A report published in November 2019 by EF Education First, a Swedish company based in Switzerland that runs some 600 language schools in 50 countries, claims that of the four largest economies in the euro zone, meaning France, Germany, Spain and Italy, “only Germany speaks English well”. Is this evidence that English, the lingua franca of our era, is turning into the equivalent of “Dog Latin” – a form of poor, barbaric English?
There can be no doubt that English has become the new lingua franca, the common language of our globalized world. But it is, as David Crystal, the well-known British linguist and author of a stack of books about language, calls it, ‘poor English’. (If you wish to delve into the reasons why English has established itself as the lingua franca and what made it the best candidate for this role, as opposed to Spanish or Esperanto, you may want to read Crystal’s book ‘English as a Global Language’).
Statistics seem to indicate that 80% of all English communication today takes place without a native speaker in sight. This means that English has detached itself to what we typically associate with a language: a nation, a people, a country, and a culture. It has become a freely available vehicle for all, a tool of communication, an L2, that is spoken and written alongside, and often in preference to, the great variety of vernaculars. This exposes it to all kinds of influences, with no-one keeping a tab on it. It’s like a bindweed out of control, it pops up everywhere. No wonder therefore that English is becoming somewhat degraded, a fact that many native speakers find infuriating.
You could say of course that the British have only themselves to blame: by missionarizing and marketing their language, by establishing their institutions across their word-wide empire, by promoting it through the British Council and through TEFL teachers they have taught the world. For a long time, they were the masters and mistresses of their language. While being part of the EU, they were able to continue being the teachers and wagging their finger at any misuse of “their” language.
But Brexit is putting an end to this. The UK has relinquished its position as the guardian of the sacrosanct English language. In a EU without Britain, and perhaps even Ireland, who will be the arbitrator of what is and what is not, correct English?
Now, everyone is treating English as their property, twisting and tweaking it as they see fit. We find evidence of this all around us, mostly with vocabulary (such as “Home office” meaning “working from home”, “wellness” to denote a state of mind, etc.). Non-native speakers are saying “informations” and “cooperations”. What’s more, and more disturbing, they are constructing sentences that simply would not pass as correct if you asked a mother-tongue speaker.
A bit like the US-Dollar, English has become the global currency, available to be used and misused by everybody. If you don’t speak English, you have far less chances of securing a job, or rising up in the world of business or politics. I always remember a former president of Baden-Württemberg proudly proclaiming for himself the right “not to be able to speak English”. In Switzerland we have two Federal councillors, Mr. Maurer and Mr. Parmelin, whose poor/comical English is a source of great amusement – and endearment. After a recent visit by Mr. Maurer to Donald Trump the former’s inability to communicate in English resulted in a hilarious TV interview where the interpreter was not interpreting the questions but actually whispering the responses. A total fiasco. On a similarly humorous note, the UK’s departure from the EU, Croatia’s ambassador, Ms. Andrassy, wished the UK ‘good riddance’. She actually said to her British counterpart, Sir Tim Barrow: “Thank you, goodbye, and good riddance”. In typical British style and being a well-trained diplomat, rather than being offended, he took it with good humour. It was clearly meant that way, and the Croatian later said that she thought the phrase was an alternative expression for “good luck”! Well, yes.
If you are an academic and you don’t publish in English, how are you going to get your ideas into the world, where are you going to publish your papers, how are you going to get recognition? And if you are a writer and your books don’t get translated into English, what are your chances of selling enough copies to make a living, or of getting the Nobel prize? The developments outlined above in education and science are even more visible in the economy. Here, English quite clearly has become the generally accepted means of communication. This is true not alone of transnational companies like Nestlé, ABB or Daimler-Chrysler, but even of intrinsically German ones such as Deutsche Bank. And clearly, with increased mobility across Europe, with so many nationalities working alongside each other, English has truly established itself as the lingua franca of the workplace –and increasingly also of any social interchange. So, English reigns supreme as the current lingua franca. With all the “degradation” that this status inevitable brings, is it now turning into Dog English the same way that Latin did? Which also suggests that at some stage in the future it might be supplanted, just as Latin was.