English and the Asian Millennium

|| Formal Essay |

English language learning around the world is evolving in surprising and sometimes alarming ways. A few decades ago, the language learning process was either moderated by native speakers (NS) of English or proactively initiated by second language learners who travel to English-speaking countries to study and become proficient in the language. In many language encounters, English translators were also in high demand to facilitate a clearer communication between peoples of diverse linguistic traditions. This is not to say that formal English language teachers and translators have become relics belonging to a bygone era. On the contrary, their function is still very much relevant, but their roles are changing dramatically.

For one thing, the number of language students leaving their home nations to study English abroad is in a rather steep decline according to the most recent reports. That is because English language learning has already become a critical strategic policy among non-English speaking nations that have wisely institutionalized the learning of English in the home front. Given the undeniable role of English as the language of choice in global business, the Internet, and international relations, not doing so will prevent these nations from having any meaningful participation in global discourses.

In much of Asia, including China and India--two of its demographic and economic giants--the learning of English has become an integral component of early education. Meanwhile, given their heritage of British governance, Singapore and Malaysia have also consistently promoted the learning of English such that their English-speaking populations are perhaps the most proficient in the region, based on online tests conducted by some language-oriented organizations. Nearby, the Philippines still holds the title of having the 3rd largest English-speaking population in the world after the US and India.  

Given these developments, how has the role of language teachers who are also native speakers of English changed as previously claimed? The simple and alarming fact is that neither they nor their linguistic compatriots in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand own and control English anymore. If numbers were a determinant of language ownership, they are outnumbered by at least 3 to 1 by non-native English speakers. Native speakers number between 300 million to 400 million while speakers of English who also have a first language exceeds a billion.

Of course, language ownership is a tenuous issue and games of numbers are just that.  By all indications, English has become a global language owned by all its users--regardless of whether they are native or non-native speakers of it--who will naturally use English within their respective cultural contexts. It is no accident that there is now the so-called Korean English, Indian English and other working variants of the English language. The evolutionary transformation of language by people who use it is in fact, a known and expected linguistic phenomenon. After all, any language that ceases to evolve, like Latin, is a dead language.

Speaking of imperial languages, English too has undeniably become the de facto lingua franca of global commerce, international relations, and the scientific and technological world, much like Latin was during the heydays of the Roman Empire up to the Industrial Revolution. Two very vivid examples of how English is transforming global businesses is the Toyota-Peugeot factory in the Czech Republic and the Nokia headquarters in Finland. While managed by a multinational team and staffed mostly by technically skilled Czechs and Finns, respectively, the enforced medium of communication within the business and manufacturing complexes of both companies is unabashedly English. Elsewhere in Western Europe, the modern Swedes appear to have the highest level of English proficiency among non-English speaking countries largely due to the fact that Swedes believe that Swedish has very little communicative value in a global setting or even anywhere in the world that is not part of Sweden. At the other end of the scale is Spain, which lags behind all other European countries in English proficiency, a fact that may be related to its population's awareness that Spanish is also a formidable language in its own right and is still used as the language of business and diplomacy in Latin America.   

However, in a much larger scale, it is English that has become the medium of choice when representatives of the G7, BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and ASEAN communicate with each other. Without global English, the inter-relational proximity of different nations would have been very remote indeed, requiring translators that often feed a sense of "separateness" among diplomats. If anything, global English is helping diverse nations become closer together by eradicating previously problematic linguistic barriers to better trade, security and cultural relations.

In the realm of science and technology, English has also helped the global exchange of research data and innovative ideas. Scientific journals and research are now mostly articulated through English, with some estimates placing its use in modern science and technology to as much as 90 percent. Even the Internet, one of the top technological marvels of the previous century, is largely English-based, even when large pockets of localized online content is spreading. Notably, the programming codes that established the World Wide Web and all its amazing functionalities today are also loosely based on the English language. Software programmers from non-native English-speaking countries have very little choice but to get immersed in the rudiments of the English language as used in the syntax of their programming codes.    

Given the established dominance of English in the global ecosystem, how will educators of English as a second language (ESL) redefine their roles in the new dynamic? The first is for educators to fully acknowledge that English as used in non-native English speaking countries is not the language of Shakespeare. It has been transformed into a far different variant called Global English, where the millions of linguistic stakeholders are active participants in its continuing evolution. As of this writing, the Asian trend indicates that more people are learning English, and starting learning it at a very early age. In many respects, the method of teaching English has also changed from being articulated as a foreign language to being shared as an acclimatized second language that functions as the local population's link to the rest of the world. According to an article in the Economist, children with ages between 8 and 12 are better language learners than younger ones.

In the same article, Malaysia ranked as the most proficient English user in Southeast Asia based on a global sampling of 2 million non-native English speaking people conducted by the English teaching company, EF Education First. At the other end is Thailand that ranked among the worst five performers globally. The good performance of Malaysia may stem from its Anglicized history as well as its export-oriented economy that required intensive communication with a global market. As previously noted, the spectre of political colonialism--at least in the case of Malaysia--has all but been removed from the teaching of English, replaced by the practical need for Malaysians to learn English in order to maintain their global economic competitiveness.

As if to affirm the status of English as a lingua franca, China has been pushing for state-sanctioned English education years ago, in a similar effort to buoy their vibrant economy. Reportedly, such sustained efforts will eventually empower China to even outperform English-acclimatized India in the services sector that requires extensive use of English. To illustrate the far ranging implications of these developments, the number of Chinese children that are learning English--more than a hundred million--now exceed the entire population of the United Kingdom.

The mandate for English language educators is clear: Global English is a previously unheard of phenomenon but is a contemporary fact that educators, businesses, governments, technologists, learners, and other linguistic stakeholders will confront in the next several years. Realigning teaching methods to help steer its evolution into a robust mode of communication that is clearly understood by all parties in global language interactions is of critical importance.

|| Corporate Communications |

(This article was ghost-written for ESL educator Michael Hines)