Language As The Perfect Instrument Of Empire?

“When introduced to a construction of Spanish grammar in 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain was perplexed. She wondered what purpose grammar could serve.
In response to her confusion,the Bishop of Avila replied:
“Language is the perfect instrument of empire.””

This quote comes from ESL Pundit, a new English language site which caught my eye recently. I’ll post my thoughts on this topic here, and encourage readers to contribute their own thoughts either here or at ESL Pundit in the form of comments. Be warned, my post may be slightly off topic from what the original post was speaking about…but I find this area interesting anyhow.

Is English an instrument of empire?

In a sense, yes; there’s no denying that people learning English has positive ramifications for English speaking countries, too numerous to detail here. Though I acknowledge that the fact that millions of people throughout the world learn and speak English often gives native English speakers an advantage, there is more to it than that.

What complicates the situation is that many many people are not learning English so they can move to England, Australia, South Africa, Canada, or the US or so they can do business with people from these countries; they are learning so they can communicate with people from any number of other, non-English speaking countries, all the languages of which they couldn’t learn in their lifetime.

I’ve heard from more than one speaker of a Slavic language (and Slavic languages are somewhat mutually intelligible – for example a Slovak might be able to understand half of what a Bulgarian person is saying without ever having studied or heard Bulgarian before) say that they still speak English with their other-Slavic-language-speaking friends. This doesn’t even take into account, say, a Chinese person who wants to do business in Hungary.

Similarly, in countries with multiple languages, English might actually seem a more neutral lingua franca than other options. Flemish speakers in Belgium might prefer to speak English (rather than French) with another Belgian whose language is French but who doesn’t speak Flemish. English, despite the history of the UK in India, is often considered more neutral than Hindi in that country.

So while there is no denying that language can and does function as an “instrument of empire”, it seems nearly impossible to quantify the results of the dominance of English, even as generally more positive or negative. Would, for example, people in Lithuania or Thailand be better off if they couldn’t communicate or do business with their neighbors? Or if people had to learn three or four or ten languages in order to do so?

Don’t get me wrong – while the work of EFL teachers depends on it, I most certainly realize there are pros and cons both to the spread of English. I just don’t think it’s a black and white issue.

If you’d like to share your views on this topic, please post them here or visit ESL Pundit to leave a comment.