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English as a Global Language by David Crystal

16 June 2009

Cambridge University Press’s Canto imprint has published paperback editions of many excellent works, including several books reviewed on this blog. British linguist David Crystal has been writing and commenting on the English language for many years; two of his books, The Stories of English (2004) and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left (2006), have shown up in previous To Bed With a Trollope reviews. English as a Global Language was written several years before these books — it was first published in 1997 — and focuses on a much narrow scope.

English as a Global Language by David Crystal

The spread of English as a language has prompted much handwringing from most anyone who cares to comment on the matter, whether in support of a still more global role for English or in concern about the effects that the widespread use of English has had on other languages. In the preface to English as a Global Language, David Crystal states that this idea for this book came about as a project for U.S. English, an organisation that campaigns to make English the official language of the United States. The organisation was interested in a short, factual (and politically unbiased) account of how English came to be such a commonly used language, and because Crystal could not find a book that suited this request he decided to research and write one himself. The book, as he puts it, poses and addresses the following three questions: (1) What makes a world language?; (2) Why is English the leading candidate? and (3) Will it continue to hold this position? Rather than immediately coming down on any particular side of the current debate over the promise (or threat) of English as a global language, Crystal chooses to present an overview of the debate, showing its origins and flashpoints, and expresses a few thoughts on the possible futures of English as it is spoken and written worldwide.

English as a Global Language‘s brief introduction to the concept of a ‘global language’ opens with a simple statement: the spread of language is directly linked to the political (and accompanying military and economic) power of those who speak a particular language. Different spoken and written languages have taken it in turn to become dominant in certain spheres of influence, such as Greek in the days of Alexander the Great, Latin from Roman times through the Renaissance, and Russian in many Eastern European countries during the Cold War. One only need look at the most commonly taught second languages in primary and secondary schools to gain an idea of what languages might be contending for dominance in a particular area at any given time. Crystal takes this introduction a step further by providing a basic history of the spread of the English language around the world, hand in hand with the British Empire, and includes a lengthy table of countries to show where English is spoken as either a first or second language. He also gives short histories of areas of international communication in which English plays a dominant role, such as the very basic, standardised English that air and maritime traffic controllers use to issue instructions and warnings to airplanes in flight and ships at sea; the prevalence of English translations on road signs and maps; and, of course, the vastness of the English-languages offerings available on the Internet. However, he points out that there is no particular linguistic reason why English should remain the global language — and that as the language evolves and gains more native and second-language speakers, the ‘global’ English that eventually may be spoken by people around the world may bear little resemblance to the English we hear today, requiring even native English speakers to be ‘bilingual’ in their own mother tongue.

Readers who might accuse Crystal of taking the easy way out by seemingly refusing to engage in the ongoing debate will be cheered to know that this book is by no means his only contribution to the discussion of the problems of English as a global language. His book Language Death (2002), also available under the Canto imprint, is far more urgent in its call for countries (and even individuals) to be proactive and think on a long-term basis about the kinds of language policies and programmes that are worth supporting in the name of maintaining linguistic diversity. English as a Global Language merely attempts to establish a base point for future discussion; it is by no means the only book that one should read to gain a better understanding of the complexities of English’s place in an international setting.

(Other works about English-language policies and language death reviewed on To Bed With a Trollope include Robert Phillipson’s English-Only Europe? and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.)

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