English as the Only Language

I’ve been following this discussion/debate on a YouTube video made by Richard Simcott (a very talented English polyglot), and carried over to the how-to-learn-any-language.com forums.  The discussion here centers around English becoming the de-facto language used, increasingly at the expense of learning other languages.  This can be seen by going to many European countries especially.  Obviously, not everywhere in the world speaks English, but more and more frequently, if there are two people who different native languages, they will speak English with one another.

Now, this is not a bad thing in and of itself.  Languages are first and foremost used as a means of communicating.  So in many ways, anything that makes it possible to communicate with various people is a positive step.  Certainly English is a widespread language, and there is a great incentive for people of various countries to learn it.  Of course, if English is the language which both people speak at the same level, it is most likely to be used.

It’s not that this hasn’t happened in the past.  Latin and Greek at one point were the languages learned, and French was also spoken recently.  Looking at the former Soviet Union, Russian was the dominant language, and many in those countries still learn and speak it.  But I cannot think of a time where a language has been so widespread throughout various groups of people.  Today, it seems as though just about everyone is learning English; from the politicians to the store clerks.  I don’t know that Latin or Greek were distributed that way.

So what is the cost of having English as the lingua franca?  I’ve seen an attitude that there is not much point in learning something other than English; after all, “everyone speaks passable English” anyway.  I think most English speakers who have learned other languages have had the experience where we try and use the language (in the country, or in some context where it would be expected) and we received a reply in English.  If this happens too frequently, it becomes frustrating and makes one think, why even try learning?  English has also started infiltrating native languages; I have come to the point where I refuse to use English words in German, even if it’s seen as “more popular.”

But in all of this questioning whether the dominance of English is positive or negative, there is one important point to remember:  although many speak English as a foreign language, most people will always be more comfortable and natural in their native language.  Speaking another person’s native language provides a much greater sense of intimacy than solely relying on English.  At the same time, a language has a history, a personality, and a culture, all of which we will either miss out on, or lose if we constantly assume that English (or whatever the dominant language will someday be) will always be enough.

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