The British Empire is dead: long live the English empire

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If British schoolchildren fail to master Standard English they will be cut off from the 21st century's principal means of communication, says English as a Global Language, a major new study to be published this year.

The book, by Professor David Crystal, will document the astonishing explosion in recent years of English use around the world - now being given even more impetus by the Internet and the information technology revolution. English is now a second language for up to one billion people living outside the old sphere of the British Empire.

This globalisation of English, Prof Crystal argues, makes the need to preserve standard rules of English grammar and word usage greater than ever. He envisages Britain as the world custodian of Standard English - a great commercial opportunity - and says that "those apostrophes and peculiar spellings will come to matter more than ever".

He does not share the attitude of school inspectors and Tory politicians who talk of Standard English in terms of weaning children away from Birmingham or Afro-Caribbean dialects. This is parochial and wrong, he says. In future, English will be spoken in a multitude of different ways. But real Standard English is the language in its written form - and the main reason for acquiring it will be to write to the world.

Predicting a future in which a majority of the world's population will be "trilingual" - masters of their native tongue, of English as spoken locally, and of standard written English - Prof Crystal says speakers of British English will be sought the world over as teachers, interpreters, broadcasters and arbiters of the written word.

"The idea that all languages are equal is a nonsense," he says. Up to 85 per cent of all messages conveyed on the Internet are in English and, although the World Wide Web is proving hospitable to many minority languages, English will remain the basic language of hi-tech communication.

English is the mother tongue of some 400 million people, nearly two- thirds in North America. It is an official language for a further 400 million, mainly informer British colonies. But world-wide more than 70 per cent of Berlitz lessons are to teach English. English teaching is expanding rapidly in such 21st-century giants as China and Indonesia.

In total, between a quarter and a third of the world's population can use English, with no other candidates for global status in sight. In 1991 a European Commission report found that four-fifths of European youth were learning English against a fifth learning French.

Author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, Prof Crystal took early retirement from the linguistics department at Reading University more than 10 years ago. From his home in Holyhead he scans the English- speaking globe.

"I am a celebrant of language, not an English-language triumphalist. English's ascendancy is an accident. It has got nothing to do with simplicity or lack of grammar. It's an old wives' tale that because English words do not inflect much it is easier to learn than, say, German or Latin. Try saying English syntax is simple to the authors of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language - it weighs 2.4 kilograms. The thing is why English with its complex spellings has achieved the status it has - you'd expect phonetic spelling at least."

The reasons for the rise of English can be summed up as the United States, the post-Second World War independence movements and technology. Most of the new nations created since the 1950s have opted for English as a means of communication. US economic supremacy and media carried English across the world. It has not, however, made the US the centre of English.

That is perhaps because language use there remains a hot political topic, even a subject fit for litigation in a way it could never be in the more linguistically tolerant circumstances of Britain. As Prof Crystal puts it, a language that in 1066 looked to be on its last legs opened itself to thousands of foreign (French and Latin) borrowings and has never since attempted codification.

He warns schoolteachers and politicians against taking a "French" view of the language and taking an over-restrictive view of grammar and word use.

Once it used to be thought that English would be pushed out by insurgent nationalists. But the fate of English in Ireland seems the more likely destiny of the language in the Third World. Languages survive, Prof Crystal says, if they promote both intelligibility and identity. For many in Africa and India, English is both a means of peoples making themselves understood in the world, and a way groups within the country can identify.