The Globalization of Language

How important is learning a foreign language in a globalized world?

February 5, 2001

How important is learning a foreign language in a globalized world?

In the late 1940s, Joseph Stalin intervened in an esoteric scholarly debate raging in Soviet linguistics. Stalin penned what was immediately hailed by the Soviet media as the definitive Marxist contribution to linguistics, in which the Great Leader proclaimed language a means of production.

For all his flaws, Stalin knew the importance of language. Born a Georgian, he became one of millions of imperial subjects to be assimilated into Russian culture. He spent nearly 30 years of his rule imposing the Russian language and alphabet on the multiethnic population of the Soviet Union. As a result, national languages that were related to Turkish, Farsi or Latin began using the Cyrillic alphabet.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union many of Russia’s colonized subjects have gone their own way linguistically. Moldova switched back to Latin letters, since its language is little different from neighboring Romania’s language.

Some Central Asian states are contemplating reintroducing the Arabic script. But Russian is still widely used throughout Eastern Europe and CentralAsia, from Riga to Baku and Alma-Aty.

Evidently, their language is what empires leave behind when they collapse. The core of the Roman Empire in southern and western Europe can still be traced by the linguistic map of Romance languages. French is still spoken in wide swaths of post-colonial Africa.

In fact, the French have been doggedly resisting the disappearance of their tongue from the world stage. The latest act in the long-running saga of the French authorities fighting rearguard action against the intrusion of English is being played out in the Paris bourse. French financial regulators want foreign companies issuing stocks or bonds in France to prepare all their prospectuses in that language, not in English with a French summary as is currently permitted.

Of course, English has long been the language of finance since well before Adam Smith, the 18th century Scot who is generally credited with inventing the field economics. As financial markets become ever more global and round-the-clock operations, the importance of English only increases.

The same is true of most other fields, not only traditional ones where English has always been used, such as finance and aviation.

The spread of computer technologies — especially the Internet — has expanded the use of English to the remotest corners of the globe, and the tech-savvy new generations from Seoul to Sofia to Santiago are all growing up with a knowledge of English.

Similarly, as corporations become truly multinational, English tends to become their official corporate language, regardless of the company’s domicile.

Little surprise that also there are now several distinct varieties on English around the world that are spoken by non-native speakers, including such variations as Far Eastern, Continental European, and Latin American.

Future generations of linguists will probably study the different accents and usage of each — unless inter-corporate transfers and further globalization eventually erase the differences.

As the European Union expands and becomes more multi-lingual, it too has shifted more and more to English. The ultimate insult to continental powers is that, even though the UK looks determined to stay out of the euro-zone, its language is the one used by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

A reader recently wrote a letter to the Financial Times noting that out of 100 jobs advertised in recent editions of the newspaper, only two required a foreign language — and just two more termed such knowledge useful.

In fact, the knowledge of a foreign language could land you a translator’s or interpreter’s job — which are not well-paid and may one day be replaced by the computer. Another career choice is a bilingual secretary.

In a global economy, English is certainly king, and knowledge of English is increasingly a prerequisite for a high-paying job and a career in a growing variety of fields. Speaking another language — from French to Mandarin Chinese — is becoming a luxury, not a necessity.

Even anti-globalization protesters in Nice, Davos and Sao Paulo pay English the ultimate compliment. Their protest signs are usually in English, indirectly confirming that the process of globalization has gone so far as to be irreversible.