Chapter 5: Language and the limits of globalization

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

—Uriel Weinreich

The notion of English as a global language is closely tied to the wider concept of globalization itself. But what exactly is “globalization?”

Globalization is not a specifically codified doctrine. Nor is globalization an inherently right-wing or left-wing ideology. Globalization includes the following elements and outcomes:

  • Unlimited free trade
  • Borderless labor markets
  • An increased role for supranational governmental bodies like the United Nations and the European Union.

Evangelists for globalization are enthusiastic about Global English for several reasons. A single world language would make the world more homogenous. Homogenized consumers who speak the same language could be reached through a single marketing message rather than multiple diverse ones. If all the world’s workers spoke English, then a corporation in London or Chicago could hire engineers in China or Brazil just as easily (and much more cheaply) than they could hire them at home. A single world language would also make diverse populations less diverse, and therefore more accepting of international governmental entities. 

The advocates of globalization have succeeded in implementing English as an administrative language in settings where it has no logical connection to the population it theoretically serves. For example:

  • In Europe, English has become the language of instruction in some university programs in countries where English is not spoken as a native language.
  • English is often used as a working language in the meetings of international governing bodies like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union, even when a minority of the delegates present actually speak the language.

There are also examples from the private sector. English has been forced into some European corporate environments where neither the customers nor the organizational staff speak English. (As you will recall from Chapter 2, the functional value of English in situations where no native speakers are present is minimal.) However, English is now a doctrinaire aspect of “going global.” Many European managers have therefore hastened to introduce it into their organizations, without considering how the language is actually going to be used. Recall the rank-and-file Spanish engineer from Chapter 2 who described “the descent into babble” which accompanies the forced usage of English in the European workplace.

This has been fundamentally a top-down process rather than a grassroots movement. Globalization (and the accompanying emphasis on Global English) is led by management consulting firms, multinational corporations, and the cultural elite.

Predictably, there has been a grassroots backlash. In 1430, Joan of Arc energized her countrymen with the cry of “France for the French.” Today, the cry is more likely to be “French for France,” “German for Germany,” or “Spanish for Spain.” No one wants to see his language and culture swallowed by a “global standard.” When European elites propose implementing English as the language of university-level instruction in countries where it is not the national language, the man and woman on the street understandably take umbrage. What is wrong with French, Danish, German, etc?

In 2003 a group of Japanese academics and media elites proposed granting English a secondary official status in the country. The result was a huge outcry on the Internet and in the letters-to-the-editor columns of every major newspaper. Common citizens were adamant: Japanese was the national language of Japan.

I can understand this attitude because I have a strong attachment to my own language. If French were to somehow recoup its position of international prestige, Americans would become more protective of English. We would bristle at the idea that we should conduct university classes in French, or make French the language of our corporations—just because people were speaking French in some classrooms and boardrooms on the other side of the world.


The concept of “linguistic diversity” is a strong component of European identity. The EU recognizes twenty-one “official” languages. (The primary eleven are Spanish, Danish, German, Greek, English, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Finnish and Swedish.) Maintaining equal status for each of these languages is a highly politicized issue:

“In practice, French, English, and German are the most commonly used languages at EU meetings, and German, the mother tongue of about 24% of all EU residents, is the most common native language in Europe. But the Europeans seem dedicated to maintaining linguistic diversity. Said one German EU representative, ‘It would be cultural suicide for the EU if we tried to go to only one language.’”  -Helsinki Sanomat, 5/4/2001

Europe, like the former Soviet Union, has seen the rebirth of once marginalized languages. Irish schools now teach Irish Gaelic; and minority languages like Welsh and Cornish have seen a revival in Great Britain. In France, speakers of Provençal have begun to reassert themselves. Minority languages are also resurgent in Spain and Italy.


The scope of the linguistic diversity in Europe makes the case for a European lingua franca. One (or two) common languages are needed as a mode of communication on the Continent. But which one makes the most sense? Some European leaders want to make English the European lingua franca, in imitation of the multinational corporations that have experimented with making English their official administrative business language.

There are practical reasons which make English an awkward common language for the EU. To begin with, English is not the native language of a single country in Continental Europe. (Imagine if Canada, Mexico, and the United States tried to use Chinese as the common diplomatic and business language among our three nations.) English is more difficult to pronounce than most European languages, and English grammar is more difficult than Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese grammar.

In Europe, the weight of raw numbers makes the case for German. Germany is the most populous country in the EU; the German economy accounts for a full one third of the European Union’s GDP. And a third of the EU’s population are already speakers of German.

The only real lingua franca of Europe is Latin—a language which forms the basis of most European languages.  While Latin—a dead language that is difficult to master—is an impractical choice, Spanish, Italian, (or even French) would be far easier for the average European than English.


The two most powerful countries in continental Western Europe are France and Germany. Both of these nations have launched recent campaigns to reassert the international usage of their languages. Germany’s Goethe-Institut maintains offices throughout the world. The organization’s mission is “the promotion of the German language and culture.” The French government has launched similar initiatives for furthering the spread of French. While these efforts have so far met with limited interest in the United States, interest in French and German is on the rise throughout the present EU member countries, as well as in Eastern Europe.

The French have become legendary for their love of their own language, but they are not alone. In 1999, representatives from Germany and Austria threatened to boycott ministerial meetings held in Finland upon learning that only English, French and Finnish would be translated. The Finnish relented, triggering protests from the Italians and the Spanish, who then claimed that their languages should also be given equal treatment.

The image of European diplomats threatening to boycott meetings if their language is snubbed contains an element of pettiness that would quickly exhaust the patience of private sector professionals. Nonetheless, such attitudes are indicative of a Europe that may be less patient in future years with businesspersons who don’t bother to learn the local language. The trend will be especially pronounced in France and Germany, whose languages are gaining popularity as second languages in Europe.

In late 2004, Greece joined the OIF (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie), a European organization dedicated to the promotion of French as a language of global communications and commerce. Austria, Slovenia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and a number of other European nations are also affiliated with the group. A Greek official had this to say about his county’s entry into the OIF:

“[The goal is to] reinforce the plurality of languages within the EU. We safeguard our own language by making room for more languages to be spoken”.


The subtext of the above quote is clear: The Greeks wanted to encourage the spread of French as a counterbalance to English. Despite the importance of German, many Europeans consider French to be a more significant world language. French already has a wide global following, with native speakers in Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia.


Europe is not the only place where a reappraisal is taking place. The conflict between Global English and local languages has special significance in countries where English was once forced on a population through colonial rule. In former British colonies, English is a force which creates two classes: an English-speaking one and a non-English-speaking one. The problem is particularly acute in India and Malaysia, where English continues to exist beside local languages. The groups that speak English are typically a disproportionately powerful minority, and are psychologically tied to the old colonial system.

Efforts to convince local populations that English has somehow become a “neutral language” inevitably lead to the question: but why English—and why here? There is no linguistic justification for English as a lingua franca in India—where most of the population speaks non-European languages. Going by the numbers, either Hindi (366 million speakers),     Bengali (70 million speakers), or another indigenous Indian language would make more sense.

Some Filipinos have also questioned the appropriateness of English as a domestic mode of communications. The people of the Philippines have had two European languages forced on them in the past 500 years. Today the Philippines is a country where English exists alongside a dominant national language—Tagalog (also called Filipino), and a plethora of minority tongues.

The Philippines initially became a Spanish colony in the 1500s. Spain forced her language on the Philippines to varying degrees; but indigenous languages continued to thrive during the Spanish imperial era. After America defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Philippines became an American commonwealth, and English became a major linguistic influence.

The Philippines was granted independence from the United States in 1946, although a U.S. military presence continued during the postwar era. Following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991 and a rejection of a new lease agreement by the Philippine Senate, the American military abandoned Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station in December 1991.

The Philippines remains a key U.S. ally; but the new sense of independence has brought about a resurgent enthusiasm for the Tagalog language. The popular media has embraced Tagalog; and there has been a movement to reassert Tagalog as the language of government and education in the country.  Several government leaders have noted that the connection between English and economic advancement is by no means axiomatic—citing the long list of  prosperous countries in which English exists only as a foreign language.


People around the world are not just reappraising Global English. They are also reappraising of the appropriate goals, form, and extent of globalization. This process is taking place in the United States as well as abroad.

Writing in The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2004), author Jeremy Rifkin suggests that the “conventional nation-state political model” is being replaced by “the vanguard of a new global consciousness.” Rifkin suggests that nationalism is outdated, and that this “new global consciousness” will change basic attitudes about everything from foreign peacekeeping operations to private property rights.

On the contrary, most of the organized national polities that exist today have existed for centuries. They are unlikely to dissolve themselves in the foreseeable future. National polities share common goals, a common culture, and a common language. Despite the aspirations of the internationalists, common citizens have continued to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to the old-fashioned nation-state. 

In June 2005 French voters said Non! to the draft constitution of the European Union.  The constitution was rejected by a large margin, with opposition coming from the political left, right and center. The non vote represented a grass-roots protest against Europe’s established leaders. French citizens did not want to compromise their country’s sovereignty to EU bureaucrats in Brussels. Voters opposed measures that would have given the European Union powers to regulate domestic issues like housing and immigration policy. As one twenty-eight-year-old French engineer said: “I voted no out of a concern for democracy. For me, the decisions should not be made by Europe, but by each nation. I want France to make decisions for herself.”

French citizens were also concerned about proposed integration with Turkey and Ukraine—countries that are economically and culturally dissimilar to the nations of Western Europe. French taxpayers bristled at the idea of sending more money to Brussels for the EU to redistribute to poorer nations elsewhere in Europe. They also rejected the notion of opening up their borders to cheap labor from former communist nations. A nursing student in Paris summed the decision up as follows: “They are already taking money from our paychecks. These changes are going to affect my generation more than others.”

The non vote proved that—despite the wishes of Europe’s political and media elite—French voters placed a higher priority on the welfare of their own families than on visions of a fully integrated, homogenous Europe.

A few days later, Dutch voters also rejected the EU constitution.

Later that month, EU leaders held a summit in Brussels, and yet another disagreement erupted. Britain did not want to disburse more funds to the EU until the French reformed their agricultural subsidies programs. Once again, there were protests at the grass-roots level: this time, it was British taxpayers who did not want to subsidize French farmers.

Even within the United States, there are bitter disagreements over spending bills that promise benefits for some states while increasing the economic burden on others. Imagine the practical difficulties involved in reaching a consensus across disparate nations in which some populations will see a portion of their income transferred to others.


What happens when American managers have a vested interest in hedging against the U.S. economy in favor of India or China? The stateless multinational corporation has eroded the sense of economic nationalism that once characterized the managerial class of corporate America.  In extreme cases, executives at U.S. multinationals have suggested that their companies are not “American” firms—but supranational economic entities whose loyalties are no longer exclusively tied to any one nation.

Companies like Motorola and IBM have transferred many of their core operations to distant locations in the developing world. Thanks largely to the influx of American high-tech firms, R&D spending in China is surpassed only by spending in the United States and Japan. Motorola, for example, has more than twenty research centers in China, and a staff of 1,800.

Why conduct R&D in China? A primary motive is cost. In pursuit of the global bottom line, large multinational corporations have sought to make capital and labor markets completely borderless. Recruitment in the developing world often enables companies to reduce their personnel costs by as much as a half to two thirds—even when additional administrative costs are factored in.

It is therefore not surprising that many professionals in the developing world are learning English. India—a former British colony—has built much of its economy on the offshoring plans of U.S. companies. In China as well, a job with a (usually American) multinational is currently viewed as the best path to a prosperous professional life for technical specialists and MBAs. And a job with an American company usually requires skills in the English language.


Many professionals in the developing world are now landing jobs simply by accepting less pay than their American counterparts. This is certainly beneficial for multinational companies—and detrimental (at least in the short term) for Americans who are replaced by cheap foreign labor. But what about the overseas workers themselves, and the societies in which they live?

Poor nations become rich nations when development is homegrown, not when it is driven by distant multinational corporations. The postwar example of Japan is particularly illustrative. In the post-World War II era, the Japanese automotive industry rose to rival Detroit. This occurred through homegrown entrepreneurial efforts; Ford and General Motors did not lay off their American workers to take advantage of cheap Japanese labor in the 1950s. Toyota, Nissan, and Honda were all Japanese creations.

There was no H1-B visa program that enabled Japanese engineers to come to America as high-tech guest workers. (In fact, it was difficult for Japanese to even leave the country during the immediate postwar years.) Talented Japanese managers and technicians stayed home, rolled up their sleeves, and built up their nation’s industries. And today Japan is one of the most prosperous nations on earth.

Conversely, employment based on ultra-low wages is short-term in nature. The Latin American countries that attracted textile and industrial manufacturing employment in the 1990s are already loosing ground to still cheaper labor in Asia. In Mexico, the jobs provided by U.S. companies seeking to take advantage of NAFTA have not delivered as much economic growth as promised. In hindsight, this result was predictable: Ford and Wal-Mart can only hire a tiny percentage of Mexico’s total population. What Mexico needs is homegrown entrepreneurship on a large scale—and this will not occur until the nation revamps its antiquated commercial credit system. (Mexico’s banking laws make it difficult for lenders to seize collateral when loans default, so there is little incentive for them to extend credit at affordable rates.)

Developing nations benefit when talent stays at home. A borderless labor market lowers costs for large corporations; but it ultimately undermines the countries that need to retain their best and brightest. Eastern Europe, India, and China are all suffering from a brain-drain, as H1-B visas and other “guest worker” programs lure talent to the West. It is in everyone’s best interest for these countries to develop into thriving, prosperous nations—rather than ultra-cheap labor sources that simply export their populations.

In order for this situation to change, there will have to be a change of attitude in countries like the United States, which encourage poor countries to become overly reliant on multinational corporations and guest worker programs. There is evidence that such change is on the way.


The anti-globalization backlash in the United States has made strange bedfellows on the Right and the Left. During the 2004 U.S. Presidential campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry repeatedly used the term “Benedict Arnold CEOs” to refer to corporate executives who outsource American jobs to low-wage workers in the developing world. Pat Buchanan, an ultra-conservative former Presidential candidate, made a case for reexamining free trade agreements in Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004). In the political center, CNN commentator Lou Dobbs regularly “outs” American outsourcers by maintaining a running list of companies who ship American jobs overseas. Dobbs has also written a book on the subject: Exporting America : Why Corporate Greed Is Shipping American Jobs Overseas (Warner Business Books, 2004)

In all camps, there is a particular concern over the transfer of U.S. industrial might and high technology to China. China, after all, is still a potential military rival of the United States. When American corporations transfer advanced technology to Chinese partners, this technology inevitably ends up in the hands of the Chinese military. This means that U.S. taxpayers will eventually be forced to spend more on defense. The net result is a U.S. taxpayer subsidization of the multinationals’ China spending spree.

Attitudes about economic globalization are changing among Americans of all political stripes. A May 2004 Associated Press poll found that 69% of Americans believe that outsourcing hurts the U.S. economy. Among affluent Americans (those earning over $100,000 per year) support for free trade deals fell from 57 percent to 28 percent between 1999 and 2004.


Globalization will, without a doubt, continue—but it will likely move forward at a more measured pace in the coming decades, as the long-term interests of national economies are balanced against corporate and internationalist agendas. Developing nations will eventually grow weary of competing to supply the global bottom wage, and focus more on domestic enterprises. Meanwhile, voters and consumers in the developed world are waking up to the long-term costs of unlimited offshoring.

Nations must be realistic about their differences. Economic globalization assumes a consensus regarding laws and standards—the so-called “level playing field.” But no such level playing field exists. The nations of the world disagree about the fundamental nature of capitalism. Americans prefer a laissez-faire model based on personal responsibility and individual initiative. Europeans prefer a more collective model, in which competitive forces are balanced against larger social concerns. In China, the government is still a major force at the macroeconomic level, manipulating currency levels and restricting the activities of labor unions.

The result is “free competition” in a global marketplace that is anything but free. In Europe, American firms must compete with quasi-public firms like Airbus that receive EU government subsidies. Government subsidies for private firms are consistent with the European model of public capitalism. Such subsidies are decried as “barriers to free competition” and “corporate welfare” in the more laissez-faire United States.

In China the playing field is even more tilted. Chinese firms enjoy the advantages of an artificially low Renminbi (the Chinese national currency). Chinese companies do not have to pay for health care benefits, or adhere to the same environmental standards as U.S. companies. Moreover, they can rely on China’s central government to resolve labor disputes by force.

This is not the free market model that Adam Smith delineated in The Wealth of Nations. While resolving these differences is theoretically possible, the process will take decades. In the meantime, the objective should be fair, mutually beneficial trade rather than a totally borderless economic integration.


The emphasis on globalization has created some dramatically skewed attitudes about language. Many overseas institutions vainly believe that English is a panacea for all their national ills, while giving short shrift to more fundamental economic and social issues. Meanwhile, most English-speakers anticipate that the worldwide adoption of their language is just a few short years away, so they see no advantage in learning the languages of others. Both sides have set expectations for English that are unrealistically high.

The reappraisal of economic globalization will have an inevitable effect on the worldwide enthusiasm for English, as the developing world focuses more on homegrown entrepreneurship, and the developed world reassesses the consequences of exporting its industrial infrastructure. At the grassroots level, this will mean more employment by locally owned companies who speak the local language—and less employment with multinational corporations whose representatives and customers speak only English. This does not mean that all professionals in the non-English-speaking world will suddenly stop learning English. However, the attitude that English skills are a precondition for success—and a guarantee of employment with an American-owned corporation—is likely to wane.

As noted in Chapter 3, there has been a dramatic increase in regional economic activity in which the United States is not a partner. This will lead to a greater emphasis on region-specific lingua francas. Within Asia, for example, Chinese may assume a preeminent role for businesspersons, with English becoming a language limited to certain specialized fields. This turn of events would not be unprecedented: A similar outcome has already taken place in Latin America, where Spanish is more important than English on the multilingual South American continent.


In addition to being unrealistic, the “one-worldism” preached by many would make a hopelessly uniform and boring planet. We can love English without seeking to universalize it. Consider a world without Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Robert Burns. Now consider that Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, French and other languages have equally rich cultural heritages to offer the world.

In 1979, my sixth grade science teacher predicted that within ten years, America would abandon the English measurement system of inches, gallons, and pounds, and switch to the metric system, because the metric system was the “global system” of weights and measurements. “By 1988 or 1989,” he predicted, “You won’t think about your bodyweight in terms of pounds—you’ll think about your bodyweight in kilograms. It will also be more natural for you to think of distances in kilometers. Miles will become a thing of the past.”   

Even at the age of eleven, this notion struck me as counterintuitive. Of course we Americans should be able to cope with the metric system when necessary, but why should we abandon our pounds, miles, and inches just because the metric system was used in Europe and Japan? What relationship did my bodyweight, or the distance from my house to school, have with the way people measured things in Japan or Europe?

Twenty-six years later, I still think of my bodyweight as 170 lbs—not the 77.110708 kilograms that I calculated using the conversion tool on the website. I suspect that most of my fellow Americans are also more comfortable with miles, pounds, and gallons than they are with meters, grams, and liters. I can use these metric measurements when the need arises; but they have little relevance to my daily life—which is thoroughly grounded in the English system of measurement.

In the same way, the daily lives of people throughout the world are grounded in a variety of languages: French, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, etc. Why should they want to give them up, or subordinate them to another language? (Consider again the notion of Americans abandoning English for French.)

We should establish international standards on the fundamentals: basic human freedoms, racial/gender equality, and representative government. Where language is concerned, however, there is plenty of room for diversity; and the world that our grandchildren inherit will be far more interesting if no single language dominates the earth. 

Chapter 5 Appendix: The Consolidation of Languages at the Nation-state Level

Each modern-day European nation was once a tapestry of different languages. During the feudal era, life in Europe was centered around small localities—each of which had a distinct language. Language consolidation occurred gradually in Europe, and was driven by the formation and growth of national governments. But local languages persist.

In Great Britain, for example, the Welsh language has recently garnered a great deal of attention. Welsh is a Celtic language that was once the dominant language of Wales, an area of western Britain. Today only about 20% of the population of Wales speaks Welsh. Nonetheless, Welsh is more than just a cultural curiosity. While there are few monolingual speakers of Welsh, Welsh is an active, living language. There are some residents of Wales who consider Welsh to be their first, and most articulately spoken language. There is a Welsh television channel, and Microsoft recently began offering Welsh versions of Office® and Windows XP®.

Cornish is also a Celtic language. Cornish was once the main language of the Cornwall area. (Cornwall is a county on the southwestern tip of England.) Practically everyone living in Cornwall in 1200 spoke the language. As England’s central government became more powerful, the Cornwall region became increasingly Anglicized. The last monolingual Cornish speaker died in 1777. Bilingual (Cornish and English) speakers were common through the late 1800s, but were rare by the 1930s.   

A movement to revive Cornish began in the 1970s. Today there are about four hundred fluent speakers of Cornish, and many more Cornish enthusiasts who possess lesser degrees of fluency in the language. A group called Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (The Cornish Language Fellowship) sponsors Cornish language immersion meetings. You can find out more about the Cornish language by visiting the website

Across the English Channel, France was once home to a patchwork of diverse languages. In fact, less than half of the country spoke Parisian French before the 1789 French Revolution. The government began actively repressing minority languages following the revolution, as these were seen as threats to national unity.

Occitan, the language of the troubadours, was originally the language of culture in southern France. Michael Crichton brought Occitan to the attention of English-speakers in his novel Timeline (Knopf, 1999). Timeline is the story of a group of graduate students who are transported back in time to 14th century France. One of the students is a medieval history aficionado who has taught himself Occitan—along with several other languages that would have come in handy in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Until the 19th century, standard German, or Hochdeutsch, existed primarily as a written language that most Germans learned as a foreign tongue. Germany was divided into many states, each of which spoke a slightly different version of the German language. Consolidation of the German language was accelerated with the founding of the German nation-state in 1871. Dialectical differences persist to this day; the Bavarian dialect of German in particular remains distinct and recognizable to native German-speakers.


If it’s good enough for Arnold…

Arnold Schwarzenegger, a native of Austria, speaks German with a Bavarian accent.    


Before the 1861 unification of Italy, only a small percentage of Italians spoke standard Italian. Renaissance Italy was a collection of distinct, powerful city-states. Venice, for example, was once a significant independent power in Europe. Venice had a powerful navy; and the Republic of Venice negotiated trade agreements with other European countries. Venice also had its own language—a derivative of Latin known as Venetian.

Although every Italian citizen alive today can speak the language known throughout the world as “Italian,” the regional dialects associated with the Italian city states can still be heard in Italy. Venetian is spoken by more than one million Italians. Other minority languages in Italy include Neapolitan, Piemontese, and Cimbrian. And don’t forget Sicilian—the language made famous by the Godfather film trilogy.

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