Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Dollar and the American Language

Foreign students come to American universities and teach American students science in English, and foreign-born engineers work for American corporations, speaking and writing in English -- all of them having learned English mostly in their homelands. That's a remarkable development that is too often taken for granted (or was until "homeland security" began to curtail supplies: "In the past year overseas applications to US universities have declined by 28%, while at the same time they have surged in competitor countries, including the UK and Germany. Enrolment of all foreign students in America fell for the first time in three decades, and graduate student enrolment dropped by 6%" [Rebecca Holman, "Overseas Students Shun US Universities," The Guardian, December 22, 2004]).

BBC says that "[a] third of people on the planet will be learning English in the next decade":
Researcher David Graddol says two billion people will be learning English as it becomes a truly "world language".

This growth will see French declining internationally, while German is set to expand, particularly in Asia.

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The Future of English report, launched in Edinburgh at a British Council conference on international education, has used computer modelling to forecast the onset of a "wave" of English-learning around the world.

In the year 2000, the British Council says there were about a billion English learners -- but a decade later, this report says, the numbers will have doubled.

The research has looked at the global population of young people in education -- including 120 million children in Chinese primary schools -- and how many countries are embedding English-language learning within their school systems.

The linguistic forecast points to a surge in English learning, which could peak in 2010. (Sean Coughlan, "English 'World Language' Forecast," December 9, 2004)
Which variety of English are people learning, though? Most likely, the English of multinational corporations:
As she searched for the English words to name the razor-tooth fish swimming around her stomach on her faded blue and white T-shirt, 10-year-old Urantsetseg hardly seemed to embody an urgent new national policy.

"Father shark, mother shark, sister shark," she recited carefully as the winter light filled her classroom. Stumped by a smaller, worried-looking fish, she paused, frowning. Then she cried out, "Lunch!"

Even here on the edge of the nation's capital, in this settlement of dirt tracks, plank shanties and the circular felt yurts of herdsmen, the sounds of English can be heard from the youngest of students -- part of a nationwide drive to make it the primary foreign language learned in Mongolia, a landlocked expanse of open steppe sandwiched between Russia and China. "We are looking at Singapore as a model," Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mongolia's prime minister, said in an interview, his own American English honed in graduate school at Harvard. . . .

Its camel herders may not yet be referring to one another as "dude," but this Central Asian nation, thousands of miles from the nearest English-speaking country, is a reflection of the steady march of English as a world language. . . .

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. . . Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian was universally taught in Mongolia and was required for admission to universities.

"Russia is going downhill very fast," said Tom Dyer, 28, an Australian teacher at the Lotus Children's Center, the orphanage where Urantsetseg was describing the shark family.

Russia, leery of immigration from Asia, has imposed visa requirements on Mongolians. China has not. Today, it is hard to find a Mongolian under 40 who speaks better than broken Russian. Within a decade, Mongolia is expected to convert its written language to the Roman alphabet from Cyrillic characters. "Everyone knows that Russian was the official foreign language here," T. Layton Croft, Mongolia's representative for The Asia Foundation, said in an interview. "So by announcing that English is the official foreign language, it is yet another step in a way of consolidating Mongolia's independence, autonomy and identity."

So far, Beijing has adopted a laissez-faire stance toward Mongolia's flirtation with English, even though China is now the country's leading source of foreign investment, trade and tourism. Such a stance is easy to maintain because Chinese-language studies also are undergoing a boom here.

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With official encouragement, the American Embassy, the British Embassy, and a private Swiss group have all opened English-language reading rooms here in the past 18 months.

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After trying in the 1990's to retrain about half of Mongolia's 1,400 Russian-language teachers to teach English, Mongolia now is embarking on a program to attract hundreds of qualified teachers from around the world to teach here.

"I need 2,000 English teachers," said Puntsag Tsagaan, Mongolia's minister of education, culture and science. Mr. Tsagaan, a graduate of a Soviet university, laboriously explained in English that Mongolia hoped to attract English teachers, not only from Britain and North America, but from India, Singapore and Malaysia. Getting visas for teachers, a cumbersome process, will be streamlined, he said.

Mr. Tsagaan spins an optimistic vision of Mongolia's bilingual future if he can lure English teachers. "If we combine our academic knowledge with the English language, we can do outsourcing here, just like Bangalore," he said. (James Brooke, "For Mongolians, E Is for English, F Is for Future," New York Times, February 15, 2005)
The US Empire has three pillars: the Dollar, the Sword, and the American Language. The three pillars support one another. Just as the dollar, made the global reserve currency by the sword, has allowed Washington to run an empire on budget and trade deficits, the American Language, the chief inheritor of the linguistic estate of the British Empire and its colonial subjects, has allowed Washington to manage the empire on foreign language education deficits, sparing it the costs of establishing a British-style colonial civil service.

As the dollar goes south, however, will fewer people in the world be studying American English, and will Americans be finally compelled to learn a foreign language or two?

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