So the New York Times has another opinion piece about language and (surprise!) it’s a stinker. Not as bad as it could’ve been, but still not good. Let’s take a walk through it, shall we?
The hundreds of thousands of Americans descending on Paris during this year’s tourist season are in for a shock: The city’s waiters, bakers and taxi drivers — and practically anyone else they encounter — will mostly speak to them in eager, serviceable and occasionally even near-perfect English.
What is “near-perfect English”? English that this writer can understand? This is a shot across the bow at Europeans – some of them may sometimes speak as good as moi, but usually their language would best be described as “serviceable”. It’s also a slight to linguists, or the group of people who study language for a living and would never describe instances of it as “near-perfect”. I think we’re in for a ride full of hot takes.
It’s not just France. In recent years the number of Europeans who speak English — and speak it well — has soared. The EF English Proficiency Index, whose online test rates adults around the world, has found annual gains since it began in 2011. Of the 27 countries it ranks as highly or very highly proficient, 22 are in Europe. The French are still among Europe’s worst English speakers, but they are desperate to improve.
We’re going to look at the EF English Proficiency Index in another post because I took a quick gander at it and hoo boy it’s got some cringe-worthy stuff in there. Like, it claims “societies that speak English are more open, less hierarchical, and fairer to women” and “English and innovation go hand in hand” and “women speak English better than men”. I mean, props for not being sexist on that last one? But not really?
More to the point of this NYT opinion piece, the EF Index says that France (and Italy and Spain) has “persistent English skill deficiencies”. Why are we focusing on them? Oh yeah, because (as we find out later) the writer lives in Paris. Suck it, Stockholm.
Also, you’re probably wondering what EF is using to test the people here. They say South Africa “improved more than any other country or region in the world”. South Africans speak English though…? India and Nigeria – two countries with English as an official language – are also in the results, but the US and Canada are not. Well, the test they are using is the EF Standard English Test. So they are not checking how well you can speak English, but how well you can do on a test of Standard English. And it probably means the “Standard” variety here is not Indian or South African, or even New Zealand or Nigerian.
English has been Europe’s lingua franca since World War II, of course. But younger people in particular, from Stockholm to Slovenia, increasingly speak a nuanced English that can rival native speech. And it’s only getting better: About 80 percent of primary school students on the Continent study it (up from about 60 percent in 2004), and 94 percent of high school students take English, far more than all other foreign languages combined.
What does “that can rival native speech” mean? We’re back on the linguistic near-perfection ride? I didn’t like it the first time around. And what is only getting better? The writer shows us that more people are studying English, not that they are getting better at rivaling native speech.
Europeans have long watched English-language TV shows and movies, but in bigger countries like Germany and France these were usually dubbed. Now, they all binge-watch Netflix in subtitled English, a virtual English-immersion course. (One French podcaster recommended American sitcoms, with recurring phrases like “Are you breaking up with me?”)
There is not much evidence that you can learn a language from a passive medium such as television. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.
Never mind Brexit; earlier this year the Netherlands opened an all-English commercial court. Gone, it seems, are the regional conferences conducted in “Globish” — the stilted, simplified version of English that used to be the norm. At the Paris co-working space where I rent a desk, my 20-something neighbors — a Colombian, a German, an Italian and a Frenchman — converse in nearly flawless English, a scene replicated in Copenhagen, Berlin and many other cities.
This is the smallest of sample sizes. Also, “nearly flawless English”? We’re back here already? This is a short ride.
Go walk around Copenhagen and Berlin and compare how many conversations you hear in English with how many you hear in Danish or German.
All this sounds like good news for native English speakers, but it may also be a threat. What does it mean for Brits and Americans when everyone from Dutch teenagers to Romanian hackers has mastered our mother tongue?
Yeah, but they haven’t mastered our mother tongue, have they? Pluck a Dutch teenager out of (let’s just say) Amsterdam and drop them in North Reading or South Philly. How well do you think they’re going to understand everyone? It’s likely that English speakers will accommodate the Dutch teenager by using ways of making sure the teenager can understand them.
Then there are two paragraphs about how it is cheaper to go to university in Europe than in the US and Britain. Yeah, it is. The tuition system in America sucks. I can agree with this.
We’re a target. When the world speaks excellent English, English-speaking societies become easier to decode and manipulate. Before the 2016 American elections, the Kremlin recruited young Russians whose written English was so good that they mostly passed for Americans on social media.
It wasn’t the Russians’ good English skills that helped them infiltrate and sway the American election. It was Americans’ racism. Don’t you blame Donald Trump on English.
But good ideas can spread faster, too. Scientific papers have long been published mostly in English; now social movements are Anglophone. This spring, a 16-year-old English-speaking Swede inspired kids around the world to protest climate change. (From Lisbon to Istanbul, their homemade signs were in English.)
Yeah, ok. Fair enough.
Native English may cease to be the gold standard. Most people now learn English to communicate with other nonnative speakers — and even many of their teachers aren’t native — so they acquire few expressions and idioms. The linguist Jennifer Jenkins describes a British TV interviewer asking a perplexed Italian opera singer whether his trip to England is “going swimmingly.” She writes that, at European Union conferences, nonnatives who can easily understand each other’s English switch on their translation headphones when someone from Britain or Ireland takes the stage.
Native English was never the gold standard, Received Pronunciation was. Learners were forced to try to speak like Prince William. And even Prince William probably had to learn to speak like Prince William because Received Pronunciation is not the native dialect of anyone. Of course, Received Pronunciation will get you nowhere and nothing but laughter and derision in the majority of the English-speaking world. So we can and should toss that out as the measuring stick. The native speaker as an ideal or goal is highly problematic in the language classroom.
English will mutate. A recent Irish conference on “World Englishes” included sessions on “Egyptian English as a new English variety” and “English in the linguistic landscape of Kazakhstan.” The linguist Marianne Hundt of the University of Zurich says common errors like “we need to discuss about this” or “I want some advices” could enter native speech.
Mutate? What, like the X-Men? Or more like the Ninja Turtles? What the writer means here is that English will “change”. Linguists, or the people who study linguistic change, don’t often use the word “mutate”. Like, never. And of course English will change. If it doesn’t, it’ll die. (More on the death of languages below) Language change is natural and should be accepted. I can’t find where Hundt’s quote comes from, but I’m willing to bet she didn’t make it in the spirit of worry about English mutating. The fact that we can’t say “discuss about something” or “advices” is something about English that is completely arbitrary. These two things literally do not matter. (And, for what it’s worth, I’ve already seen native speakers using “discuss about”. The mutations have already begun.)
Natives are losing their competitive edge. A few jobs still require perfect English, but in the corporate world good English has become a basic requirement, not a personal selling point. “You just have the same skill as other people — it’s like using Excel,” says Kate Bell, of the EF English Proficiency Index.
Crucially, the ubiquity of English lulls us Anglophones into thinking that it’s O.K. to be monolingual. It’s not. I’ve been at Amsterdam dinners where everyone is speaking brilliant English, but the minute I leave the table they switch back to Dutch. If all we know is English, we won’t know what the rest of the world is saying about us.
Here we are with “perfect” and “brilliant” English again. Round and round we go. I wonder how this author would describe my English, or that of Kim Kardashian, or Eddie Izzard, or Sarah Palin, or Jay-Z, or Billy Connolly, Nelson Mandela, or my grandfather from Northern Ireland. I can agree that it is not ok to be monolingual. Even if that’s the norm for English speakers from the West, it is not the norm for everyone else. Multilingualism is and has always been the norm. But the idea that we’re supposed to learn other languages so that we can know what the world is saying about us? Weird flex but ok.
One final point. Like it or not, the spread of English has a hand in the death of languages around the world. This could have and should have been pointed out in an opinion piece about the spread of English. A language like French isn’t in any danger (in France), but there are languages in Europe which are threatened.