Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Reversing Babel

Oct 13, 2006

The emergence of English as globalization’s lingua franca is one of the most important factors in creating a “global community.” Nearly one third of the world’s population is estimated to have “basic English proficiency”—almost two billion people. No other language—even those with more primary speakers like Mandarin and Hindi—has the broad geographic distribution of English.

While many have attributed the rise of English to the economic, political and cultural dominance of the United States, the fate of English is no longer intertwined with the fortunes either of America or its geopolitical predecessor the British Empire. In many fields—diplomacy, aviation, medicine—fluency in English is an absolute requirement. India has the second largest number of English speakers in the world; 110 million Chinese students are currently learning English. English is the de facto common language of the European Union. Put a Brazilian, a Nigerian, a Pakistani, a Japanese, a Greek, and a Lebanese businessperson in a room together, and chances are English will be the language utilized for business and commerce.

Nowhere is English’s predominance more pronounced than in the field of communications, particularly the Internet. The figure that 80 percent of all web-based content is written in English may be somewhat exaggerated, but an absolute majority of all materials on the web are in English and in many cases, pages in Chinese, Russian, French or Spanish often have mirror sites in English.

The combination of English plus global communication networks like satellite television and the Internet has led to unprecedented flows of information.

Historically, injustice has thrived on account of the isolation of different populations and their mutual incomprehensibility. Up to 40 million Chinese starved to death in the famine produced by the “Great Leap Forward” between 1958 and 1961, but their sufferings were largely hidden from the world at the time—since the victims had no way to get their story out to the rest of the world.

Today, it is much more difficult to hide a disaster of this magnitude. Having a connection to the Internet and an English-speaking author at the keyboard enables a story that in the past would have been limited by linguistic and geographic barriers to reach hundreds of millions around the world, as Kosovo’s “internet monk” Father Sava or Baghdad blogger Salaam Pax have demonstrated. The reach of such materials can in turn be extended when English-language content is then translated “at the other end” into local languages.

Even twenty years ago, the impact of an op-ed written for a major newspaper would be confined largely to the national-linguistic community served by that outlet. Today, the combination of international media outlets plus local translation services means that pieces have an impact far beyond the immediate reach of the particular outlet. I would not classify myself as a major figure in the world of international relations, yet I have found translations of my op-eds in Chinese, Arabic, and Russian, among other languages. This essay, written in English, appears on the website of Policy Innovations; if others find it of interest, its propositions will end up being debated from Jakarta to Johannesburg.

The new communications technologies plus English proficiency have, as James Bennett noted in his essay “Networking Nation-States” (The National Interest, Winter 2003/04), “brought geographically distant areas into close proximity for many purposes… Collaboration in all areas—economic, educational, political—is becoming relatively easier at a distance.”

Consider, as Bennett does, the change in the debate between the first and second Iraq wars. The debates over the 1991 Gulf War occurred “among their traditional policy elites in legislatures, the media, and academic circles”; with national outlets then summarizing (if presenting at all) the consensus opinion from other states. In contrast, the synergy between the rise of the Internet and the spread of English meant that, by the time of the Iraq War in 2003, “political debate effectively occurred seamlessly across the English-speaking world without the intervening mediation of cultural and political elites.” He sees this as the harbinger of the “network commonwealth”, a “means of linking smaller political communities so that they can deal with common concerns.”

Communities in the past were defined by geographical proximity and linguistic exclusivity, to the exclusion of concerns “outside the borders.” Those types of communities remain important, but alongside them are emerging communities of “choice”—virtual communities defined by common interests and values that cross traditional boundaries—because there is an ability to communicate. Whether such transnational, networked associations become one of the dominant forms of international organization in this century remains to be seen—but citizens are certainly in a much better position today to compare and contrast the conditions of their lives—and to alert each other about room for improvement.

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