The English language is taking over the world. But should we rejoice?

When I was growing up in Africa, most Asian children spoke three languages by the time they were three
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The Independent Online

Today, David Blunkett will tell business leaders to rejoice because the demand for one British product has increased massively across the world, and the demand is growing exponentially. No, it is not size-16 Marks & Spencer cardis, following their brilliant advertising campaigns using women with real bums and tums. It is the English language.

Today, David Blunkett will tell business leaders to rejoice because the demand for one British product has increased massively across the world, and the demand is growing exponentially. No, it is not size-16 Marks & Spencer cardis, following their brilliant advertising campaigns using women with real bums and tums. It is the English language.

According to the British Council, by the end of the year, the number of people with English as a second language will overtake the number of people for whom the language is their mother tongue. English-language books and teaching materials are worth £5bn, and those who write these materials are among the richest authors in the world, far richer than any bestselling novelist. More than 750 million people already speak English well enough to use it for business and computing. A billion are in the process of learning the language. Makes even an anti-imperialist like me want to sing the national anthem in the streets.

We have looked in the wrong place to feel a sense of proper pride in who we are as a nation. Forget trite films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, the humiliations on the cricket pitches, and the gross behaviour of English football fans as they run amok because other people don't think they are simply the best, better than all the rest.

Look instead at quiet gents and ladies in Verona, Barcelona, Nairobi, Rio, London, Brighton - at our English-language teachers who are universally loved as they impart useful and useable English to eager natives from other lands who know well that without this they will be left behind in the global market place.

Some of the happiest years of my life were spent teaching English as a foreign language at the London School of English in Holland Park, owned by Peter Fabian, an eccentric English gentleman with a wonderful range of bow ties and a passionate mission to spread the word. This was in the Seventies and early Eighties. Students, at first, would be very disappointed to see an Asian standing in front of them. They wanted their own Henry Higgins.

But it didn't last. I was teaching them something they were so hungry for - even then- that the suspicion soon disappeared and all of us, good and bad teachers, were adored, spoilt with expensive presents and offered all sorts of other delights, including pleasures of the flesh by randy Italians who picked up the English needed for flirting within hours of starting at the school. Now we have hundreds more schools here and abroad, and this good news needs to be better known.

But even as we celebrate this success, we should be counting the cost of it. There are at present some 6,000 languages spoken around the world. By the year 2025, more than half of these may die. We would worry terribly if this was a statistic for plants or birds or beasts. But cultural and linguistic "biodiversity" is surely just as important. According to the New Internationalist, only 100 languages are actually written down and specialists believe that no language can survive unless 100,000 people speak it.

When languages die, concepts, ways of thinking, self-belief and value systems go, too. Some of the most authoritarian regimes throughout history have understood this and tried to kill languages by forbidding their use in public spaces. The Kurds, Basque people and Native Americans have suffered immeasurably as a result of these all too real culture wars.

When I was growing up in East Africa, most Asian children there spoke at least three languages by the time they were three. We used Swahili when communicating with the local Africans who were (to our shame) the underpaid servants and maids in the homes. Then we spoke the first language of the family, which could be Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati or Kutchi, and then came Hindi, the language of Bollywood films which we all went to see at least twice a week. English came later and became just another language to be used in our complex daily interactions.

The colonial administration tried to ban "vernacular" languages in school, but this had little effect. We were already well-formed, efficient polyglots. French would have been yet another addition had we not had the misfortune to be taught for years by the slightly mad Miss Lachlan who had clearly fled to Africa after some bounder broke her heart. She wore her dresses the wrong way round, never washed her hair and recited sad poems at us instead of tapping into the obvious talent we had for learning languages.

Today, neither of my children can speak any of my rich, resonant childhood languages. They cannot communicate with their Asian grand- mother except in her simple English. They will never know the words which cannot be translated but which mean so much. Sanskari, for example, means a combination of cultured, educated, sensitive, thoughtful, caring and much else. Not only do they not know the word, the concept is all but lost to them in this crude world they now inhabit. If they decide at some future date to replant their roots, they will not find it easy to speak the languages properly because many of the sounds are impossibly difficult unless you learn them young and use them constantly. They will sound like foreigners in their ancestral cultures.

My son Ari did speak Kutchi until he was seven. Then he gave up, realising, I think, that our society believes non-European languages and cultures to be inferior. Our languages are not given the status of French, Spanish or even Russian in our education system. One of my most painful memories is of being thrown out of a sports shop with my mother and young son. I was speaking to my mother in Kutchi and the manager didn't want any "bloody foreign Paki lingo" spoken in his shop.

Millions of Britons already believe they have no need to learn other languages and that the whole world should damn well speak English. With so many foreigners now wanting to do exactly that, the danger is that, instead of pride, it is conceit that will grow and with it an indifference to the annihilation of oral traditions, with no DNA to save and resuscitate in the future.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk">y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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