Swimming against the global linguistic tide

Swimming against the global linguistic tide I’m one of the comparatively unlucky few swimming against the global linguistic tide.

I’m a mother tongue speaker of English, “the” global language. That means if I want to become a highly fluent speaker, and writer of another language, I, and others who grow up initially as English-language monolinguals and who yearn to become meaningful multilinguals, must fight the global wave of English that so relentlessly aims to throw us back into the throes of comparative English monolingualism.

In so many places we English mother tongue speakers go, it is so difficult – nigh near impossible, actually – to escape the global wave of English.

Take this blog page on Language on the Move, for example: It’s aimed at a global audience and therefore written in English. If I want to write for Language on the Move – and I do 🙂 — I have to write in English.

English and international NGOs
Or take the international NGO scene: Maybe I want to go work for an international NGO in, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Cambodia. Chances are, I’m not going to get the job unless I’m highly fluent in English, though a bit of French might not hurt.

I use NGOs in Cambodia as an example because we just finished hosting a German graduate student from the University of Tübingen in our home. Anja, who was with us for seven months, came to study at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies (I am a professor in another department at the University of Denver).

In a couple of weeks, Anja will jet from Germany to Cambodia to intern for a few months at an international NGO. She’ll be using English most, if not all, of the time in the workplace.

Turning the linguistic tide
Anja can jet off to virtually any corner of the world, and, if she remains within international domains in a given geographic area, she can be pretty much guaranteed that she’ll be able to practice her best foreign language, which happens to be English. Given her life goals as well as Germany’s emphasis on English —  Anja told me she has taken graduate classes at the University of Tübingen in which there were only German mother tongue speakers and which were carried out one-hundred percent in English – it’s hardly surprising English is far and away her best foreign language.

While Anja can, and did, take undergraduate and graduate courses offered exclusively in English in Germany, that’s never been, and likely never will be, an option for me in the reverse, where I could take, or, as a professor, teach, a university journalism or communications course in German, much less in Spanish here the USA.

Anja can also be assured that if she works in an international job, even in Germany, she will likely have a daily opportunity to use her German-English bilingualism.

The international world is at lot different for me, the English mother-tongue speaker.

A monolingual international communications scholar?
One might think there would be real, instrumental motivation and opportunity for an international communications scholar such as me to be multilingual. Not exactly. Every international conference I go to is in English and every international journal I need to publish in is published in English. Indeed, in the global academic realm, international seems to be a code word for English only.

In sharp contrast to the social pressure on the German academic to publish in English — one might more positively call it socially directed opportunity — I have no such social pressure or motivation to publish in German. Indeed, if, or, hopefully, when, I manage to do a sabbatical year of research in Germany, it’s almost certain that I’ll be working with German scholars on producing scholarship written in English, not in German.

It’s not only on the plane of global academics that American educational elites like me are constantly confronted by a sea of English that can make it very difficult for us to develop deep and broad fluency in a foreign language. For example, in research I’ve conducted, many American college students who study abroad in order to acquire greater fluency in another language tell of the frustrations English’s global presence produce when they’re trying to practice a local language.

No other language group faces this same predicament, not the Russian speakers going to China to learn Chinese, not the Chinese speakers going to Korea to learn Korean, not the Portuguese speakers coming to the USA to learn English. Of course, this is changing as the world moves more toward an English-centric bilingual order.

It’s quite likely this English-centric order may see the Russian speaker going to China to learn Chinese, and the Chinese speaker going to Korea to learn Korean also frustrated by the wave of English sweeping the world. And it goes without saying that, for the foreseeable future, the Portuguese speaker going to the U.S. to learn English won’t have to worry much about being derailed, linguistically speaking, by the Portuguese speaking American swimming the other way.

Author Christof Demont-Heinrich

A lifelong interest in language and writing motivated in large part by a desire to learn my father's mother tongue, German, has played a large role in my professional and educational trajectory. I spent my junior year of college studying in Freiburg, Germany. After graduating from Allegheny College with a B.A. in German, I worked as a print journalist for eight years in the Boston area. I moved to Colorado in August of 1996 so that I could attend Colorado State University where I earned an M.A. in English (1998). After a couple years of working as an adjunct faculty member at CSU and the University of Northern Colorado, I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the fall of 2000. I completed my dissertation in December of 2005. I started a tenure-track position at the University of Denver in the fall of 2005 where I am now an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies. My general research interests are in linguistic and cultural dimensions of globalization, transnational and national identity, and the relation between media discourse and hegemony.

More posts by Christof Demont-Heinrich
  • Thanks, Christof, for this fascinating post! I agree that the naivete with which the world embraces English is frustrating. In English the whole world kind of starts to look the same and English is to global understanding what McDonalds is to food. You can gain some understanding of the world around you by using only English in the same way that it’s possible to get fed by eating fast-food …
    English also renders multilingualism often invisible: right here on Language-on-the-Move, for instance, we’re actually curating an English-Japanese exhibition of transnational life stories with Japanese-language videos being published on an almost daily basis right now!
    If you want my advice don’t think it’s “unlucky” to swim against the tide – many people would say it’s the best way to live 🙂

  • Lisa Fairbrother

    Actually some ‘language’ groups or, to be more precise, ‘racialized’ groups do face similar issues when coming to study Japanese here in Japan. Non-Asian looking students of Japanese are often expected to be able to speak English in their daily lives even if they can’t speak a word of it, as is sometimes the case with international students from Latin America. Many international students also complain that they don’t have enough chances to use Japanese outside their Japanese classes because many of their Japanese friends want to use English with them.

    On a different note, there are quite a number of international conferences conducted in Japanese, such as the International Conference on Japanese Language Education (ICJLE)

  • Marisa Solomos

    I grew up in English-speaking Canada but took Italian lessons outside of school because most of my Dad’s family is in Italy. When I visit with them there (outside Lucca), or even visiting with them when they vacation in Canada and here in NYC, I cannot communicate with them using English. They only know Italian and don’t recognize any real need to learn English, even though they have family who live in English-speaking countries. I still strive to learn more and more Italian in anticipation of future visits because I want to be able to communicate with them. It’s a slow process until I am actually WITH them – then it’s an intensive, immersion crash-course; the best way to learn, by far! The moral of the story is, don’t only associate in academic circles and business/urban environments. You might learn more from less ‘educated’ people.

    • Jessica Svedberg

      I couldn’t agree more Marisa, seeing expanding one’s language skills as an opportunity to also expand one’s contact with diverse social groups is surely a good attitude to adopt. Associating with the educational ‘elite’ is perhaps not only giving you a monolingual experience but a pretty limited experience in general. Having said that, I’m an Australian living in Italy and I do find it difficult because everywhere I go, Italians want to practice their English! We do need to be a little more determined and perhaps inventive in our language learning endeavours.

  • When I lived in Norway, I wanted to practice my Norwegian with as many people as I could. But they simply wouldn’t talk Norwegian to me. They always reverted to English, because “it’s so much more interesting for them, and easier for me”. Luckily here in London English is not as universal as everywhere else 😉

  • Amy

    As I’ve posted in the past, my two daughters did immersion exchanges abroad at the ages of 9 and 10 through the French non-profit En Famille International. The idea of the program was that kids arrive in their new country (American kids can go to France, Spain, and Germany) knowing none of their new language so that they can learn it “from scratch” like a native speaker.

    To help them swim against the linguistic tide, they are taught only one phrase before they go: depending on their destination, it’s “Deutsch bitte,” “en français s’il vous plaît,” or “en español por favor.” Still, many kids are overwhelmed by the hoards of other kids, teachers, etc. who want to try out their English with them!

  • It’s completely possible, though! Maybe it’s different in the sense that you will need more self-discipline, but overall I cannot see why would an English-speaker not learn a second language. Try a basic language course, then start approaching authentic materials in that language (books, radio, tv, movies…), then practice through the Internet, and finally -once you have developed a certain proficiency- start getting in touch with native speakers! Sound simplistic, I know, but it’s a good way to go in my opinion. Cheers!

    PS: learning a second language is hard nonetheless, for EVERYONE!

  • khan

    Thought provoking post indeed. I think the conditions that compel/ forces people to learn a particular language is largely controlled through controlling the capital flows. As largely the flows of the capital are in the hands of monolingual English speaking world, we see the retreating breadths of other languages. You have rightly pointed at the super/trans national organizations, the academic world of the monolingual English speaking countries which actually put pressures on multilingual people of the world to devalue their linguistic repertoires and shift toward valuable one. What I am trying to say is that the market conditions orient people toward English. Let me give you one concrete example. While giving workshops on teaching English through phonemic symbols to teachers in Pakistan last summer, I noticed that quite a number of teachers asked me about the value of Chinese language in Pakistan. I did not figure out why at more than three places, there was such a question. Post workshop discussion with teacher brought to my knowledge that there quite a number of schools that were seriously interested in teaching Chinese to Pakistani children because of the growing influence of Chinese products in Pakistan and because people see that Chinese influence will further increase and translate into employment/ business opportunities in the region.
    It is not only in Pakistan, by the. I encountered more or less the same thing in Dhaka last month. I was hosted by my uncle who was into windscreen business. My uncle asked me career advice for his boy ( age 20, who spends most of his time in the company of Islamist missionary. I spoke to my cousin for his interest in learning languages. He only wanted to learn Arabic because he thought it was the language of Islam and learning it brings blessings of Allah and help promote the sense of Islamic brotherhood in the world. His mom (my aunt) wanted him to learn English because of the social prestige associated with it in Bangladeshi society. But his dad rejected both the options out of hand and advised him to learn Chinese. And I was surprised to see that, during my week’s long stay, his dad managed to register on a Chinese language course at offered by a private university in Bangladesh. Is not market a decisive factor in constituting/ sustaining and counter-hegemonic at the same time?

  • 000

    Thanks for this very interesting article. I agree with your idea of “escap (ing) the global wave of English”.

    I am a native speaker of English who has a passion for languages and I have often thought about this dilemma of wanting to be highly proficient in a foreign language but realising that I have little opportunities to use my advanced language skills. I did an internship in Tokyo two years ago, expecting to use my Japanese language skills in a business setting. Instead, all the presentations given to us were done in English and all the Japanese employees talked to the Australian interns in English. We were surprised because a) we were in Japan at a Japanese company and, b) as Japanese majors, we thought the purpose of doing the internship was to use our Japanese in a professional environment.

    Though it is convenient for native English speakers to go to other places without always knowing other languages, it is often difficult for this to work the other way around. Perhaps, there are other ways native English speakers can make opportunities for themselves. For example, reading a novel or academic essay in a foreign language, or finding a discussion forum they can express their opinions on.