Do you speak English?

Given the dominance of the English language across the globe, is it time to make knowledge of it a human right?

Many professionals, like airplane pilots, are now required to speak English by industry standards [Reuters]

For the first time in history, the world now is close to having a global language so that people from all corners of the globe can communicate with each other without recourse to interpreters and translators. This language is, of course, English. The reason why English has become so dominant is certainly interesting and debatable, but there is no debate that it is the sine qua non for many aspects of life. It is the language of diplomacy and international relations – the Iranians recognised this by agreeing to speak in English in their recent negotiations on their nuclear programme with the P5+1 countries. It is increasingly the language of global news as evidenced by many non-English speaking countries having television networks in the English language.

It is also essential for international business and finance, sport, airline travel (pilots are now required to have good command of English as part of the drive to improve aviation safety standards) and, to a significant extent, for popular music (for example, in the annual Eurovision Song contest, all but a handful of countries have their representatives sing in English).

It is also the language of knowledge. In many academic disciplines – especially natural and social sciences – cutting-edge research is conducted in English and findings are published in English language publications and websites. Accordingly, international conferences invariably demand that papers be submitted and presented in English. There is no denying, therefore, that without English, many avenues of some of the most rewarding careers and activities are simply closed.

If achieving basic literacy is considered a human right, might it now be the case that such literacy should also be in English?

There is the suggestion that the dominant language of the future will be Mandarin in view of China’s meteoric rise as an economic power in the past three decades. This, however, seems highly unlikely. Indeed, even in China, as a major survey in 2004 showed, standard Mandarin (Putonghua) is spoken by only 53 percent of the population (and just 18 percent speak it with family members). Moreover, an estimated 300 million Chinese (a quarter of the population) are learning to speak English (true, the standard remains very low), and plans are afoot to start teaching English in primary school, so there is good reason to think that by the middle of this century, more Chinese people will have knowledge of English than Mandarin. In this, the Chinese will emulate India where English is spoken more widely among literate Indians than any Indian language.

Even in France – the one country which has dragged its heels in coming to terms with the dominance of English (French was the diplomatic language of the 19th century) – the Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso recognised the reality when she proposed that French universities must start teaching some courses in English. She authored a bill to this effect which, after much controversy, was passed by the National Assembly in May.

Why this caused such a stir is bewildering given that this is precisely what has been happening in many universities in countries where English is not the indigenous language. Indeed, many UK students are enrolled in English-language courses in European universities to reduce tuition costs. In the summer I spoke at a conference at the Middle East Technical University’s campus in Northern Cyprus (an offshoot of the university in Ankara, Turkey) and discovered that all courses are taught solely in English; METU has clearly realised which way the wind is blowing in the knowledge economy.

Furthermore, in February, the German President Joachim Gauck no less called for English to be the language of the EU: If there were a vote on this, the majority of EU countries would probably be in favour (only France, Italy, and Spain would likely vote against).

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses the importance of education. Article 26 (1) states:

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

By “elementary education” is meant literacy and numeracy. All this leads one to ask: If achieving basic literacy is considered a human right, might it now be the case that such literacy should also be in English? Perhaps not yet but this question is likely to be posed with great force among many throughout the world, for whom English is not the main language, desiring to be part of an increasingly inter-connected global community. The implications of this profound fact ought to be given serious consideration by the powers-that-be and properly prepared for.

Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at SPRU, University of Sussex.