment in English education is paying off. The effectiveness, and even the need, of English education in India is endlessly debated, with everyone now agreeing that it hasn’t been in vain. The economic connection with English is not coincidental because English gives early access to advanced knowledge and the power to repurpose and apply it. In other words, it gives you a headstart, if not an edge, in the knowledge economy.

IMG_6584For India teaching of English is a developmental and economic imperative: this ancient country knows all too well that necessity is the mother of English.

Isn’t China doing pretty well without English? Look how effectively they have been exporting goods, services and even culture without ever knowing that an indefinite article precedes a singular countable noun! They must have an ingenious workaround for the English challenge too. After all China had even outlawed the teaching of English at one point in some parts of the country. [6] This is in fact the exact opposite of reality. There are already market-size estimates that call China the largest English-speaking country in the world. [7]

Internet and English

Languages on the Internet (1)

More than half of the content that is accessed on the internet is in English (56%). Mandarin Chinese, even though it has the largest number of speakers in the world, can claim only 1.5% of online content. With the nearest competitor Russian trailing at 7.3%, the reign of English on the world wide web is unrivalled and absolute. [8] That means anyone who knows English can have, without mediation, at least eight times more internet than anyone who doesn’t. It’s logical that internet adoption leads to English absorption because connection must lead to communication. Besides, the internet comes with the usage instruction: ‘For best results, learn English.’ Indeed, how humiliating it will be for communication technology if an Icelandic fisherman bumps into a Tamil fishwife online and they can’t even discuss fish because neither knows English!

David Crystal

While the English language spread gradually through four centuries of British colonialism, the internet attained ubiquity in less than three decades riding on American technology and business. Pervasive, intuitive and indispensable (and soon intelligent) the internet thrives on the economy of impatience and instant fulfilment. That makes catching up with the trend – that is, both the internet and English – a more practical and attractive option than matching up with alternatives. Linguist David Crystal puts it rather bluntly: ‘Why a language becomes a global language has little to do with the number of people who speak it. It is much more to do with who those speakers are.’ [9] English and the internet are thus wedded in a made-for-each-other union of immense mutual benefit: the internet brings you more English, and more English makes you a better ‘integrated’ and nativized netizen. The Icelandic fisherman and the Tamil fishwife need English to communicate as much as they need the internet to connect.

IMG_6585A study of the travel of ideas across the globe through book translations, bilingual tweets and Wikipedia entries identifies English as the central hub and the most influential node in the global language network. The researchers introduced ‘a metric of language influence by characterizing the position of each language in the network connecting languages that are co-spoken’ and found ‘that the connectivity of a language in this network […] remains a strong predictor of a language’s influence when validated against two independent measures of the cultural content produced by a language’s speakers.’ [10]

The English Cosmopolis

IMG_6586The only audible protest against English today comes from cultural protectionists, who find it invasive and hegemonic. Another group of contrarians, in developing countries,looks at English as a privilege and as the basis of a class system and social exclusion. While these points hold true in local contexts, English has on its side major transnational forces – globalization and the internet – whose irresistible advantages make all opposition appear as idle and pointless  nostalgia.

Jan Blommaert

India, for example, has long been engaged in an exchange in which western knowledge is traded for skills, culture and traditions, turning the tables on the dreaded ‘westernization’ and driving in regular, definite measures the ‘resternization’ of the west. Sociolinguist Jan Blommaert of Tilburg University makes a revelatory point: ‘So what English has done in the context of globalization is basically a double and seemingly paradoxical movement in which on the one hand you see more homogeneity – we all use English now – but it goes hand in hand with exploding diversity. We see it in an incredible variety of environments and domains in relation to an incredible variety of identities. So English has not made the world more uniform, it has been a uniform instrument for more diversity.’ [11]

With economic, political, technological and cultural forces in its favour, the English Cosmopolis, or the cultural corollary of globalization, is sure to not only survive, but prevail.

Related: ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at English’

Sources and Attributions 

  1. ‘The English Effect: The Impact of English, What It’s Worth to the UK and Why It Matters to the World’. The British Council. 2013. https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/english-effect-report-v2.pdf 
  2. ‘How “Cheap” English is Conquering the World”. Business Daily. BBC World Service. 5 December 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csy78p 
  3. Neelay, Tsedal. ‘Global Business Speaks English’. Harvard Business Review. May 2012.
  4. ‘Migration and Remittances: Recent Developments and Outlook’. Migration and Development Brief 31. World Bank Group. April 2019. https://www.knomad.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/Migrationanddevelopmentbrief31.pdf 
  5. International Migrant Stock. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/data/estimates2/estimates19.asp 
  6. Bolton, Kingsley & Graddol, D.. (2012). English in China today. English Today. 28. 3-9. 10.1017/S0266078412000223. 
  7. Montrose, Brett. ‘The global English language job market is changing: what this means for ESL teachers’. https://medium.com/accelerated/the-global-english-language-job-market-is-changing-what-this-means-for-esl-teachers-92c8d87cf8eb Accessed 9 February 2020.
  8. ‘Languages Used on the Internet’. Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_used_on_the_Internet 
  9. Crystal, David. English as a Global Language. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  10. Ronen, Shahar, Bruno Gonçalves, Kevin Z. Hu, Alessandro Vespignani, Steven Pinker, and César A. Hidalgo. 2014. ‘Links That Speak: The Global Language Network and Its Association with Global Fame.’ Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111 (52) (December 15): E5616–E5622. doi:10.1073/pnas.1410931111.
  11. ‘How “Cheap” English is Conquering the World”. Business Daily. BBC World Service. 5 December 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csy78p