Chapter Two: English as an Auxiliary Language

The great common languages of humankind arose, not by planning, but rather by accompanying civilisations of historic significance. Thus Greek became the language of learning for centuries as a direct result of the outstanding pre-Roman civilisation of Greece which produced scientists and philosophers like Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Socrates and Plato; and writers like Homer and Euripides. Following the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine, Latin became the lingua franca of the Christian church in Europe; and then, after Muhammad, Arabic was the common tongue of the Islamic civilisation which stretched at its height from Spain to China - and gave the rest of the world so many branches of knowledge. French was later the language of the international culture which, coeval with and in reaction to the turbulence of the Reformation, identified itself with French style and humanist philosophy.

Similarly, the rise of the English language mirrored the fortune of the English-speaking world as it diversified through a variety of commercial enterprises, military campaigns, cultural activities and missionary endeavours into the largest political combination the world has ever seen. Moreover, an overall reputation for administrative justice, and for upholding the right to life and faith, held English in good stead, long after the end of Empire, a tradition maintained to a great extent through various international agencies with close links to the best aspects of Anglophone civilisation. However, there are now signs that the relative influence of the English-speaking peoples is waning, whether in the commercial or cultural spheres. The inexorable lesson of history is that the decline of the English language should follow.

But a world awakening to consciousness of itself need not be determined by historical precedent. Even supposing two centuries of Anglo-American hegemony were bought out by Chinese economic success, English might still surpass Chinese as a basis for the international auxiliary language: not only due to its spread and status, but also by virtue of its inherent qualities. Hence one point of view that merits consideration is that an internationally determined, but orthographically unreformed, version of the English language would adequately fill this role. Could a modern version of English be formally adopted by the U.N., taught to children in schools all over the world, and used for all international purposes?

This certainly remains a possibility: for English retains a high profile as an international auxiliary. The large number of schools and institutes continuing to teach English to foreign students; its use in information technology, air and maritime telecommunications, publishing, international scientific and medical terminology, global conferences and, of course, popular music; the co-status of English and French as the two "working languages" among the six used at the United Nations - all these things attest to the continued health and vibrancy of English as an international auxiliary language.

The relative neutrality of English, compared with other ethnic and national tongues, also allows it a greater role as an international auxiliary. For example, books by Palestinians are currently being translated into English, and then from English into Hebrew (i.e. not directly from Arabic to Hebrew). Likewise, in Belgium many nationals choose to address one another in English rather than use the language of the other community; and there are even calls for a Flemish capital city because of the dominance of French in Brussels. A similar situation exists in South Africa, where languages such as Afrikaans and Xhosa are identified with national groups, but English is seen as neutral. This feeling about English is also a factor in its success in India and many African countries.

However, in spite of these recommendations, we find not only chauvinism from within other language communities, and historical resentment from within ex-colonies, but also thoughtful lines of argument which question the fundamental suitability of any national or otherwise partial language for the demanding role of international auxiliary. One criticism is that such languages always have features which are linguistically difficult for people from different speech areas: for example, the common English phonemes /dh/ and /th/ would be included in this category; another would remind us that native speakers have an advantage when using their mother-tongue with those for whom it is an imperfectly absorbed second or auxiliary language: since the latter have to struggle with the language as well as with the ideas under discussion. It is thus claimed with no little justification that diplomatic, commercial and ideological advantages would accrue to those countries where the chosen international language was spoken as a mother-tongue.

Only a minority of people are perfectly bilingual, so this is a real problem, and one for which translation is an inadequate solution. Proper translation is inconvenient and expensive because it requires an excellent knowledge of two or more languages. (Fluent speakers of second languages may appear to be competent, but can cause misunderstandings by missing idiomatic meanings or misusing words, e.g. "demand" for "ask for".) Most of us have a far from perfect command of even one language. Some idioms can be difficult for the average translator to understand, much less correctly translate, and many words, e.g. "fun, pet, get; demi-tasse, éclat (Fr.); Gemütlichkeit, Weltanschauung (Ger.)", often have no exact equivalents in other languages. Numerous are the gaffes and misunderstandings, with occasional disasters, which have resulted from mistranslation.

A common source of amusement has been trade names which have unintended meanings in other languages: such as the "Nova" car that "doesn't go" in Spanish. Diplomatic gaffes like President Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner!" are from the same vein of humour. (The two expressions are now equivalent in German - perhaps too many foreigners were calling themselves frankfurters and hamburgers - but in the early 1960s inclusion of the little word "ein" - in direct translation from the English - changed the meaning from "I am a Berliner!" to "I am a jam doughnut!")

The absence of an international language can also have tragic consequences. It is widely reported that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at least partly because of a mistranslated reply from the Japanese. At another time many died in Spain when bread was made from imported grain. Nobody could read the labels which identified it as mercury-treated seed-corn. More recently a World Health Organisation report warned about the dangers of countries donating drugs and medicines. For example, some pregnant women in Latvia were given cattle worming medicine which caused them to go temporarily blind. Doctors had guessed at what the medicine was by comparing labels. Mediators in international crises regard lack of a common language as a major complication. For instance, this view was expressed on BBC Radio after the recent (August 1996) hijacking of a plane containing 199 passengers from Khartum to Stansted (London) via Cyprus.

The failure, in 1919, of the Conference of Paris and Treaty of Versailles has been partly attributed to the inherent deficiencies of translation. It has been suggested that the fact that Clemenceau spoke both French and English, but that Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson spoke only English, gave an undue advantage to the French on their home ground. Thus, whereas Anglo-American intentions were transparent to the French, the heads of the British and American delegations had to understand the French position through the medium of translators and Francophone (almost certainly Francophile) officials. This tended to ensure that the French and Belgian demands for excessive reparations against Germany prevailed.

Such objections to translation and the international use of national tongues were the motivation behind the idea of an international auxiliary language: which every child would learn at school in addition to the mother tongue. Esperanto has been the most successful attempt to create such a "neutral" language. It continues to set the standard in various ways, even while remaining an essentially European concept with certain unrevised defects which now limit its international viability.

Moreover, the same objections continue to militate against English: which cannot but be classed as a national language to some extent, in spite of its present international roles. Indeed, such is the level of feeling about the issue, that not only is English unlikely to be adopted as the international auxiliary language in its present form, but a reformed version would have to consciously move from the English-speaking world to the whole world: whether in orthography, phonology, vocabulary or grammatical structure.

A name change would also be necessary, as pointed out by Hans Lunder of Oslo, Norway, in letters to the "European" (30/5 & 4/7/96): "...Seventy per cent of those Europeans earning double or more the average income are able to read English newspapers or watch TV news in English.  

I propose that we make English the main European language for communication, conferences and international events. The world is getting smaller but has too many languages. These mean unnecessary expense and time in translation, wasted time learning other languages, poor communication, cultural polarisation and conflict.

Nationalism is the main problem. The French, for example, fiercely guard all aspects of their language. "English" is both the name of a country and a language. This problem can be solved by calling the international English "Globish" the global or world language. Then everybody could talk and write Globish without thinking about nationalism..."

"...I propose Globish - "the global language based on English" - because it is simple to grasp and express. I do not propose that Globish should take the place of national languages but that everyone could use it as a supplementary or auxiliary language."

We would endorse Mr Lunder's concept of "the global language based on English" with a new name (which might be "Globish" or something else - the name doesn't really matter) because the present status of English as an auxiliary language is equivocal: businessmen, politicians, scientists and even language researchers from the English-speaking countries have evidently greatly overestimated its penetration as a second language. In 1989 a study conducted in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain concluded: "The real correct understanding of English in all the countries studied is notably inferior to the most pessimistic existing evaluations and our own guesstimates" Van de Sandt, Report in "Initiative Media News Bulletin" (London: Lintas Worldwide, January 1989).

In 1990 Sir (now Lord) Randolph Quirk, Professor of English at University College in London, put it thus: "Despite the persistent and glib assumptions in Britain and America, we are witnessing a significant relative decline (perhaps even an absolute decline) in the currency of English worldwide. This may come as a surprise to those who think of English as the medium of high-tech skills, international conferences, and professional journals: here indeed continued growth is doubtless the order of the day. But these are relatively slim and specialized lines of communication."

In 1991 Richard Bailey, Professor of English Language and Literature at the the University of Michigan and Associate Editor of the "Oxford Companion to the English Language" was even more specific: "The proportion of the world's population who regularly use English is 15% - and falling". It appears that, although mass travel, media and communications within the English-speaking world have continued to iron out extremes of accent and dialect, preventing mutual unintelligibility between indigenised varieties, the burgeoning of these very connections has also exposed the comparative economic decline and moral uncertainty at the heart of the English-speaking world. Thus the appurtenances of modern civilisation may well have had the reverse effect of lowering the prestige of English and turning the masses in various ex-colonies towards other cultures and languages.

Moreover, English can be difficult; many who are not natural linguists have failed to master it, in spite of intensive study. Stress and intonation present particular problems. Idiomatic expressions can be confusing or misleading. Uncertain syllabification, irregular verbs, compound nouns and the vast range of tenses are among the features of English that cause headaches for its students. Even the so-called simple grammar itself, based on prepositions and word order rather than inflections, is very vulnerable to the bad writing which stems from muddled or disordered thinking. In such a case the efficient but rather fragile syntax breaks down and the meaning becomes ambiguous or impenetrable even to native speakers. Worst of all is the notorious dissonance between spelling and pronunciation.

The official use of English in aircraft telecommunications, to which most countries and airlines have signed up, is contentious for the same reason. A number of horrific air crashes have been directly related to the difficulties of English when used for this purpose. For example, in 1977 two 747s collided at Tenerife, with a death toll of 582. The Dutch pilot had apparently misunderstood the English of the Spanish air traffic controller. Similarly, the Russian pilot's poor understanding of English (far from untypical according to Indian officials) was blamed as a significant factor in the recent (12/11/96) mid-air plane crash over Northern India, which killed 351. Moreover, the British Airline Pilots' Association reports that, contrary to the official agreement, French and Spanish aircrews use their own languages in the air; also, local languages are used to gain advantages over English-speaking crews, e.g. precedence in landing. A rational, consciously internationalist language, that crews would take pride in speaking correctly, would go a long way towards eliminating such infringements.

Finally, since language is an organic phenomenon, English has sometimes been characterised as reaching that proverbial "middle-aged" condition where, in contrast to the lean and questioning period of youth, the mind tends to narrow whilst the body enlarges. During a century and a half from the beginning of the 16th Century, between 10,000 and 12,000 words were introduced into English, of which half still exist. Shakespeare coined about 1,700. Also, a measure of orthographic and grammatical reform accompanied the new words. But since that time, although the English language has been distended by the addition of thousands of new words, they have been mainly in narrow or specialised areas, especially those concerned with science, technology and commerce. The fact that English has developed in this narrow-minded way (as has every other "national" tongue after its own fashion) seriously limits its capability as an international auxiliary.

In particular, the historical connection between the English language and Judaeo-Christian civilisation has allowed a cultural gap to develop between English and Eastern tongues with very different political and religious traditions. As a result, English is not the ideal medium for use as an international language in these societies, and holds the status largely for lack of an alternative. One problem is that English has few words for many concepts that exist in Eastern tongues. For example, the words "knowledge" and "love" are used in English to cover different categories of meaning that are separately defined even in Ancient Greek; much more so in Arabic, Farsi and other modern languages. Such deficiencies make English an inadequate vehicle for both speech and translation in the eyes of some cultures.

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