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English: The Official Language?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3488 words Published: 17th May 2017

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For better or for worse, like it or not, English is in effect the official language of the planet.

It is the most commonly used language of international commerce, politics, science, diplomacy, and the most commonly used language on the Internet. It is a ‘lingua franca,’ or vehicular language, i.e. a language spoken and utilized outside of the country or countries of its origin, as opposed to a vernacular language, i.e. a language spoken within and amongst native speakers in the country of origin. English, like other lingua franca of the past, is often used as a second language to effect common communication for a specific purpose (such as diplomacy) between people for whom the lingua franca is not their first language.

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For example, French was once the lingua franca of diplomacy up until around World War I, only to be supplanted by English; scientists themselves declared English to be their lingua franca in a 1989 article in The Scientist magazine bluntly entitled The English Language: The Lingua Franca Of International Science. One may view the domination and global use of English as linguistic and cultural imperialism, and indeed we shall explore this notion further, but the simple fact is that the situation is unlikely to change any time soon. It is everywhere. Some 380 million people speak it as their first language and perhaps two-thirds as many again as their second. A billion are learning it, about a third of the world’s population are in some sense exposed to it and by 2050, it is predicted, half the world will be more or less proficient in it. (The Economist, 2001).

It is thus in the best interest of citizens and governments of any nations that wish to participate on the global stage – economically, politically, scientifically, etc., to embark upon official programs to ensure that people have the opportunity to learn English; in fact, it may be argued that the teaching of English should be mandatory in such nations. While there are cultural drawbacks to the institutionalized teaching of English in non-ENL countries, the benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks, and we shall explore both as well.

To understand the merits of education in English, as well as its drawbacks and the practical requirements therein, we must first understand something of the merits of the English language itself, the historical circumstances and cultures that spawned it, and why it continues to be durable and vital as a universal language.

The global influence and power of the British Empire, and then subsequently the United States as the British Empire’s scope gradually eroded, is primarily responsible for the primacy of English as a de facto official international language. Latin, once the lingua franca for most of Europe, was gradually supplanted in the 17th and 18th century as global exploration and colonization; for a time, scholars and clerics who regularly traveled across the boundaries of national languages continued to use Latin and their lingua franca. But as knowledge of Latin declined and the rise of merchant and professional classes produced travelers unschooled in Latin,people sought alternative means of international communications. (Graddol,2000, p. 6)

The victory of the Allies in World War II cannot be underestimated in terms of representing a huge step in cementing the destiny of English as the language eventually destined to be the universal language of the globe. The only two potential rivals at the time were French, mostly due to historical inertia, and German, mostly due to the astonishing rise to military and economic power of Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Had the U.S. not lent its economic and military might to defeat the Germans and the Japanese, English might be a quaint relic of the planet’s short-lived experiment in democracy.

Had Hitler won World War II and had the USA been reduced to a confederation banana republics, we would probably today use German as a universal vehicular language, and Japanese electronic firms would advertise their products in Hong Kong airport duty-free shops in German. (Eco, 1995, p. 331) Unlike almost every other major nation that fought in World War II, the United States emerged with its economy not only intact, but also thriving. It was therefore no surprise that the United States took the lead in forming and administering institutions to aid the reconstruction and reintegration of Europe, Japan, and many other regions of the world. In short order, English-speaking nations were also exporting their culture, not simply their goods and goodwill.

The ongoing hegemony that the United States and Britain enjoy in terms of cultural communications – film, television, books, music, etc., helps perpetuate the influence and staying power of English as an official language. Even such cultural communications that are translated into the native languages of individual countries are not immune to the ‘Englishness’ of the communications, i.e., the distinctly American and/or British cultural elements that inform the language of the communications and therefore necessarily survive any competent translation and are inculcated into the minds of the listener/viewer/reader.

In ways too intricate, too diverse for socio-linguistics to formulate precisely, English and American-English seem to embody for men and women throughout the world -and particularly for the young – the ‘feel’ of hope, of material advance, of scientific and empirical procedures. The entire world-image of mass consumption, of international exchange, of the popular arts, of generational conflict, of technocracy, is permeated by American-English and English citations and speech habits. (Steiner, 1975, p. 469)

Other than the cultural, military, and political hegemony of the British Empire and of the United States, what might account for the staying power of English as a lingua franca? From a linguistic perspective, English is hardly the most sensible choice for a quasi-official global language. English, simply put, is not the most efficient and consistent language. English is an irregular and fractured language comprised of influences from Latin and Celtic, and later Scandinavian and Norman French tongues. Its syntax, construction, verb conjugation,spelling, and other grammatical constructions, etc., are riddled with maddening inconsistencies that at times befuddle even native speakers, to say nothing ofthose who struggle for years to master it as a second language.

English lacks the simplicity and consistency of the Romance languages to the extent that it varies from its Latin and French influences, though it is certainly easier to learn and utilize than some Asian tongues. However, these same elements that make English a flawed language are also believed by many linguists to be strengths that assist in the durability and adaptability of English; it has historically adapted to and incorporated language influences with ease that it has encountered from around the globe. English has always been an evolving language and language contact has been an important driver of change Some analysts see this hybridity and permeability of English as defining features, allowing it to expand quickly into new domains and explaining in part its success as a world language. (Graddol, 2000, p. 6)

As English owes its existence to the fact that it absorbs, not rejects new linguistic and cultural influences, its inherently hybridized nature makes it all the easier for English to assimilate characteristics of other cultures and languages, instead of reject them or demand they conform to some sort of rigid structure. As the rules of English are a bit fast and loose, English is well-suited to evolve on the fly.

There are a variety of challenges facing both those who wish to learn English as a second language and those who wish to teach it. Some of these challenges are cultural, some are practical, but the utilization of English by non-native speakers in non-ENL nations is never as simple a matter as it might seem.

Culturally speaking, some aspiring English speakers may feel pressure from the more traditional and/or conservative members of their own cultures to resist what they may label as American cultural imperialism, the decadent influence of consumer capitalist values from the West that are transmitted through theEnglish language. To embrace these values at the expense of one’s own language and culture is frowned upon in many conservative cultures, for example, particularlyin fundamentalist Muslim cultures which have suffered from seriously strained relations with the United States in the past six to ten years.

Often, proficiency in one or more indigenous or native tongues will co-exist, mingle, and/or exist in hierarchal forms of usage with English. The acquisition of English skills does not necessarily lead to the supplanting or replacement of the native tongue with English; the choice of which language to speak is often context- and audience-dependent. For example, in some cases speakers will employ ‘code-switching,’ in which two participants in a conversation, who know both English and a local vernacular language, will switch back and forth between the two tongues as a means of negotiating and navigating their relationship, in some cases even alternating back and forth between languages within the same sentence.

Graddol (2000) outlines some fascinating examples, including a situation in which a young job seeker enters an office in Nairobi, Kenya, seeking employment. The vernacular language in question is Swahili; the young man commences his job inquiry with the owner of the establishment by speaking in English. The Kenyan manager of the office, however, insists on using Swahili, ‘thus denying the young man’s negotiation of the higher status associated with English. (Myers-Scotton, 1989, p. 339) Their conversation goes as follows:

Young Man: Mr Muchuki has sent me to you about the job you put in the paper.

Manager: Uitumabarua ya application? [Did you send a letter of application?]

Young Man: Yes,I did. But he asked me to come to see you today.

Manager: Ikiwaulituma barua, nenda ungojee majibu. Tutakuita ufike kwa interviewsiku itakapofika. [If you’ve written a letter, then go and wait for a response.We will call you for an interview when the letter arrives.]


Leo sina lasuma kuliko hayo. [Today I haven’t anything elseto say.]

Young man: Asante.Nitangoja majibu. [Thank you. I will wait for the response.]

(Graddol, 2000,p. 13)

The managerasserts his authority as both manager and adult in a position that commandsrespect, and he utilizes his insistence on the vernacular tongue to indirectlycommunicate this authority and demand for respect from the young man. Theyoung man is shrewd enough a native speaker of Swahili to grasp the subtext ofthe exchange, which is in essence a command to show proper deference and notwalk into a shop trying to exploit the connection with a mutual Kenyan friendby speaking English. It is not that the manager does not speak English; hedoes, but he insists on a certain element of cultural integrity by insisting onSwahili. The young man picks up on this, and therefore switches to Swahili tobid the manager farewell and tacitly submits to the shopkeeper’s authority byconforming to his wishes. Had the young man entered the office and spokenSwahili, he might have been granted an interview on the spot, though it ispossible the boy meant no disrespect and in fact wished to display hiseducation by speaking English. In any case, this example shows thefascinating, multi-layered cultural and personal interchanges that go on duringcode-switching. (Note also that the manager chooses to use the English termsfor ‘interview’ and ‘application,’ perhaps because there is no directequivalent in Swahili, or perhaps to illustrate his own ability with English asa point of both pride and warning.)

As further examplethat the finding of linguistic common ground is not the cure-all forcommunications difficulties, we now turn to the topic of how speakers interactwhen they share only one language in common, i.e., English, instead of sharingin common speaking ability in both English and their own native, vernacularlanguage. Graddol (2000) provides us with another scenario from the studies ofFirth (1996), in which international phone calls between Dutch and Syrian goodstraders were analyzed to see how the respective parties interacted in English.In some cases, where one speaker is less proficient than the other, the formerwill employ a conversational strategy termed ‘let it pass,’ in which the lessproficient speaker will mask his lack of understanding of what is being said bythe other by delaying a request for clarification, in hopes that what the firstspeaker said will become understood as the conversation continues. Onehumorous exchange went as follows, in which a Dane (D) and Syrian (S) discussan order of cheese that had gone awry.

S: So I told himnot to send the cheese after the blowing in the customs. We don’t want theorder after the cheese is blowing.

D: I see, yes.

S: So I don’tknow what we can do with the order now. What do you think we should do withall this blowing, Mr Hansen?

D: I’m not uh(pause) ‘Blowing’? What is this, too big, or what?

S: No, thecheese is bad Mr Hansen. It is like fermenting in the customs’ cool rooms.

D: Ah, it’s goneoff!

S: Yes, it’sgone off.

(Graddol, 2000,p. 13)

What this exampledemonstrates is that an entire skill set and mode of sub-communication developsbetween non-native speakers who do not have another frame of reference incommon, i.e., the same vernacular language, further complicating theutilization of English in business and/or commerce situations.

There are alsonumerous practical considerations that affect the utilization of English,particularly in teaching it to non-ENL speakers. For example, which versionof English should be taught? Despite the extensive global use of English, itis far from a homogenous language spoken and written in the precisely samemanner in each country. English, as befitting its history, is a language ofmany diverse dialects; British English is different from American English,largely in pronunciation, accent, and certain vocabulary words, and American Englishitself is sub-divisible into any number of different sub-dialects, includingBlack/African-American English, which in its purest form is so unique inaccent, grammar, and slang that it is almost completely unintelligible to manynative English speakers, to say nothing of speakers of English as a secondlanguage (ESL).

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The numerouschallenges presented by English pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary may alsoserve as a roadblock for both students and teachers. The difficulty ofteaching the ambiguities of unstressed vowels, consonant phenomes, and stresstiming is considerable. English grammar and verb conjugation is extremelyirregular, requiring a considerable amount of rote memorization, instead of theapplication of logical and consistent rules, as found in Romance languages(Spanish and French rely on a consistent set of 13 verb tenses with largelyregular characteristics; English does not.)

English vocabulary also requires a large amount of rote memorization, as the innumerable linguistic influences from which English draws its unusually large lexicon make it difficult to extrapolate and create words from basic linguistic structures as a speaker of Spanish can do. For example, the Spanish words pertaining to meat are all rooted in the Latin word carnivorus, whereas in English, they are not: carne = meat; carnicero = butcher; carnicería = a store where meat is sold. For Spanish speakers, learning the underlying root word of a concept means the speaker should have little trouble deducing how to say related words; in English, there is no such consistency and therefore the barriers to effective learning and usage are high.

On the other hand,there are inherent flaws in other major world languages, for which Englishprovides a natural compensation. One such example is Japanese, an ancient andbeautiful language rich in complexity and the capacity for subtlety and nuanceof expression, but also notorious -for those same reasons – for itsinefficiency and lack of clarity when it comes to matters of politics, law,debate, and decision-making. In 1999, one of the most influential Japanesenewspapers, Asahi Shimbun issued a hotly debated call for English to beadopted as the official language of Japan, citing advantages ranging from theobvious — greater Japanese ability to participate in science, internationaltrade, politics, etc. – to the unusual, i.e., the newspaper asserted that theuse of English would in fact strengthen the usage of Japanese, whose linguisticweaknesses, the paper asserted, played a large part in the inefficiency of thegovernment.

Quoting Yoshio Terasawa, a former director of Japan’s Economic Planning Agency, former member of the House of Councilors, and former president of Nomura Securities’ U.S. division, the newspaper delivered a stinging indictment of its own native language and recommended the usefulness of English when it came to decision-making in business and government:

Japanese is fullof vague expressions, so people rarely talk in terms of black and white and itis very easy to blur responsibility. It is an everyday occurrence forgovernment ministers to spend 10 minutes answering a question in the Diet [theJapanese Parliament] without actually saying anything. But if Diet memberscould put their questions in English, it might be possible to do away with thenon-committal bureaucratic language that is too wishy-washy to translate intoEnglish. People wouldn’t be able to fudge the issues any more, and not just inpolitics. (Kinomoto, 1999)

The article wenton to remark, with some astonishment, that the expected outcries of culturalimperialism and the imminent demise of the celebrated individuality andindependence of the Japanese culture, were few and far between. The Japanesehave yet to make English their official language, unsurprisingly given theirhistoric national pride, but the open advocacy of the virtues of English usagewas remarkable.

In the end, theutilization of English as a lingua franca second language has clear benefits.While the potential obliteration of cultural diversity worldwide, a constantsource of worry and debate, seems valid, one only need look as far as theexample of the Swahili-speaking office manager to see that indigenous speakersare finding ways for English and their own vernacular languages to co-exist,even with a bit of unease. So the challenge becomes not so much about whetheror not English is of neutral or positive benefit; it self-evidently is; butrather how to go about navigating the parallel use of English with otherlanguages across the globe, both augmenting the strengths of and compensatingfor the weaknesses of local cultures and local tongues.


Fennell, Barbara. A History of English:A Sociolinguistic Approach, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Garfield, Eugene. The English Language:The Lingua Franca Of International Science, The Scientist Magazine,1989, 3(10):12, 15 May 1989.

The Triumph of English: A World Empire byOther Means, The Economist, 20 December 2001.

Graddol, David. The Future of English?The British Council, 1997, 2000.

Eco, U. The Search for the PerfectLanguage. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

Graddol, David, Dick Leith & JoanSwann. English : History, Diversity and Change London: Routledge, 1996.

FBailer, R. & M. Gorlach,(eds.) Englishas a World Language. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1982.

Myers-Scotton, C. Code Switching withEnglish: Types of Switching, Types of Communities, World English, Vol.8, No. 3., pp. 333-46.

Kachru, B.. The Alchemy of English.Pergamon Press, 1982.

Trudgill, P. & J. Hannah. InternationalEnglish: A Guide to Varieties of Standard English, Arnold Publishers, 1982.

Kinomoto, Keusuke. Should English Be Madethe Official Language? Asahi Shimbun, 29 August 1999.


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