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Crystal's Ball and the Ecology of English: An Essay Review

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Mark Fettes, University of Toronto

David Crystal, English as a Global Language (Cambridge University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-52159-247-X).

David Graddol, The Future of English? (London: British Council, 1997, ISBN 0-86355-356-7).

Have the 1990s been, above all, the decade of English? Has the twentieth been its century? Or were these but preludes to its still more spectacular triumph in the twenty-first? Such questions haunt all those of us who care about language communication and cultural diversity. As we marvel at the growing integration of the globe, we may also mourn the passing of small languages and cultures, we may struggle against the patently inequitable treatment of different language users and communities, we may shake our heads at the inadequacy of much teaching in, of and about language. How is World English a part of all this? Will it help to alter such patterns, or to entrench them? To what extent has it or can it become a truly global language?

Recent, thought-provoking works by David Crystal and David Graddol offer sharply contrasting views on such questions. Their positions may be encapsulated thus:

All the evidence suggests that the position of English as a global language is going to become stronger. (Crystal, 22)

The future for English will be a complex and plural one. The language will grow in usage and variety, yet simultaneously diminish in relative global importance. (Graddol, 3)

Behind these contradictory summaries stand deep differences in philosophy and methodology that warrant a closer look.

In The Future of English? Graddol, best known for his work on teaching English as a second language, displays great sensitivity on the complexity of language as a social phenomenon. On 64 large-format pages, generously peppered with graphs and tables, he produces a remarkably wide-ranging and provocative survey of how language use interacts with global economic, demographic and cultural trends. His second chapter examines the problematics of forecasting, and admirably summarises the strengths and limitations of statistics and other means of data collection, linear models of language shift, chaos theory and scenario planning. One need not share his conclusions in the rest of the work (which Graddol himself characterises as informed guesses) in order to appreciate and benefit from his analysis. Take for instance the following acute observation:

The growth and decline of native speakers of a language is a relatively long-term change which can be monitored and to some extent forecast. Changes in the number of people learning English as a foreign language, however, may be surprisingly volatile. (24)

The reason for this is that foreign language acquisition involves conscious decision-making and substantial investments of limited personal and societal resources. As in the case of financial capital, such decisions and investments may appear stable and self-perpetuating under conditions of gradual, incremental change, but cease to behave predictably under conditions of social upheaval. Graddol suggests that the next twenty to fifty years are likely 'to be an uncomfortable and at times traumatic experience for many of the world's citizens', as the economic and political order developed and exported by Europe over the past four centuries undergoes a profound transformation (2-3). Most of his book istaken up with exploring some key dimensions of this transformation and assessing their likely effects on language policy and second language use.

Demographically, Asia and Latin America will account for an increasing proportion of young, urban, mobile middle-class people. Graddol expects lingua franca in these continents to play an increasingly important regional role, particularly Spanish and the major varieties of Chinese, along with the continued or increasing use of English. Technologically, he foresees a wave of linguistic 'convergence' and 'localisation', as the national languages of all the industralised and industrialising countries are adapted to the demands of telecommunications and global economics with 'language engineering' tools becoming ever more effective and widely used. Economically, the shift towards language- and knowledge-intensive industries will continue in the major industrial nations, and this will probably further entrench English in its role as a global reference standard. On the other hand, as English becomes ever more identified with globalisation, the latter's negative effects (including deepening social inequalities and the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity) may fuel the political search fro linguistic alternatives.

Graddol's discussion is both lucid and nuanced; he is more concerned with drawing attention to significant issues than with formulating neat, catch-phrase conclusions. Thus he is perfectly content to record conflicting trends. English is increasingly required for high-skill jobs anywhere in the world (42-43); it is the most widely studied foreign language (44-45); it dominates satellite TV programming (46-47); yet its functions in youth culture are diverse and often more symbolic than communicative (48-49); its proportion of Internet traffic is declining (50-51); its economic significance in many countries is being challenged by 'regionalisation' (52-53). Overall, Graddol argues, the picture is far too complicated to make any confident forecasts. His own guess is that the 'market share' of English as a foreign language will peak within the next generation, as other major world and regional languages move into the technological niches pioneered by the United States. But even this prediction, he admits, relies on an assortment of dubious assumptions (62): Will 'economic rationalism' continue to influence attitudes and behaviour to the same degree? Will governments make 'more realistic assessments … of the long-term effectiveness of mass English teaching'? What forms of multilingualism will become popular within global youth culture, the Asian middle class, or political movements linking poverty with globalisation? Graddol ends his book with a plea for wider debate on the future of English, and the development of better models for forecasting global and regional trends.

As the author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and several other impressive reference works, David Crystal appears ideally qualified to contribute to such an effot. His declared intention in English as a Global Language is to tell the story of World English as a 'political and cultural reality … objectively, without taking sides on political issues' (viii). He expresses strong support both for the 'value of multilingualism' and the 'value of a common language', between which he wishes 'a sensible and sensitive balance' to be struck (viii). And yet the book he has produced undercuts all these claims by its frequent recourse to rhetoric in place of argument, and by its even more striking lack of sociological imagination.

Consider, for instance, how Crystal cashes out the notion of 'balance' in the following introductory passage (italics added):

The problem [of communication in multilingual communities] has traditionally been solved by finding a language to act as a lingua franca, or 'common language'. Sometimes, when communities begin to trade with each other, they communicate by adopting a simplified language, known as a pidgin … Sometimes an indigenous language emerges as a lingua franca — usually the language of the most powerful group in the area … But most often, a language is accepted from outside the community, such as English or French, because of the political, economic, or religious influence of a foreign power. (9)

Observe how Crystal manages to imply, in these few words, that there is just one problem, that it is solved by establishing a common language, that such a language is adopted by a community as a whole, and that it thereby transcends its historical and ethnic origins. These premises are central to the book's main theme: that World English is on its way to universal usage and this is a Good Thing. But does such a thesis hold up under critical examination? Communication problems, languages, communities, ethnicity and power relations are all complex, dynamic and enduring social phenomena; they respond to change, including linguistic change, in interrelated and partly unpredictable ways. A serious book about World English should draw attention to this complexity, not obscure it. In this connection, it is remarkable that Crystal does not make greater use of scholarly work from outside the 'native' English-speaking countries; I am thinking of such authors and works as Ammon (1996) on English in Western Europe, Pütz (1995) on Namibia, Dasgupta (1993) and Kachru (1997) on India, Pennycook (1994) on Eastern Asia, and Tsuda (1994) on Japan. More attention to these critical voices might have helped Crystal to overcome the naively instrumentalist view of language that pervades the present work.

The weakness of the analysis is compounded by the author's penchant for rhetorical sound bites. 'There is no retreat from English as the world language,' Sridath Ramphal tells us on page 20, and three pages later Crystal is echoing this military metaphor. 'All the signs suggest that this global language will be English … [but] there are many linguistic battles still to be fought.' Perhaps a career in popular exposition encourages such flourishes: 'If [governments] miss this linguistic boat, there may be no other' (22); 'In relation to so many of the major socio-cultural developments of the past 200 years, it can be shown that the English language has repeatedly found itself "in the right place at the right time"' (69); 'The biggest potential set-back to English as a global language … [would be] if Bill Gates had grown up speaking Chinese' (112). In place of the kind of baffling and contradictory complexity that Graddol describes so well, Crystal presents us with… crystalline simplicities, which seem more likely to hinder than to aid understanding.

If English as a Global Language had appeared in a scholarly vacuum, as the paucity of references suggests (141); if the terrain were indeed as unmapped as Crystal implies in his introduction (ix); if linguistics did in fact supply analytical tools adequate to the study of language spread and linguistic ideologies (113), then we might have reason to be grateful for this book. But we do not. The Future of English? is in every way superior, indeed a groundbreaking work, made all the more remarkable by its clarity and accessibility.

Let me now turn to the question of how Graddol's insight might be developed and extended within the framework of 'interlingualism', as described by Jonathan Pool and myself in the last issue of Esperantic Studies.

Graddol does not describe an 'interlingual' world: that is, one characterised by high and sustainable levels of linguistic diversity, integration, equity and efficiency. Indeed, he foresees a massive loss of languages (59) and deepening social divisions associated with language differences (38-39), as the dark side of global integration and economic rationalisation. Nonetheless, the ideas he explores are vital to the development of interlingualism as a branch of linguistic ecology. If Crystal's work illustrates the pitfalls of arguing for a single interlingual scenario (World English), The Future of English? demonstrates the importance of critically exploring the material realities that render such a scenario plausible. In other words, studies such as The Future of Interpreting?, The Future of Language Technology?, and The Future of Language Teaching? might provide invaluable insights into the limits of the idealised scenarios that Pool and I proposed.

The Future of Esperanto? would be an especially interesting addition to this series, for it is the one interlingual variant that neither Graddol nor Crystal treats seriously. (Graddol does not mention it at all; Crystal associates it with 'a world with just one language in it … one of unity and peace, with all misunderstanding washed away', and having concocted this fantasy asserts that it may be 'quite briefly dismissed' (EGL, 13).) As I argued some years ago in History of European Ideas, Esperanto's appeal as a lingua franca contrasts in many ways with that of English, and it may be well placed to take advantage of the changes in the Zeitgeist foreseen by Graddol (FoE, 3). Where The Future of English? is largely about economics, The Future of Esperanto? might be more concerned with culture and identity; the use of quantitative models might be balanced with careful ethnographic techniques; once again, the aim would be to understand how a complex linguistic system is integrated with a myriad of other social systems. If well done, such a work could do as much as Graddol's to advance our understanding of interlingualism, and of global linguistic ecology as a whole.


  • Ammon, Ulrich, 1996, 'The European Union (EU — formerly European Community): Status change of English during the last 50 years', in Fishman, Conrad & Rubal-Lopez (eds.), 241-267.
  • Dasgupta, Probal, 1993, The otherness of English: India's auntie tongue syndrome, Delhi and London: Sage.
  • Fettes, Mark, 1991, 'Europe's Babylon: Towards a single European language?', History of European Ideas 13, 201-213.
  • Fishman, Joshua A., Andrew W. Conrad and Alma Rubal-Lopez (eds.), 1996, Post-Imperial English: Status change in former British and American colonies, 1940-1990, Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Kachru, Braj B., 1997, 'World Englishes and English-using communities', Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 17, 66-87.
  • Pennycook, Alastair, 1994, The cultural politics of English as an international language, Longman, Harlow.
  • Pool, Jonathan and Mark Fettes, 'The challenge of interlingualism: A research invitation', Esperantic Studies 10, 1-3.
  • Pütz, Martin (ed.), 1995, Discrimination through language in Africa? Perspectives on the Namibian experience, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Tsuda, Yukio, 1994, 'The diffusion of English: its impact on culture and communication', Keio Communication Review 16, 49-61.

Represita el Esperantic Studies, Spring 1999

Ĉi tiu artikolo aperis en La Brita Esperantisto de julio-aŭgusto 1999.

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