Teach them English

I have been asked many times “Wouldn’t it be easier to just teach them English?”. Some people are saying that is exactly what is happening – that English is becoming the dominant language of the world. Let’s look at some facts about the spread of English, language death, and how technology is affecting things. They will help us answer that question.

According to www.EnglishEnglish.com, one out of every five people on earth can speak English to some level of competence. It has been estimated that there might be more people in China who speak English (to some degree) than in the United States of America! English is a world language. The following Circle of World English was proposed by Tom McArthur. It demonstrates in how many places English is spoken by some part of the population. If only 10% of the population of India speak English, then there are about twice as many English speakers in India than in the United Kingdom.

It is important to note that most of the people in the world who speak English speak it as a second (or third, or forth) language. They have no intention of making English their primary language. They may speak it at work, but not at home. It is a mistake to assume that all those who learn English abandon their mother tongue or any other language they speak.

The following video is part of an on-line sociolinguistics course by Anthony Pym. It is a lecture entitled “Is English the Killer Language?” He concludes that English is not killing other languages.

Dying Languages

Not only is the use of English spreading, other languages are dying. According to the Ethnologue (http://www.sil.org/sociolx/ndg-lg-faq.html), estimates vary, but it is clear that hundreds of languages will not be passed on to the next generation. Some linguists consider that half of the worlds 6,900 languages could be lost in the next 50-100 years (The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project http://www.hrelp.org/). However, there is a lack of consistent evidence to know what linguists or news journalists mean by claiming that many languages are in an “endangered” state.

I see indications of possible language death in Africa. It is not uncommon to meet children in an urban area who do not speak the language of their parents. Some people prefer to speak a regional language like Swahili or an official language like English or French because of the economic advantages those languages offer. This process is most pronounced in urban areas. All of these are indications that a language may be dying.

But even when a large percentage of the speakers of a language leave it for another language, that does not mean that the language itself is dying. In some cases, a large percentage of the population of some people groups in Mexico no longer speak their traditional language, having switched to Spanish. Because of population growth, some of those languages now have more speakers than they did in 1900. If half the population abandons a language over 100 years, but the population of the group quadruples over the same period, you sill have twice as many people who speak the language. So it is a mistake to conclude that the languages of a country are dying because a higher and higher percentage of the population speaks English (or French or Swahili, etc.).

Even people residing near a people group can come to wrong conclusions about whether the language is dying. Someone may say, “I know that area. When I go there I can speak to everyone in English. So they don’t need a translation.” Many times, those who do not speak English stay silent or stay away when an English speaker is around. Or perhaps they know just enough English to get by, and the English speaker assumes they know more. If one were to engage such people in a discussion of politics, or religion or the economy, you would see very quickly that their knowledge of English is limited. I had a conversation with a man from an area who claimed that all of a certain people group in that area spoke English. But a survey had just shown that 200,000 of them only spoke their language and his neighbor knew that many did not speak English! The man was surprised to learn this. Informal testimonies of “they all speak English (or Swahili, or French, or whatever) are not very reliable even from residents of the area,

Technology and languages

One would think that modern technology would be a force for people to learn English, or at least a major language. But some technological developments may be making it easier for people to keep their languages. Microsoft has a “Local Language Program” which seeks to produce versions of its Windows operating system in more and more languages. One can download free “language pack” for many languages as seen in Image A. There are a number of African languages listed including Hausa, Sesotho and Swahili. Microsoft says that more and more languages are on the way.

Microsoft is not the only computer company adding more languages to its offerings. Facebook, the popular social networking website, announced that it has launched a Swahili (also called Kiswahili) version. Not only that, a group of speakers of any language can form a group of Facebook translators and make Facebook available in their language!.  It is easy to change the language in Facebook. The current language is displayed on the bottom left of every Facebook page. Click on that and the list of languages appears. I chose a language that looked strange and my Facebook logon looked like Image B! I think that the language is Thai, but I’m not at all sure.

Many major news services offer the news in multiple languages. The Swahili page of the BBC seen in Image C.

According to a 2012 report from Common Sense Advisory (CSA), in 2009 it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it takes 48 languages to reach the same percentage. CSA also indicated that the “English” slice of the Internet language pie is getting smaller each year. Since 2009, English is down from 48 to 36 percent. These trends call into question the assumption that the Internet will cause other languages to disappear in favor of English.

Mobile Phones

The multiplication of languages used on computers is dwarfed by the offerings on mobile phones. A Google search “mobile phone languages” yielded 385,000,000 hits! Among them a page about the Nokia 2310 Phone which indicates that the phones menus are available in many language including the following African languages: Afrikaans, Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Yoruba, Hausa, and Ibo. Nokia has a research center which studies, among other things, language issues in relationship to cell phones. My colleagues in West Africa tell me that more and more people come to literacy classes so that they can text their relatives on friends via mobile phone! Mobile phones are also being used to distribute the Bible on audio and video. Faith Comes By Hearing, an organization that puts the Bible in audio in many languages, has the whole New Testament available in over 200 languages using a mobile phone app. It will have it in 500 languages before too long and has a goal of distributing the whole New Testament in audio in mobile phone in 2,000 languages by 2016. According to the BBC, sending text messages on mobile phones has become the most linguistically diverse form of communication in human history.

Teach them English

To come back to the original question, teaching people English is too expensive. There are 340 million people without a Bible in their language and no work being done. If one teacher could teach English to 100 students in one year (that is very optimistic) and did so for 10 years, one would need 340,000 teachers for 10 years. In addition to their salaries, they would need classrooms, supplies and books. The cost would be prohibitive. Doing literacy and translation in the local languages would be much cheaper. It turns out that the least expensive means is also the one that respects cultures and is more effective. My friend and colleague, Eddie Arthur, the director of Wycliffe in the UK, answers this question from another perspective. You’ll love his accent.


English is spreading and its spread will most probably continue for some time. Many languages are endangered and hundreds of the 6,900 spoken today will no longer be spoken in 100 years, but no one really knows how many. But trends in human society are rarely linear. It could be that technology will slow or perhaps even reverse some of the trends. Even if the most dire predictions of language death come true, the world will still have over 3,000 languages in the year 2100. The translation of the Bible and other documents for the speakers of those language is, therefore, not wasted time.

If you liked this post, you might also like:
Not just anyone can translate
What alphabet?
The first translation
Linguistic diversity
Bible translation and what?
Africa is big
Where did this happen?


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