Everyone, Everywhere, English


I’m sure you’ve experienced this before: You’re far from home, surrounded by people chatting in a language you can’t make heads or tails of. You nonetheless attempt to buy some lunch, imitating the sounds and contorting your tongue into strange new arrangements. The person at the register leans in, listening attentively with a confused expression. Yet, they ring you up – you have successfully communicated using another language, well done! But then they reply, “The total cost of your purchase will be twenty-two dollars and seventy-four cents, or, if you would like to make a donation to charity, we can easily round that up for you.” The one-two punch: They not only speak English, but they speak it even better than you!

For me, half the adventure of travelling is navigating an exotic new environment where your native tongue isn’t the one in use. I find myself sucked into this blackhole of curiosity as I look at signs, trying to figure out what they mean, fuelled by an intense desire to decode and translate. It’s incredibly challenging, but the sense of fulfillment I derive from communicating successfully (or at least understanding what is being said) is wonderful. Suffice to say, I feel a bit dejected that it seems wherever I go, people speak to me in English! Like, I’m in your country voluntarily, I should be the one making an effort to accommodate, right? As peeved as that might make me, what’s more worrisome is that some of the more boorish travellers out there just expect English to be spoken wherever they go, so much so that they don’t even learn how to ask “do you speak English” in the local language(s)! Sure, if you’re in a very touristy area, a lot of people will speak English, but they certainly not appreciate being barked at in English. I’ve witnessed locals ignoring tourists who address them in English, only for me to go up and ask in their language, “Do you speak English?” and have all my queries sorted in English!

In all these museums there’s a handy-dandy English translation, meaning I don’t have to learn the local language…right?

Look, the fact is you need to learn the local language when you travel. This might be hard to believe, but three-quarters of the world don’t know a lick of English! 5% of the global population speak it as a native language, and the other 20% speak it as a foreign language and are scattered very unevenly around the world. Europeans seem to have embraced English the most, with a majority of Germans, Dutch, Danish, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Icelanders, and Austrians reporting they know English. However, apart from the Finns, these people speak a Germanic language (German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian etc.), and English is also a Germanic language (sorta – I’ll explain later), making it easier for them to pick up on the basics! In the rest of Europe, English speakers are only 20-40% of the population. Outside Europe, the numbers are smaller. Apart from former English colonies, less than 10% of people report knowing how to speak English on average throughout Central and South America. In Africa, it’s really only former British possessions that have English speakers, ranging anywhere from slight majorities (e.g. Nigeria) to practically nobody. And in Asia, less than 5% of Russians and Chinese speak it, with former colonies of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh reporting just over 10% English speakers. South-east Asia fares better, likely due to proximity of major trading partners like Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, but hardly a majority. There’s also a big problem with these statistics – as with all self-reporting, this information doesn’t tell us much. I mean, are those who claim to speak English fluent and able to talk about anything without preparation, or (like most language learners) do they have enough knowledge that they can stumble through a conversation, given it is something they’re familiar with? Regardless of these stats, it is still undeniable that English is fast becoming a popular medium of international communication. What we’re seeing is the rise of English as a Lingua Franca. A what?

A Lingua Franca most often refers to a language used that neither group speaks as a first language (i.e. If I speak English and you speak Turkish as first languages but we used Spanish to communicate, Spanish is the Lingua Franca). It also doesn’t have to encompass every area of life; there’s Lingua Francae used only in religious contexts, legal contexts, business contexts, educational contexts etc. The term Lingua Franca comes from a pidgin that formed in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. No, not a pigeon, a pidgin! The difference is that one is a bird and the other is a form of communication with simplified grammar and vocabulary derived from other languages to serve as a bridge the communication gap between two groups of people. Nobody speaks a pidgin as a native language and they often die out once the situation it was created for no longer exists (unless people start using it as a native language like they did in Jamaica and Haiti – if that happens, it’s then called a creole. Cool, right?).
Anyway, this Mediterranean pidgin was primarily based on Romance languages (e.g. French, Spanish and Italian languages like Genoese, Florentine and Venetian), but also had Greek and Arabic thrown into the mix. It sounded like a strange form of Italian or French, hence why it was called the Lingua Franca. Of course, it wasn’t the first time a language was used as a means of bridging communications between two different groups, but that’s where the term comes from, don’t get mad at me!

This sign near Poolbeg Lighthouse has several languages on it, including Lithuanian! But remember, the locals are not signboards that speak nine languages.

So, why is English becoming a modern day Lingua Franca? On the surface, it would appear English would be a horrible choice:

  • Its infamously unintuitive spelling system, complicated by British vs. American variations
  • Sounds that are rare in many languages, like the ‘r’ sound in red and the ‘th’ sounds in thick and this
  • 14-22 different vowel sounds depending on dialect and only a, e, i, o and u to represent them (and not even consistently – height vs. weight)
  • Articles (words like ‘a’ or ‘the’) – how do you explain these words to languages that don’t use them?
  • The way plurals are formed isn’t predictable (tooth/teeth but booth/booths, yet hoof/hooves, and what about moose/moose!?)
  • No clear system to address social distance or politeness (a big deal for many cultures!)
  • Word order that is somehow both too strict and overly fluid
  • Way too many idioms and way too many words
  • The exceptions to literally every rule (also, the rules themselves: it’s vs its still does my head in!)

Let’s face it, English is a mess! So, how come everyone is learning it? Well, not everyone, but enough to the point that some travellers out there feel they don’t even have to learn a single word?

Well, it may have something to do with the British Empire exporting the language during the centuries of empire and colonisation. The Empire had land on every single continent at its height, and locals would sometimes need to communicate with colonial authorities (due to their ‘civilising mission, many officials felt they didn’t have to learn ‘inferior’ languages). Even if this communication was done via pidgin English, English would still be having an influence in that society. Plenty of these countries, although now independent, are still part of the British Commonwealth and majority English-speaking nations like New Zealand, Australia and Canada have become prominent on the world stage. Further, some particularly rebellious British colonies became the United States, who went on to become a global powerhouse and even did some of its own galivanting around the Pacific – they were even exercising control over the Philippines at one point! US and British cultural, political, economic and military influences are still prominent, even if they are nowhere near their previous zeniths. Whereas Arabic and written Chinese were hugely important in their respective regions, they were nowhere near as global as English.

Okay, but what about French, Spanish or Portuguese? Their respective empires also spanned across several continents and plenty of people now speak (forms of) these languages – Just look at South America! True, but this is where English wins out: It’s actually two languages. Okay, it’s actually more of a linguistic mongrel, but whatever. Remember learning about the Battle of Hastings (1066) in history class and thinking “Why the hell do I care?” Even I thought that, until I realised:

  1. The outcome of the battle explains so much about the English language and its evolution, and
  2. England is just a rogue French colony (Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Wait a minute, how on Earth does a medieval battle tell us anything about modern language? Well, The Normans that conquered England spoke a variant of the Romantic language French. The Anglo-Saxon people they conquered, however, spoke English, which at that point sounded a lot like Dutch (in my opinion). In a nutshell, with the Romantic language being imposed on top of the Germanic (since French became the language of law, culture and administration and the common folk still spoke English), the languages of these two groups mingled over time. This explains why the ‘everyday’ vocabulary in English sounds more German than French:

Just a few examples of how basic English vocabulary shows a clear relationship to German and not French.

Likewise, this is why learning more advanced words at school was really tough – you were essentially learning a different language with different conventions and rules:

Once you get to the more sophisticated vocabulary, suddenly English looks more French than German…

This is also why there’s a word for the animal and another for its meat in English, e.g. cow/beef, chicken/poultry, pig/pork etc. – the farmers speaking English dealt with the animals, the nobility speaking French dealt only with the meat: See, in German and French respectively, the words for Cow, chicken (hen) and pig (swine) are: Kuh/boeuf, Huhn/poulet, schwein/porc!

The most important consequence of this integration of French and English is that there’s a foothold for speakers of both Romance AND Germanic languages to hold onto when they learn the language – Germanic language speakers do better initially, and Romance language speakers might struggle at first, but if they push through then the advanced vocabulary is very easy for them to pick up. Also, these two families are the largest language families in Europe, numbering about 400-500 million speakers in Europe alone. Also, the European countries that speak these languages were the ones that engaged in worldwide imperialism most effectively, thus creating communities outside of Europe who can also have an easier introduction into English. Plus, English loves to steal from other languages all over the world, with plenty taken from Greek (many words starting with anti-, mono-, pan-, bio-, eco-, doc- etc.), the Indian languages including Hindi (words like pyjamas, jungle, loot and shampoo), Semitic languages (Arabic words include sugar, alcove, admiral and algebra), and these languages in turn have borrowed many words from English, meaning there are footholds for these speakers too. However, this would be limited to vocabulary and not necessarily grammatical concepts. Regardless, combined with the enduring global influence of English-speaking nations, that’s a brief explanation as to why English has risen to the top, even with its atrocious spelling and grammar!

So, given that English-speaking is expanding, surely it’ll render other languages obsolete, right? Nope! Not at all! Remember, 75% of humans can’t speak it at all, and many of them refuse to! People hold their native tongue in high regard, so much so that even uttering a few words in someone’s native language is enough to ensure you have a friend for life. Independence movements have sprung up based on a single argument: “We speak a different language here!” No other reason, that’s literally it! As a linguist who must observe neutrally, it can be baffling; I hold strongly to the idea that there’s no ‘bad’ or ‘good’ languages, just different ones. And if people can use it to communicate effectively, then it doesn’t really matter which one you use. Theoretically, if everyone in your community stopped speaking English and instead spoke Hebrew, or Cantonese, or Polish, nothing would change except the system you use to communicate.

Uh-oh! No English in this market and you didn’t learn basic Danish words! To be fair, Danish is hard, but then why go to Denmark if you’re not gonna put in the bare minimum?

But I instinctually know this to be wrong. Perhaps it’s to do with language never being truly isolated from the cultures, traditions and societies it’s used in, no matter how hard us linguists try to keep it all separated. To lose that language could mean losing access to sacred texts, past knowledge and ancient traditions. That’s just my guess, and I suspect that’s the same reason that international languages like Esperanto fail to be embraced: it’s artificial. There’s nothing about it that connects us to a history and no cultural notions it embodies (or, alternatively, it naturally embodies the particular notions of the inventors’ cultural origins). This suggests that languages are living breathing things, shaped by their environments much like we are.

But let’s just say that everyone in the world started speaking English right now. It wouldn’t take long before such stark differences arose that we’d have trouble understanding each other anyway. The number of people I’ve met who learnt British English and then came to Australia only to realise they had no idea what anyone was saying is crazy! Plus, humans like to distinguish between each other, so I’m sure that even with a unifying language we’d find ways to conduct (literal) Shibboleth tests all over again.

I have often heard people complaining about their experiences with customer service (reminds me of my three hour hold with Air New Zealand). However, they often tense up with anxiety and look around nervously before they lean in and whisper, “I don’t want to sound racist, but I couldn’t understand a word they were saying!” I reassure them that the issue is a linguistic one and not born out of any hate: You guys are just speaking two very different dialects of English! This is not the same as speaking English with an accent: I’m talking about substantial differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, prosody and even grammar – sometimes the same words have very different meanings! I’ve included some examples here (keep in mind I can’t transcribe the pronunciation or manner of speech, which adds to the difficulty in understanding):

  • Singaporean English, which is fast and choppy like Chinese: “Sekali I swaku one, don’t know how on the computer? You say leh, I no zai one!” (What if I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to switch on the computer? Obviously, I’m not an expert!)
  • Indian English, complete with unaspirated machine-gun speech: “My graduation at university was really sitting on my head, but I finally passed out after doing the needful and mugging.” (My undergraduate degree at university was really stressing me out, but I finally graduated after doing what was necessary and cramming for my exams.)
  • Australian English, best pronounced without moving your lips: “I was outside Woolies ripping cones with derros, just watching me mate doing skids and having a blew with a sheila who started jacking on him about his hooning. I mean, yeah nah, fair enough, but you’re heaps dog coz you’re ruining the piss-up, hey?” (I was outside the supermarkets smoking a bong with disreputable folks, watching my friend doing burnouts and getting into an argument with a woman who called the police over his irresponsible use of a motor vehicle. I mean, I can see your point, but that was uncalled for because you’re ruining our fun, do you understand what I’m saying?)
  • And possibly my favourite, Scottish English. I took this one from Scottish Twitter @Andykerr_ : “Dae u ever git that wiy wen u think ‘ma life’s quite good the noo’ and like 0.5 seconds later ur lit ‘naw, it’s actual so shite’” (I’ve got Scottish ancestry and even I’m unsure what’s going on here!)

The situation a language is used in is also an important factor. I’m sure you know someone (or are someone) that speaks English impeccably and uses it everywhere except at home with your parents/grandparents. Maybe you speak English, but only at work. Maybe you only speak English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). ELF is becoming increasingly common in Europe. But ELF is very different from English as you and I know it: The rules are more fluid, the vocabulary often borrowed from their native languages, and its speakers often don’t use English standard sayings and phrases since the meaning is more important than the words themselves. The funny thing is when ELF speakers meet Native English speakers and both have a hard time understanding the other. This is because English-speakers are odd in that we are typically monolingual: We find it impressive that somebody knows another language, which I find actually pretty sad. But in fact, the majority of the world know how to speak at least two languages, with a billion people able to speak three languages! Since monolinguals typically aren’t aware of the meta-linguistic strategies the ELF speaker is using, they are not tolerant of that which strays from conventional English and ELF ironically fails as a Lingua Franca!

Look, all of this is all to say one thing: don’t count on only knowing English when you travel; learn the local language! Besides, you get all sorts of nifty benefits if you decide to learn languages: you can stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s, you understand how languages work in general and thus become a better communicator in your own language, your problem-solving skills and learning capabilities increase, your memory is boosted and your perception is also sharpened! And as I said earlier, you can use language as a bridge to delve deeper into a culture, history and people, gaining new perspectives and uncovering the stories and environments that have shaped the Koreans, or the Turks, or the Comanche, or the Batswana, or even your own language. What’s even more amazing is, the more languages and the more histories you uncover and study, the more commonalities you see than differences. Not to say the differences aren’t meaningful, but to recognise the shared humanity is something desperately needed these days – one needn’t go too far in the past to see what happens when we fail to acknowledge the humanity that we share…

*                           *                           *

Thank you for reading! That was post number ten and I’m really excited for where this blog will go! Gotta celebrate the small victories, right? Anyway, if you can like and share this post, I would really appreciate it. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for stuff on YouTube – I’ve begun uploading stuff there. It’s still a bit foreign to me, but I’m sure I’ll improve the more I practice. Thanks!– Jacob

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