Globally, almost 400 million people speak English as their first language and a billion more know it as their second. There’s no question that as the British Empire expanded, it established its mother tongue as the dominant means of communication – relegating native languages in some countries and totally eclipsing them in others.
Now, English is the official language of some 56 countries worldwide and the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. English language dominance is still undoubtedly a thing and will likely remain so for many decades to come. But in 2021, changes accelerated by the pandemic have suggested that some industries, in some countries, are beginning to chip away at English language hegemony.
Here we talk to four experts – spanning academia, sport, international business – who tell us about the shifting prominence and presence of English in their fields and take us through their experience of its limitations.
Donia Scott, Professor of Computational Linguistics, University of Sussex
Professor Donia Scott’s main area of expertise is language technologies and intuitive interfaces. For more than 20 years, she had led and nurtured successful research teams in academic and commercial settings.
“The pandemic has opened up opportunities for better representation. Diversity in terms of scientists, diversity in terms of attendees and diversity in terms of the languages people deem to be interesting.”
Twenty years ago when writing research papers in computational linguistics, the work was almost always based on the English language. If you wanted your work to be widely read, English as the “global language” was the only viable option. It was elitist – English as the passport to large audiences and a sign of the veracity of the work. With the rise of Big Data, that’s changed.
There are vast amounts of data available for other languages and the fact that algorithms developed by engineers allow systems to learn certain aspects of language without relying on specialised linguistic knowledge makes working with other languages far more viable. There are also now widespread applications for natural language processing and crucially consumers globally who want these applications in their native languages.
We’re seeing other shifts too. Now when you write a research paper focusing on English only, people will question its sole English language focus. It’s about diversity; working on another language is now becoming something that everybody recognises is a good thing to do. But it's also producing solutions that perform across multiple languages (which speaks to the quality of the technical contribution) rather than well in one language and poorly in others.
The pandemic has also changed things. Before, if you didn’t have funding from a grant, you couldn’t attend conferences because it was too expensive. Therefore it was only people from rich universities who attended – not just to present but to watch and attend the workshops.
When conferences went digital out of necessity, they became more accessible. Costs were lowered and presentations could be pre-recorded and subtitled – which broke down monetary and language barriers to participation. This has meant that some of the brightest minds from around the world, for example from non-English speaking African countries, formerly locked out of these spaces, were given the opportunity to attend and contribute and this is pushing the field forward.
The pandemic has opened up opportunities for better representation: Diversity in terms of scientists, diversity in terms of attendees and diversity in terms of the languages people deem to be interesting. English is still a dominant global language for so many reasons, but it’s not necessarily the future.
Megan Bowler, Oxford University
Megan is in her final year of a Classics degree at Oxford University. She also writes about languages policy and multilingualism and is the author of the HEPI paper entitled A Languages Crisis?
“While English has traditionally dominated as a default language for STEM research, this is rapidly changing: findings and online resources are increasingly published in other languages, especially Mandarin, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish”
Multilingualism is valuable for knowledge exchange across all academic disciplines. This is true in the Humanities — for instance, I’m currently using material in French and Italian for my research — but also in the Sciences.
While English has traditionally dominated as a default language for STEM research, this is rapidly changing: findings and online resources are increasingly published in other languages, especially Mandarin, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish. During the early stages of the pandemic, Chinese researchers were criticised for publishing in English-language journals rather than disseminating knowledge in Chinese, which could have been applied more quickly on the front lines. This has resulted in a greater emphasis on publishing in Mandarin. Given China’s total scientific publication output overtook the USA’s in 2018, the ability to understand Chinese-language research quickly is a considerable advantage.
It is important that UK researchers are able to access non-English research, particularly in rapid-turnover fields, and to exchange knowledge with non-Anglophones, or else we risk missing out on significant developments. A notorious example is that the UK and USA did not ‘discover’ the carcinogenic effects of smoking until the 1960s, even though this had been published in German decades earlier!
Robert Riley, BP
Robert Riley is a former senior BP executive with over 22 years’ executive leadership and management experience. He became a BP Group Head of Safety and Operations after the Macondo accident.
“In an emergency – the action language is the native language. Speaking other people’s languages enables you to forge better relationships and allows people to really showcase themselves, especially when recruiting talent or working with future leaders.”
Speaking English enabled me to get by, but in business you have to do more than that. Language still remains a barrier. English unquestionably allows you to bridge the gap, but when I travelled with Spanish-speaking colleagues to our Spanish- speaking markets I witnessed firsthand the difference in receptivity. People wanted to hear what I had to say in English, but they were able to engage more meaningfully with the Spanish content.
The countries of the future are the markets with the greatest density of skill – China, India, Ghana, Nigeria. They speak English to some degree but the use of it isn't unquestioned. China, for example, has become Africa’s largest trading partner and the Chinese government has made great efforts to teach Mandarin outside of Asia.
People say that the business language of the world is English. And that’s true – it’s the language that allows people without other languages in common to communicate. But it’s not the dominant language of collaboration, relationships or expression.
Adam Raimes, J League
Adam spent 10 years as Head of Youth Operations for Premier League football club, West Ham United. Now he is Director of Football Strategy and Development for the Japanese J League tasked with improving player pathways to first team environments.
“Would speaking Japanese fluently help in my day-to-day business? Of course. However, it hasn’t stopped me reaching the furthest corners of the footballing world. With the efficiency of translators and the advancement of technological tools in the modern workplace, working in a multilingual environment is very much possible.”
The old adage that football is a universal language does hold true. Certainly on the pitch, players are brought together from a plethora of backgrounds and they play as a team without the need for on-field translators man marking them as they play. That’s not to say that vital messages on the technical and tactical nuisances of the game aren’t communicated from an English-speaking manager via a Spanish translator to a non-English-speaking Argentinian centre forward to ensure messages are conveyed clearly, but as a whole, the professional footballer knows how to play the game.
Off the pitch – from the expectations and interactions of the fans to the way the game is governed and operated, things differ. From a business perspective, because the English game is still seen as world-leading, the world wants to follow and learn from its best practices. Global governing bodies, therefore, such as FIFA, UEFA and even the AFC (whose majority of countries are based in ASIA) choose English to communicate and bring together a multitude of stakeholders.
When it comes to fan interaction – when a club makes a major new foreign signing you often see, if not already in place, native language social media pages pop up on the club’s network to increase exposure to a wider community of fans.
In football, there is the need for a common language at some level, especially in business and at the moment, that is English. Where there isn’t a shared language – interpreters and their tools are needed to bridge the gap. That said, where emotion and relationships feature, with fans and between managers and their teams, native languages can provide the deeper connection that English can’t.
As to the game – language will never be a barrier to this. We all speak the language of football, just in a slightly different accents.
English may continue to be the global common language –useful for bridging, for getting by, for communicating to a certain level. But what our experts all seem to agree on is that more meaningful exchanges, the true diversification of ideas and reaching a wider pool of audiences relies on native language exchange and, as such, the translation services which can facilitate this.