As part of an international campus, most of us have been educated and might even be receiving our degrees in the English language. Apart from a large part of the world population becoming bilingual, what else is there to how English got so popular, and how might that be affecting the individual?

As part of an international campus, most of us have been educated and might even be receiving our degrees in the English language. Apart from a large part of the world population becoming bilingual, what else is there to how English got so popular, and how might that be affecting the individual?

Picure by slon_dot_pics via Pexels

If you’re reading this as a UvA student, chances are that English isn’t your first language, and maybe not even your second. It isn’t mine either. Yet here we are, a collective of about 1.5 billion English speakers globally, of which only a fourth are native speakers (Lyons, 2017). It is no surprise then that English has been noted to be the ‘Lingua Franca’, which is a latin phrase for a common or bridge language. This topic has brought to life a discussion on how the globalisation of American English affects the everyday person of a non-English speaking country, and how that manifests itself on multiple levels, which is what this article will explore. 

In the past, Latin was the most important mode of communication between scientists and philosophers from all over the world. So it isn’t a new concept for there to be a language that many people learned beside their native one in order to share ideas with people from other cultures and backgrounds. There was even a language invented for this purpose; Esperanto. It was founded by L. L. Zamenhof in the late 19th century as an attempt to create an international auxiliary language which would be easy to learn and used all over the world in order to bridge linguistic differences amongst everyone (Britannica, 2019). Esperanto was a reaction to the community divide Zamenhof saw between Russians, Jews, Poles, and Germans in his local area. The creation of Esperanto highlights the idea that language can bring people together, or separate them. In a socio-political environment where communities struggle to see eye-to-eye, the language barrier is yet another factor that adds to the struggle of understanding one another. This is not something we have wanted at any time in history, let alone in the current political climate. Despite there still being a community of Esperanto speakers in the world today, the language never grew to the worldwide use that its founder was hoping for. Why might that be? From the psychological perspective, language isn’t simply a mode of communication, but also a way of self-identification and a connection to a cultural identity, which Esperanto couldn’t provide (Piron, 1994).

So why did English prevail? In the words of the British linguist David Crystal (2017): ‘A language becomes a global language because of the power of the people who speak it.’ This power he speaks of refers to, for example, the political influence that the British empire held through colonizing territories adding up to about a fourth of the entire human population in the 1920s following the victory of World War I. Another reason for the language’s success is that English has a unique adaptability which allows new words to be introduced, whereas other languages have academies that regulate the language,  such as the French Academy. This institution that’s been in place since 1635 serves to regulate the influx of new words from other languages, notably from English, which appears to be a general trend across other languages too. This academy has also been vocal towards keeping grammatical gender, regardless of the societal push to move towards genderless pronouns and nouns. On the other hand, English simply incorporates words that grow in use through texts across various media. This adaptability may enable its users to feel like they can bring in their own cultural backgrounds into the language or add to it as it evolves.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to use a language that is easier for foreigners to learn?”

If you’re not a native English speaker, one thought that might have occured to you while learning the language is how nonsensical it is for English to be the global language, given how difficult it is to learn the proper pronunciations that have nothing to do with the way it’s written. In psychology, the relationship between the letters and sounds is referred to as orthographic depth. English falls into the category of deep orthography, whereas a language such as Italian or German is classified as shallow, because it uses one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds (Gilhooly, Lyddy, & Pollick, 2014). According to Ellis et al. (2011), orthographically shallower languages show less errors made in reading and decreased latency. In that case, wouldn’t it make more sense to use a language that is easier for foreigners to learn? Yet here we are. 

Practically, it shouldn’t be such an issue as it is pretty standard for individuals to have trouble attaining the full fluency of any secondary language. However, there is evidence that accents influence how we perceive another person. From the perspective of a native speaker for example, the non-native speaker brings certain discrepancies to the way the language is spoken such as mispronunciation, stressing different syllables in words, or applying slightly different sentence structure, which comes out at as a result of the linguistic background of the individual. Those phonetic and grammatical differences can cause a slightly condescending attitude towards the non-native, without taking into account the difficulty of becoming fully fluent in your second language (Trifonovitch, 1985). 

The Netherlands is a very interesting case study for the globalisation of English, as it ranks to be the country with the highest English speaking skills where the language is not native (Education First, 2019). It is estimated that around ninety percent of Dutch people can speak English at least at a conversational level (Wittenborg, 2016), which most likely is a result of the compulsory education of English. For visiting foreigners and international business, this is a great accomplishment of the Dutch government, but is perhaps less positive for the Dutch language itself. The ease at which bilingualism comes to the Dutch could possibly be explained by the linguistic similarity of the two languages, given that they both have Germanic roots. Yet this bilingualism might be threatening the correct grammatical use of Dutch, as well as more and more English words become incorporated within social discourse. From the perspective of Dutch linguistics professor Johan De Caluwe, ‘Dutch is by no means a language under threat. Dutch is assured of a future as long as so many people in Flanders continue to pass on the language to their children.’ (Thompson, 2017). The worry however, he notes, stems from the increasing interest in higher education taught in other languages. This has increased the appearance of English classes in primary schools. Generally speaking however, the flexibility with which the Dutch flow from English to Dutch continues to be a benefit, and appears to have a promising future.

“If the entire world learns your language, what’s the point in learning a different language?”

As a Czech Canadian who’s grown up surrounded by a multitude of and with appreciation for languages, and came to Amsterdam with the intention of learning Dutch, I’m realising that my motivation has greatly decreased since realising that I can get by quite easily just by knowing English. This is a benefit and a curse at the same time, as I am actively missing out on a unique opportunity to connect with the locals of a country that I appreciate greatly. This personal experience has made me a little more understanding of my American friends who’d never really care to learn other languages other than English. If the entire world learns your language, what’s the point? This discrepancy in foreign language learning is reflected in education, where according to Pew Research (2018), only 20% of students in primary and secondary education in the United States of America learn another language, in comparison to the European median of 92%. If the education system doesn’t encourage language learning, and the rest of the world appears to cater to English speaking countries by learning English, it seems more understandable that those communities are losing out on the motivation and value of learning foreign languages. 

Although the internet is now a tool that can be accessed across the globe, it is mostly filled with English content, thus making it beneficial for the users to speak English in both for consumption and production of the content. If one wants to share their scientific discovery, for example, it makes sense to want to reach the greatest audience, meaning that the scientific community is leaning increasingly towards English writings. An interesting outcome of the internet and the common use of English is the creation of this online space of a global community, meaning the shared identity that surpasses any national borders or individual differences as cause for division. In the age of overwhelming issues such as global warming, there is a need for a sense of a shared identity that enables everyone to join forces. If there’s anything one can pick up from studying social psychology, it’s that people love to belong to a group and identify with it, as it leads to a sense of belonging and increased self-esteem. More importantly though, it drives people to carry out helpful and generous actions towards those that they consider to be in the in-group, which in cases like climate change is crucial. Communities that are in need of support, illustrated for example by the forest fires in Australia that hit especially hard this year, benefit from this global identity. The created shared empathy towards people completely outside of your physical space contributed to the tens of millions of dollars in donations to help with the natural catastrophe. English has a facilitatory effect in creating this global identity, as a shared mode of communication between people across linguistic backgrounds allows one to have a sense of shared identity. Coupled with the technological advancements of today, it means that more important discussions on various issues such as human rights can take place and bring a whole variety of individuals together to support others in need like we never could before this globalized age.

For students at such an international campus in a city like Amsterdam, English proves to be an amazing tool not only to get a high-level education, regardless of nationality, but also to communicate with people from all over the world. There are definite benefits, as not only does it open doors for more opportunities, but it helps connect people under a global identity, along with the cognitive benefits that should never be underestimated. Yet, one must realize that their native language and native identity shouldn’t be neglected or replaced. As a result of the globalisation of English in its application in diplomacy, the internet, or the stock market, English should be expected to continue to dominate the place of foreign language classes in schools. However, that shouldn’t be a discouragement towards learning other languages especially for native English speakers, who will hopefully grow to value bilingualism more and forgive us for our various accents. And as for me, I think it’s time to finally enroll in a proper Dutch course. 

 

References

– Claude Piron. “Psychological Reactions to Esperanto (1994). Retrieved from: http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/reactions.htm
– Crystal, D. (2017). English as a global language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
– Devlin, K. (2018). Unlike in US, most European students learn a foreign language. Retrieved from:  https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/06/most-european-students-are-learning-a-foreign-language-in-school-while-americans-lag/
– EF Education First – EF English Proficiency Index. (2019). Retrieved from: https://www.ef.com/wwen/epi/
– Gilhooly, K., Lyddy, F., & Pollick, F. (2014). Cognitive Psychology. London: McGraw Hill Education.
– Li, D. C. S. (2003). Between English and Esperanto: what does it take to be a world language? International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2003(164).
– Smokotin, Vladimir M., et al. “The Phenomenon of Linguistic Globalization: English as the Global Lingua Franca (EGLF).” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 154, 2014, pp. 509–513.
– Sung, Chit Cheung Matthew. “English as a Lingua Franca and Global Identities: Perspectives from Four Second Language Learners of English in Hong Kong.” Linguistics and Education, vol. 26, 2014, pp. 31–39., 
– The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 11). L.L. Zamenhof. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/L-L-Zamenhof
– Thompson, L. A. (2017). As English rises, should we fear for the Dutch language? Retrieved from: http://www.flanderstoday.eu/living/english-rises-should-we-fear-dutch-language
– Trifonovitch, G. (1985). English as an International Language: An Attitudinal Approach, in Smith (ed.), 211-215.
– Wittenborg, J. (2016). The Netherlands is Top English-Speaking Country. Retrieved from: https://www.wittenborg.eu/netherlands-top-english-speaking-country.htm

If you’re reading this as a UvA student, chances are that English isn’t your first language, and maybe not even your second. It isn’t mine either. Yet here we are, a collective of about 1.5 billion English speakers globally, of which only a fourth are native speakers (Lyons, 2017). It is no surprise then that English has been noted to be the ‘Lingua Franca’, which is a latin phrase for a common or bridge language. This topic has brought to life a discussion on how the globalisation of American English affects the everyday person of a non-English speaking country, and how that manifests itself on multiple levels, which is what this article will explore. 

In the past, Latin was the most important mode of communication between scientists and philosophers from all over the world. So it isn’t a new concept for there to be a language that many people learned beside their native one in order to share ideas with people from other cultures and backgrounds. There was even a language invented for this purpose; Esperanto. It was founded by L. L. Zamenhof in the late 19th century as an attempt to create an international auxiliary language which would be easy to learn and used all over the world in order to bridge linguistic differences amongst everyone (Britannica, 2019). Esperanto was a reaction to the community divide Zamenhof saw between Russians, Jews, Poles, and Germans in his local area. The creation of Esperanto highlights the idea that language can bring people together, or separate them. In a socio-political environment where communities struggle to see eye-to-eye, the language barrier is yet another factor that adds to the struggle of understanding one another. This is not something we have wanted at any time in history, let alone in the current political climate. Despite there still being a community of Esperanto speakers in the world today, the language never grew to the worldwide use that its founder was hoping for. Why might that be? From the psychological perspective, language isn’t simply a mode of communication, but also a way of self-identification and a connection to a cultural identity, which Esperanto couldn’t provide (Piron, 1994).

So why did English prevail? In the words of the British linguist David Crystal (2017): ‘A language becomes a global language because of the power of the people who speak it.’ This power he speaks of refers to, for example, the political influence that the British empire held through colonizing territories adding up to about a fourth of the entire human population in the 1920s following the victory of World War I. Another reason for the language’s success is that English has a unique adaptability which allows new words to be introduced, whereas other languages have academies that regulate the language,  such as the French Academy. This institution that’s been in place since 1635 serves to regulate the influx of new words from other languages, notably from English, which appears to be a general trend across other languages too. This academy has also been vocal towards keeping grammatical gender, regardless of the societal push to move towards genderless pronouns and nouns. On the other hand, English simply incorporates words that grow in use through texts across various media. This adaptability may enable its users to feel like they can bring in their own cultural backgrounds into the language or add to it as it evolves.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to use a language that is easier for foreigners to learn?”

If you’re not a native English speaker, one thought that might have occured to you while learning the language is how nonsensical it is for English to be the global language, given how difficult it is to learn the proper pronunciations that have nothing to do with the way it’s written. In psychology, the relationship between the letters and sounds is referred to as orthographic depth. English falls into the category of deep orthography, whereas a language such as Italian or German is classified as shallow, because it uses one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds (Gilhooly, Lyddy, & Pollick, 2014). According to Ellis et al. (2011), orthographically shallower languages show less errors made in reading and decreased latency. In that case, wouldn’t it make more sense to use a language that is easier for foreigners to learn? Yet here we are. 

Practically, it shouldn’t be such an issue as it is pretty standard for individuals to have trouble attaining the full fluency of any secondary language. However, there is evidence that accents influence how we perceive another person. From the perspective of a native speaker for example, the non-native speaker brings certain discrepancies to the way the language is spoken such as mispronunciation, stressing different syllables in words, or applying slightly different sentence structure, which comes out at as a result of the linguistic background of the individual. Those phonetic and grammatical differences can cause a slightly condescending attitude towards the non-native, without taking into account the difficulty of becoming fully fluent in your second language (Trifonovitch, 1985). 

The Netherlands is a very interesting case study for the globalisation of English, as it ranks to be the country with the highest English speaking skills where the language is not native (Education First, 2019). It is estimated that around ninety percent of Dutch people can speak English at least at a conversational level (Wittenborg, 2016), which most likely is a result of the compulsory education of English. For visiting foreigners and international business, this is a great accomplishment of the Dutch government, but is perhaps less positive for the Dutch language itself. The ease at which bilingualism comes to the Dutch could possibly be explained by the linguistic similarity of the two languages, given that they both have Germanic roots. Yet this bilingualism might be threatening the correct grammatical use of Dutch, as well as more and more English words become incorporated within social discourse. From the perspective of Dutch linguistics professor Johan De Caluwe, ‘Dutch is by no means a language under threat. Dutch is assured of a future as long as so many people in Flanders continue to pass on the language to their children.’ (Thompson, 2017). The worry however, he notes, stems from the increasing interest in higher education taught in other languages. This has increased the appearance of English classes in primary schools. Generally speaking however, the flexibility with which the Dutch flow from English to Dutch continues to be a benefit, and appears to have a promising future.

“If the entire world learns your language, what’s the point in learning a different language?”

As a Czech Canadian who’s grown up surrounded by a multitude of and with appreciation for languages, and came to Amsterdam with the intention of learning Dutch, I’m realising that my motivation has greatly decreased since realising that I can get by quite easily just by knowing English. This is a benefit and a curse at the same time, as I am actively missing out on a unique opportunity to connect with the locals of a country that I appreciate greatly. This personal experience has made me a little more understanding of my American friends who’d never really care to learn other languages other than English. If the entire world learns your language, what’s the point? This discrepancy in foreign language learning is reflected in education, where according to Pew Research (2018), only 20% of students in primary and secondary education in the United States of America learn another language, in comparison to the European median of 92%. If the education system doesn’t encourage language learning, and the rest of the world appears to cater to English speaking countries by learning English, it seems more understandable that those communities are losing out on the motivation and value of learning foreign languages. 

Although the internet is now a tool that can be accessed across the globe, it is mostly filled with English content, thus making it beneficial for the users to speak English in both for consumption and production of the content. If one wants to share their scientific discovery, for example, it makes sense to want to reach the greatest audience, meaning that the scientific community is leaning increasingly towards English writings. An interesting outcome of the internet and the common use of English is the creation of this online space of a global community, meaning the shared identity that surpasses any national borders or individual differences as cause for division. In the age of overwhelming issues such as global warming, there is a need for a sense of a shared identity that enables everyone to join forces. If there’s anything one can pick up from studying social psychology, it’s that people love to belong to a group and identify with it, as it leads to a sense of belonging and increased self-esteem. More importantly though, it drives people to carry out helpful and generous actions towards those that they consider to be in the in-group, which in cases like climate change is crucial. Communities that are in need of support, illustrated for example by the forest fires in Australia that hit especially hard this year, benefit from this global identity. The created shared empathy towards people completely outside of your physical space contributed to the tens of millions of dollars in donations to help with the natural catastrophe. English has a facilitatory effect in creating this global identity, as a shared mode of communication between people across linguistic backgrounds allows one to have a sense of shared identity. Coupled with the technological advancements of today, it means that more important discussions on various issues such as human rights can take place and bring a whole variety of individuals together to support others in need like we never could before this globalized age.

For students at such an international campus in a city like Amsterdam, English proves to be an amazing tool not only to get a high-level education, regardless of nationality, but also to communicate with people from all over the world. There are definite benefits, as not only does it open doors for more opportunities, but it helps connect people under a global identity, along with the cognitive benefits that should never be underestimated. Yet, one must realize that their native language and native identity shouldn’t be neglected or replaced. As a result of the globalisation of English in its application in diplomacy, the internet, or the stock market, English should be expected to continue to dominate the place of foreign language classes in schools. However, that shouldn’t be a discouragement towards learning other languages especially for native English speakers, who will hopefully grow to value bilingualism more and forgive us for our various accents. And as for me, I think it’s time to finally enroll in a proper Dutch course.

 

References

– Claude Piron. “Psychological Reactions to Esperanto (1994). Retrieved from: http://claudepiron.free.fr/
articlesenanglais/reactions.htm
– Crystal, D. (2017). English as a global language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
– Devlin, K. (2018). Unlike in US, most European students learn a foreign language. Retrieved from:  https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/06/most-european-students-are-learning-a-foreign-language-in-school-while-americans-lag/
– EF Education First – EF English Proficiency Index. (2019). Retrieved from: https://www.ef.com/wwen/epi/
– Gilhooly, K., Lyddy, F., & Pollick, F. (2014). Cognitive Psychology. London: McGraw Hill Education.
– Li, D. C. S. (2003). Between English and Esperanto: what does it take to be a world language? International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2003(164).
– Smokotin, Vladimir M., et al. “The Phenomenon of Linguistic Globalization: English as the Global Lingua Franca (EGLF).” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 154, 2014, pp. 509–513.
– Sung, Chit Cheung Matthew. “English as a Lingua Franca and Global Identities: Perspectives from Four Second Language Learners of English in Hong Kong.” Linguistics and Education, vol. 26, 2014, pp. 31–39., 
– The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 11). L.L. Zamenhof. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/
biography/L-L-Zamenhof
– Thompson, L. A. (2017). As English rises, should we fear for the Dutch language? Retrieved from: http://www.flanderstoday.eu/living/
english-rises-should-we-fear-dutch-language
– Trifonovitch, G. (1985). English as an International Language: An Attitudinal Approach, in Smith (ed.), 211-215.
– Wittenborg, J. (2016). The Netherlands is Top English-Speaking Country. Retrieved from: https://www.wittenborg.eu/
netherlands-top-english-speaking-country.htm
Elizabeth Helen Rouha

Author Elizabeth Helen Rouha

Elizabeth Helen Rouha (2001), is a first year psychology student from Czech Republic, who enjoys learning about people from different walks of life and hopes to unpack interesting psychological topics through writing.

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