English Lingua Franca

by Benjamin Studebaker

The belief that everyone in the world should learn English is generally associated with xenophobic elements in Anglophone societies. As a result, it’s frequently dismissed out of hand as a serious idea–it sounds too much like something out of UKIP or Arizona. It makes it all the more interesting that a political theorist–a Belgian political theorist, from the heart of the multilingual EU–has taken the view that English should be the new global lingua franca. His name is Philippe Van Parijs. He’s most famous for his advocacy for a universal basic income (UBI), a kind of permanent income everyone receives purely for being a person. His argument for English lingua franca (which also possesses a convenient acronym, ELF) is compelling, in no small part because its focus is not on the convenience of native English speakers, but on the potential benefits available to non-native speakers in countries outside the Anglosphere.

Van Parijs outlined some of his thinking on the subject in a recent interview. There are two core arguments here:

  1. A lingua franca is of substantial benefit to all who possess it.
  2. English is the best candidate language for lingua franca status.

The first claim is fairly uncontroversial. If we all know one common language, we can overcome language barriers in our communication. We can more easily disseminate ideas and break down cultural, ethnic, religious, and racial boundaries that separate people from one another. It makes militant nationalism less dangerous, it augments the pace of scientific and social progress, in sum it is a great boon to the efficiency of humanity’s growth and development. Van Parijs gives the example of the use of English by Belgians when attempting to discuss the separation within that country of the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. Instead of holding the conversation in Dutch or French and thereby privileging some Belgians over others, by choosing to hold the conversation in English Belgians can show mutual respect for one another. Van Parijs also points to the principle of maxi-min–the belief that we should make the worst off as well off as possible, i.e. maximise the minimum. With a lingua franca, instead of having to choose a language that some of the participants in the conversation understand but not others, one can choose a language that leaves no one completely left out.

The last real lingua franca was Latin in the 18th century, but Latin was reserved only for the elites who went to special schools. This restricted the shared communication and its benefits to the wealthy elites; the common people were denied its benefits. In contrast, the way in which English is being taught in many countries is total and population-wide, and this brings us to the reasons why Van Parijs believes English is suitable as a lingua franca:

  • English education is already widespread in comparison with most other languages.
  • The high level of penetration of English as a second language among young people today is unprecedented in human history–never before have such a large percentage of the population had this level of understanding of a non-native language.
  • There exists a large body of English language media (movies, the internet, and so on) available to create an immersive experience for learners on their own computers. You can be immersed in English without having to go to an English speaking country.

Often those who wish to avoid showing a preference for Anglophone societies or Anglo-Saxon cultures will recognise that a lingua franca would be useful but instead propose a new language designed for that purpose, like Esperanto. Despite the simplicity of a language like Esperanto, it is not a practical alternative to English–Esperanto education is not already widespread, there is no large base of comprehension within the younger generation to build off of, and there is no widespread Esperanto media or culture into which one can be immersed. The latter is particularly significant when attempting to hold the interest of young people.

It is important to note that Van Parijs does not support ELF for the reasons that say, an Arizona legislator might advocate that everyone learn English. Van Parijs does not think that there is anything special about Anglo-Saxon culture that non-Anglophone peoples need to grasp or be exposed to. There is no belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority, no racism, ethnocentrism, or any of the other traditionally unattractive features of the pro-English argument in Van Parijs’ thinking.

Van Parijs even sees ELF as eventually a bad deal for native English speakers:

In the long term therefore the outcome of this process will be that we all in Europe — where this process is well advanced in the younger 85 generations — and increasingly in other parts of the world shall be bilingual or more, with English as one of our languages. With one exception: native English speakers, who will be condemned, whatever their goodwill, to speak English and only English, precisely because all the others will know English so well that there will be very few opportunities for Anglophones to use languages other than English. The result is that tomorrow the Anglophones will be the only monolinguals, and therefore those who suffer from a linguistic handicap.

While multilingual Europeans will be able to choose to converse with their fellows either in the lingua franca or in a native language, Anglophones will be restricted to communicating in the lingua franca and the lingua franca exclusively. In addition, Anglophones will likely speak English colloquially, with idioms and local dialects that will make them less comprehensible to other speakers of the lingua franca. Van Parijs provides this example:

Paradoxically — and I am sure you have witnessed it in the European Commission — to speak English as a second language rather than a first language can be a real advantage, if the audience you have to talk to is international. When you have a meeting and interpreting is provided, some non-native English speakers now often use English rather than relying on interpretation in order to communicate directly and most people don’t use earphones and listen to them directly. Then a British person starts speaking and immediately part of the audience reaches for their earphones because Brits — unless well adjusted to international environments — tend to speak without making allowance for the fact that they are not talking to other Brits: they make jokes that are only funny for their own folk or use idiomatic expressions that are not understandable for people who don’t belong to the same culture.

As a native English speaker myself, I am sure I inadvertently occasionally use colloquialisms that make my writing less accessible to non-native English speaking readers; in this respect, a non-native English speaker has an advantage over me (and if you are one of those readers who has fallen victim to my Americanisms, I apologise). I don’t have much to add to what Van Parijs is saying here today–I find myself essentially in agreement, the spread of English as a lingua franca is globally advantageous regardless of whether or not one is a native speaker, and it is arguably of greater benefit to non-native speakers than it is to native ones, at least so long as other languages still remain popular locally as native tongues. It is the formulation of Van Parijs’ argument–and the fact that it comes from a Belgian rather than a native English speaker–that I find fascinating, and I thought it well-worth sharing.