I am writing this blog in my second language – at least chronologically, in that I was born in Germany and had no occasion to speak English until my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old. By the time I was 13 I was able to speak, after a fashion, four languages, if you count Latin (which I would).
Learning English was of course a great career move. English had been the international language of politics and business (though not necessarily of diplomacy) for some time. In fact, by the time I was at university those studying with me often rather looked down on those studying languages, as they rather thought that this was a waste of time.
For a short while, there was some speculation that Spanish might displace English as the key international language, based on the influence of people of Latin American origin in the United States. It never happened – many speak Spanish in the US and elsewhere, but it has not taken over from English as the dominant language.
And now, in the face of growing Chinese influence globally, some have wondered whether Mandarin Chinese may become the new language to know. Maybe, but I know some Chinese people don’t think so. I was recently advised by a Chinese academic that English was also becoming more and more prominent in China, and would soon be the main business language there.
One of the reasons, perhaps, why English has remained so dominant is because of the internet. The origins of the internet are complex, but its initial growth and development was in the United States and in English, and so even when it spread elsewhere it tended to be in English – even in countries where English is hardly spoken at all websites have generally published web pages in English to give access to international readers. English is not just the lingua franca of the internet, it is the dominant medium. There have been suggestions that this trend should be resisted, and that bodies such as the European Union, or maybe some Asians countries, should drive through the development of other linguistic options and ensure that there is at least a more varied diet. Experience tells us that such moves will certainly fail – English, after all, is now the dominant language of the institutions of the EU, having long since displaced French.
And so the perception that you can ‘get by’ in English almost everywhere has seriously affected people’s willingness to study other languages, as universities have found out over recent years.
But how damaging is this? I for one believe that English is indeed likely to spread further as the lingua franca of business, politics and tourism, and there is not much that anybody can do about that. I would not be surprised therefor if demand for university language courses will be affected by that. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to know more about countries we visit and do business with, and this includes insights into culture. This can be supplied by language schools in our universities.
I do not believe that the case for learning languages is a weak one. We should go with the flow of English as the international language, but we should also remind ourselves that successful international relations, at whatever level, require some visible element of mutual respect. Let us hope that there will always be enough people who will want to know more about other cultures, to the benefit of Ireland’s international relations.