This week I celebrated my 49th birthday at a Mexican bar here in São Paulo. Talk about globalization. Even more interesting because the bar is called “Los 3 Amigos” and their motto is Tacos, Tequila & Rock. In that alone we can see the ubiquitous presence of English through its music. But how did English become so ubiquitous?
No question that the British colonialism responded for the spread of their language around the globe but only after the rise of the U.S. as a multiple superpower – cultural, political, economic, scientific,etc., did English become so widespread. Let’s not forget that other European nations exerted their colonial power and French was the language of diplomacy well into the first half of the 20th century. But I have no question that the military presence of the US in Asia along with their cultural industry represented by Hollywood and Music, were key to the making of a global language.
I have my reservations whether students should study a standard and simplified global English or different regional Englishes depending on their location and business interests, because while in written form they may be similar in vocabulary and grammar, when spoken depending on the accent the Speaker may be unintelligible. In today’s world, technology allows for a greater standardization of English as observed in the US, Canada and Australia, where regional accents are becoming less and less accentuated. As learners of English, most students have their own preferences on which “English” they’ll learn but they’d rarely pick a global or “generic” version, they’d much rather choose a standard American or British version.
I don’t like the term “killer” language ref. to English. Even Greek or Latin during the hegemony of their empires tended to coexist with local languages and amalgamated with local groups. English has suffered the same amalgamation in India and African countries for instance, where English became a tool of unification. While millions spoke different languages and dialects they could use English to communicate with each other. In countries settled by British immigration – US, Canada, Australia, NZ, South Africa to some extent, other “tribal” languages were either eliminated or pushed into reservations. But not because of the language per se but because of the authorities who spoke it and saw local languages as inferior consequently they would be doing them a favor by pushing until oblivion those local languages.
There is no other contender today to the Lingua Franca Throne. Mandarin Chinese spoken by nearly 1 billion is complex and geographically restricted while Made in China products play no part in encouraging people to say: “wow, I’m going to study Chinese so I’ll be able to understand this manual or label”. During the Cold War, Russian playing a linguistic counterpart to English – being taught in Eastern Europe and in many Latin American universities. I remember my days at the University of São Paulo many students would be taking Russian language course as a form of protest against American Imperialism – that was the time of “Take your hands off Nicaragua” – or planning to apply for a scholarship to study in Russia. With the end of the Iron Curtain, Russian interest declined even faster than that country’s population.
English will be well into this 21st century the language of communication across social, economic and political lines. Better get back to your grammar, pal.