Saturday, May 14, 2011

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?

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Ramadhan Market in Samarinda