The Rapid Evolution of English

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that to speak a different language was to perceive a different world. But what happens when people from different worlds all try to speak the same language? To answer that question, 200 writers, scholars, and teachers gathered recently for a World Englishes Conference at Indiana’s Purdue University.

English has become the language of international business. Because of that, English as we know it is changing rapidly. “If lesser-developed countries want to become involved in the global marketplace, then speaking English is perceived as a necessary goal,” says the event’s organizer, Purdue English professor Margie Berns. “The number of English speakers, and more importantly those who are learning English as a second language, is increasing around the world, and this will affect English as we know it.”

As English spreads, individual communities will adapt and alter it to serve their own communication needs-to describe objects, events, and ideas that are mundane to them but not easily translatable into English. This means they will have to add and change words to communicate more fully. The results of this stretching of English, according to Berns, are already visible as new variations on the language are born every day.

“Today, English is also at home in much of the South and Southeast and parts of Africa. We can [now] speak of Malaysian English, South African English, or Indian English as we do American or British English,” Berns notes.

This linguistic fragmentation has both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, individuals who learn English as a second language often develop a unique perspective on its usage. Writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Maxine Hong Kingston, who learned English later in life, authored some of the most important works in the modern literary canon. On the other hand, the spread of English often occurs at the expense of native languages and dialects, and it can accelerate the erosion of cultural traditions and indigenous ways of life.

Fluency in English is particularly on the rise in China. “China is pursuing learning English with a vengeance so employees can interact more successfully in the business market,” according to Berns.

In an ironic countertrend, even as English grows in Asia, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere, the number of non-English-speaking people in the United States has been rising as well. According to a 2003 U.S. Census Bureau study, the proportion of the U.S. population who spoke English less than “very well” grew from 4.8% in 1980 to 6.1% in 1990. The 2000 U.S. Census reported the non-English-speaking U.S. population at 8.1%, or roughly 21 million people.

This phenomenon has led correspondingly to a rise in “linguistically isolated” households in the United States, or households where no one over the age of 14 speaks English fluently. In 1990, the number of linguistically isolated households stood at roughly 2.9 million. In 2000, that number had nearly doubled to 4.4 million households, or nearly 11.9 million people who lived in a house where no one spoke English.

Spanish continues to be the most common non-English language spoken in the United States. According to the Census data, there are approximately 28.1 million Spanish speakers in the nation, more than half of whom also showed proficiency in English. The population of Spanish-speaking residents grew by 60% between 1990 and 2000. The second most commonly spoken non-English language was Chinese, which jumped from 1.2 million speakers in 1990 to 2 million in 2000.

Future demographic patterns and economic trends will affect how English is taught and learned in a number of surprising ways. Students in rural parts of China, for example, may study one version of English, then move to a Latino neighborhood in the United States and encounter an entirely new and unfamiliar form of the same language.

“Failing to understand these differences can lead to problems in international relations, business, and even travel,” Berns says. “People may consider the United States and the United Kingdom as home to the English language, but communication is a two-way street. We need to have a better understanding of how English is used in other countries and the effects the language has in different communities.” -Patrick Tucker

Sources: Purdue University News Service, 400 Centennial Mall Drive, Room 324, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907. Telephone 765-494-2096; Web site http://www.uns.purdue.edu.

U.S. Census Bureau. Web site http://www.census.gov.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November December 2005

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