English as a Developing Lingua Franca

I’m currently employed as an English teacher. My main job is simply to speak in my native tongue, to accustom my students to spoken English. I make lesson plans, but they’re relatively simple. I don’t grade papers or give out homework. I don’t have to prepare students for standardized tests. Student discipline is largely the responsibility of my Korean co-teachers. I don’t have to tangle with the bureaucracy (much). In short, as far as teaching goes, I have a cushy job. And I have the job not because I’m an amazing public speaker or I have some incredible teaching method (though my resume might soon claim both) but simply because I a) grew up speaking English and b) have a college degree.

My salary isn’t amazing, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either, especially considering that I don’t pay rent. I, and the tens or hundreds of thousands of other native-speaking foreign English teachers around the world are in a unique position: due simply to our place of birth and the privilege of having access to a college education, we have special jobs just carved out for us. There are sacrifices to make in pursuit of those positions, but they’re very limited sacrifices, especially when one considers what many people go through in this world just to make a few measly dollars. I have a pretty easy job–and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Globalization is a really complex thing, and I have no desire to try and tackle all the thorny issues here, so I’ll summarize extremely briefly: for the most part, I’m not a fan. Globalization poses many problems. It’s not all bad, for sure, but I think the dangers and costs largely outweigh the possible (and realized) benefits. But as a teacher of English in Korea, am I not an agent of Globalization? Am I engaged in some sort of unethical act simply by teaching English as a second (or third…) language?

I don’t have any immediate and conclusive answer to that question, but I would like to explore some of the further questions it raises. What I’ve come to realize is that English is not just a tool of cultural, political, and economic hegemony by the US, UK, Australia, and other English-speaking countries. It does provide those nations with unique advantages, but I think the proliferation of English-speaking around the world is less a cause and more an effect of the already extant dominance of those countries politically, culturally, and economically. English certainly provides a vector for American cultural products, for example–but it’s a two-way street, and it also provides access to American markets and minds for Japanese anime, music, and fashion as well. And I think that sort of reciprocal transfer is only becoming more and more common.

Furthermore, I think English is becoming a true lingua franca–it’s not just a language that Koreans, or Japanese, or anyone else, use to speak to Americans and Brits. It’s a language that Koreans and Japanese use to talk to each other. It’s a language that Chinese people use to talk to Russians, and French people use to talk to Greeks. In otherwords, English’s value as a language far exceeds its utitlity as a way to access American cultural products and economic activities–it’s becoming a global langauge that is increasingly used by non-native speakers to communicate with other non-native speakers. Much like koine Greek in the Eastern Mediterranean, Latin in Western Europe, or Arabic throughout south-western Asia and northern Africa, English is now functioning as an increasingly universal tongue.

Now, I’m certainly not arguing that the use of English as a lingua franca is without negative consequences–but I also don’t think we can pretend that people around the world won’t respond to that reality by accessing English-language education. The American and British governments certainly aren’t marching around the globe demanding that other nations teach their students English (although of course that sort of thing occurred not too long ago in colonial possessions…) Koreans, and others all over the world, are quite willing to invest huge amounts of money and time in learning English, and there absolutely must be some really compelling reason they’re doing so.

Stepping more into purely speculative territory, I’m curious what this will mean for the future of English as a language. If the trend continues, and English becomes a near-universal common tongue, how will it evolve and change? Koine Greek, for example, was actually more a of a pidgin than a full language. English has something like one million words in its full vocabulary–that’s far too large a number for most non-native speakers to bother learning. Will an abridged English become the standard form? Will English continue to loan words to other languages, or will it begin to borrow more than it loans? Will Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Arabic words colonize English? Especially as we see the eclipsing of US power, and the rise of both China and India (not to mention Brazil and some nations in Africa, especially Nigeria), it’s easy to imagine English becoming increasingly untethered from its native-speakers. That even raises the possibility of “global” English eventually splitting off and becoming its own language, with more “traditional” forms remaining only in native-speaking regions like the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

Obviously I have no idea how accurate any of those speculations will be. But speculating is fun, and incredibly easy! The short term reality, though, is that English is now quite commodified. Knowing English is an asset that one can transfer, rather directly, into income. This commodification is both rather obvious and rather odd, at least from a personal perspective. One doesn’t really expect simply knowing how to talk in one’s mother tongue to be something of rather considerable economic value, and of course for most people who grew up speaking a language other than English, it isn’t (though this too is changing, especially for native-Mandarin speakers). In any event, any other nerds want to weigh in on any of this? I think I’ve rambled on long enough now.

This entry was posted in Amateur Korean Sociology, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to English as a Developing Lingua Franca

  1. Sande says:

    are you still in chungju? It is oct 3 and my son has just arrived in chungju from the USA…I found your blog and I wanted him to know there is another american there!!!

    • staplovich says:

      I certainly am. Is he teaching with EPIK, TALK, or with a hagwon (private academy)–or is he not teaching at all? (The vast majority of non-military Americans here are English teachers). Chungju is actually a really nice city, once you explore it a bit.

  2. BETTIE says:

    Thanks for another magnificent article. Where else may just anybody get that type of information in such an ideal means of writing? I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am at the search for such information.

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