Those of us in the broad area of TESOL often labor under the assumption of the invincibility of English hegemony. Whether they deplore it or exult in it, many people assume that English is on a straight march to linguistic world domination. And many signs point that way, of course, as we have often documented here on Language-on-the-Move (follow these links for examples from Cambodia, China, Germany, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, UAE or USA). However, we have equally documented multilingual practices that appear as cracks in the ideology of English triumphalism (follow these links for examples from Bangkok, Berlin, Dubai, Isfahan, Tokyo or Vienna). And there are more cracks appearing.

In the past weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to re-visit two quite different cities of whose linguistic landscapes I consider myself a longtime observer: Dubai and Munich. Both in Dubai and Munich, I was struck by the ever-increasing presence of Arabic (Munich) and Chinese (Dubai). In Munich, one can now see menus and shop signs in Arabic and much of the official signage at Munich Airport is trilingual in German, English and Arabic. Similarly, the presence of Chinese is expanding in Dubai through shop signs, store guides and service personnel wearing badges identifying them as Chinese speakers. Most intriguingly, in the airport lounges of both cities, I discovered glossy magazines in Arabic (Munich) and Chinese (Dubai) addressed at Arabic- and Chinese-speaking travellers respectively. Both the Chinese-language Luxos (subtitle: ‘Your guide to luxury’) and the Arabic-language Arab Traveler (subtitle: ‘Magazine for the Arabian Friends of Bavaria’) are high-end consumption guides with lots of ads for exclusive brands of jewelry, perfume, hotels, clothing or wellness interspersed with infomercials about boutique shopping and luxury consumption.

Neither Arabic in Munich nor Chinese in Dubai are likely language choices given the settlement and migration history of these cities. So, how come they are making their presence felt in such conspicuous ways in addition to the local language (German and Arabic respectively) and the international language English? The answer lies in the fact that Arabic and Chinese are the languages of the biggest tourist spenders in these places: Munich is popular with Gulf Arabs as a shopping and health destination and, according to this SZ report, the average Arab tourist spends 569 Euros per day in Munich. By comparison, the second-biggest spenders, Japanese tourists with 370 Euros per day, seem almost miserly and there are far fewer of them anyways.

Chinese tourists are to Dubai what Arab tourists are to Munich: the most lucrative group. According to one report, in 2011 300,000 Chinese tourists came to Dubai and their combined expenditure of USD 334 million made them the most valuable group of tourists.

In a consumer economy, language is a means to make a profit. As purchasing power shifts, so do language ideologies and English may be starting to encounter rivals after all.

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Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • A fascinating observation, and it reminded me of my recent stay in Macau, the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”;-) As Chinese and Portuguese are official languages, you see them in the official public signage, shop signs and commercial ads. Portuguese is obviously a maker of Macau’s cultural identity, but it disappears almost completely once you enter the major casinos and hotels, where the majority of their customers are Chinese nationals from mainland China and Hong Kong. While English fares much better and signs within many casinos are bilingual in Chinese and English, we find that some of the games, such as poker machines, are only in Chinese. As the biggest casino tourism in the world, I naively expected Macau to be completely immersed in English. But as you point out here, it makes perfect business sense to cater for linguistic needs of the main clientele, and the big spenders who keep this town growing phenomenally have little need for English, let alone Portuguese.

  • Very interesting observations and reflections. I think that the cracks that appear will likely be driven by the economic logic you highlight here. And while I’m sure there are plenty of cracks, and more will appear, I believe that, generally speaking, the logic of efficiency coupled with the ideology of monolingualism (which ensures English-only in many international contexts, e.g. the academic conference), the deeply entrenched practice of upward language learning, and, more broadly speaking, a social order in which members of dominant fundamental groups (cultural, linguistic, etc.) insist that everyone else assimilate to their linguistic, cultural model while they simultaneously dismiss smaller, “lesser” languages & cultures will ensure the continued hegemony of English internationally, in particular, in elite domains of power, most notably, higher education, which is arguably the gateway to all other international domains of power.

  • Khan

    Thanks for an insightful blog showing us how the economic/ financial aspects act as central contributing factor behind the multilingual signages in these countries. I also agree with your conclusion that ‘ language is a means to make profit’. But does that mean that counter hegemony is also possible through becoming hegemonic?

    Thanks once again Ingrid. Very interesting.

    Khan