We look at a number of issues relating to languages and their use, together with points about translation and teaching
English is currently the mostly widely spoken language, with around one and a half billion speakers, including 370 million native speakers. Mandarin Chinese has 1.1 billion speakers, nearly 90 percent of whom have it as their mother tongue. Of course, what counts as speaking a language is not straightforward: does a GCSE in French make you a speaker of it?
English has an important role as a vehicular language or lingua franca, used between people who do not speak each other’s first language. So if a Hungarian and Japanese scientist wish to communicate, they would probably use English. Russian had a similar role in much of eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the case of Swahili, as many as 98 percent of its speakers use it as a lingua franca (Nicholas Ostler: The Last Lingua Franca); the corresponding figure for English is 71 percent.
Chinese has more native speakers than English but is not a likely candidate to replace English as a world lingua franca. It has relatively few second-language speakers, its writing system is fearsomely complex, and the differences among its varieties are much larger than even that between, say, British and Singapore English.
People learn other languages for various reasons, perhaps for fun or so they can get a bit more enjoyment from a holiday abroad. But usually it is for more serious motives: ‘Arabic is for foreign learners the language of the Koran, English the language of modern business and global popular culture’ (Nicholas Ostler: Empires of the Word).
There are disagreements as to the extent of the dominance of English on the Internet. The number of pages in other languages (such as Spanish and Chinese) has been increasing at a faster rate than pages in English, but English sites are well ahead among the most widely used ones. In terms of Internet users, on one account around a quarter use English and a fifth Chinese, with speakers of other languages far behind.
Colonialism (and the consequent population movement) is the main reason for the spread of languages, such as the use of Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America. English has not always been as dominant as it is now, having been little used on the Continent prior to 1714, when the ruler of Hanover became king of Great Britain. Before the Second World War, German was also an important language for reporting scientific and technological research. But the British Empire was clearly responsible for the spread of English to South Asia and North America, and the political, economic and social power and influence of the USA is behind the language’s dominance now.
The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but a distinction can be made between a second language and a foreign language. A second language has official status in a country, though it is not widely spoken as a first language, while a foreign language has no official standing. So English is a second language in India and Nigeria, while it is a foreign language in, for instance, Denmark, though most educated Danes have a very good command of the language.
There has recently been a proposal that English be adopted as an official language in Germany (Guardian, 10 February). There is a shortage of skilled workers and, as German is by no means a global language, companies may be at a disadvantage in competing for talented employees. In the words of the head of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, ‘English is the world language and should suffice for anyone to achieve great things in many German businesses.’ This proposal has been less welcome in the former East Germany, where Russian rather than English was formerly the main second language learned in school, and it is not clear if it will be adopted.
In all, only about fifty languages are used in translation, that is translation into and out of these languages (David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?). According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, English is by far the most common source language of translated texts, with over five times the number translated from French, which ranks second. For target languages, the situation is less one-sided, with more texts translated into German than any other language, but only a quarter more than were translated into French, which again is in second place.
Capitalism turns so many things into an industry, from healthcare to pornography, and the same thing has happened with language, there being a translation industry and an industry for teaching English. People may think of translation as mainly involving literary texts, whether novels or plays. But in fact technical, commercial and legal translation take place far more often than translation of books. Literary translation into English is very badly paid, but translation into French and German is more remunerative. Legal documents pose their own difficulties, as David Bellos notes. Even simple-seeming terms such as ‘murder’ and ‘human rights’ give rise to many difficulties in terms of both linguistic equivalents and corresponding legal categories. Courtroom interpreting is another big problem area, with usually little real supervision of the interpreter’s experience or competence.
TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) is big business and concerned with profit-making for the companies who run it. On one estimate, its value is $10bn a year. Teachers themselves are relatively well paid in the Middle East, but not at all so in South America. With the increasing popularity of English in China, there are many language schools there, but some take a would-be teacher on to give demonstration classes for a few days, and then sack them without pay. An entry on the Industrial Workers of the World site (iww.org.uk, 25 March 2021) noted that English language teachers had to fight for outstanding holiday pay. The Covid lockdown had a big impact, with about half the TEFL workforce being made redundant that year.
In The Last Lingua Franca, Ostler suggests that English could well retreat from its current global status. The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) currently teach English for use as both a lingua franca and with native English speakers, but their own languages ‘may develop their own spheres of wider currency’. If Portuguese, Russian, Hindi-Urdu and Chinese become the languages of the world’s leading economic and political powers, then English could ‘withdraw to its home territories’. But it is not at all clear how likely this is. And what impact would a socialist world with no borders or powerful nations have on such matters?