Language Imperialism

Power and the will to dominate pervade everything, our hearts, our minds, our consciousness and even our language. It is probably safe to say that those who dominate usually do this through the medium of language. As we all know, the most powerful country on the Earth is undoubtedly the United States of America and the most influential language in the world is of course English, American English. But does this correlate with the actual statistics? It might be useful to take a look at a breakdown of the world’s top native languages i.e. those with the greatest number of native speakers (various sources):

1. Mandarin 700 million
2. English  355 million
3. Spanish 350 million
4. Hindi  337 million
5. Portuguese 203 million
6. Bengali 196 million
7. Russian 145 million
8. Japanese 128 million
9. German 101 million

Unsurprisingly, Mandarin Chinese comes top with both Hindi and Bengali being in powerful positions (Poland is 24th on the list). However, does this tell us anything about linguistic imperialism? It is only when we begin to look at the number of second-language speakers do we see the correlations between power and language appear:

1. English  1.5 billion
2. Russian  110 million
3. Spanish  70 million
4. German  60 million
5. French  60 million

English is leaps and bounds ahead of all the other languages. Obviously, for translators and linguists these are important figures and tell us a great deal about the most influential languages in the world.

It is safe to say that English is the language of diplomacy, business and science. From this point of view, those who possess the know-how that is English will be able to share in the opportunities this world language gives. With this in mind, we may be able to foresee the future focal points of the global economy. Time for more statistics – let us look at the number of English language speakers in non-native English states:

1. India  100 million
2. Nigeria  43 million
3. Philippines 37 million 

Perhaps it will be India (and the Indian sub-continent) that will lead the way in the years to come. With this vital skill in their hands (and mouths) the need for language-training and translation is negated. The same, of course, cannot be said of China which experts believe to be the new up and coming power. However, without this communicative ease – possessed by countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Zimbabwe and Singapore – can the manpower of China also match the manpower and linguistic know-how of these nations?


8 thoughts on “Language Imperialism

  1. The importance of language as means of exerting influence cannot be underestimated. Most of us are familiar with the
    term ` Americanization`, as the subject has been often discussed over last few years. However, what makes this article interesting, are the statistics. They show the issue from quite a different angle. These numbers speak for themselves.

    An interesting fact in my opinion is that when it comes to the number of second language speakers, it is Russian that takes the second place. It gives food for thought.

  2. The suggestion that Russian being in second place is food for thought is interesting. The languages on the list are there for perhaps different reasons, although most of them find themselves on the list because of colonialism and conquest.
    What is interesting about Russian? Is it the fact that it is there in the first place? Or is it the fact that it is in 2nd place? Too high? Too low?

  3. For sure English is the most popular English in the world. However, I wouldn’t be underestimating other languages. What about countries which don’t want to be “Americanized”? Will they be forced to learn English? For sure, yes. But on the other hand, I think that the importance of Russian, Spanish, French, etc. cannot be undervalued. I think that the most efficient way of makeing business is makeing them with foreigners in their native language.

  4. There are many examples of countries that actively encourage certain languages to be used or vice versa, however, certain languages (across the ages) have had enough inertia to cross political boundaries and social barriers. It would be interesting to see which languages begins to really compete with English. Spanish? Chinese? Hindi?

  5. Robert Phillipson in a book entitled “Linguistic Imperialism” gives number of arguments for the English language imperialism, such as:
    “Its economic-reproductive function: it enables people to operate technology.
    Its ideological function: it stands for modernity.
    It is a symbol for material advance and efficiency.”
    Additionally, one of the reasons for English imperialism is the spread of plain English in business and legal writing that not only enables to communicate despite the language fluency but also encourage various officials to communicate in this particular language.

  6. One of the primary reasons for the spread of most ‘major’ languages is the ability with which their populations are able to spread. Chinese, Hindi/Urdu populations have all great fertility rates as did the original British colonists in North America. The spread, therefore, is to a larger extent purely biological.

  7. Methinks that when it comes to second-language speakers, fluency is a matter of opinion. Many would claim it but may overrate themselves since their possession of adequate vocabulary and phonetic practice vary. Though psychologically they believe themselves adequate masters of the second language, in practice they may falter unless buttressed by others in their group sufficiently that their performance is improved. Needless to say, in time they might diverge and establish their own version as dominant and be notably different from the original.

    As Latin once dominated the Adriatic over the Italics, Dalmatian akin to Friulian Furlan took over locally until Croatian and Venetan vied for supremacy over it. Friulian itself lost position vis-a-vis with Italian as did Venetan later on.

    With the recent Olympics, it would be interesting to see if China would appear notably in the third table some day.

  8. Mandarin may well be a ‘global’ language but it does not seem to be an international language with huge numbers learning it. In this respect it is diametrically different from English, Spanish and, for example, Arabic.

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