AngryFrenchGuy

Is the English Language Bubble About to Burst?

with 112 comments

English for sale

The British Prime Minister was in China and India last week and in stark contrast with other world leaders who have been in a rather gloomy mood lately, warning us of hard times, deficits and sacrifices, Gordon Brown was in Asia to give out gifts like a pale yet jolly English Santa.  One gift, I should say.

The gift of English.

“In total, 2 billion people worldwide will be learning English by 2020. But there are millions more on every continent who are still denied the chance to learn English”, said the Prime Minister.  “So today I want Britain to make a new gift to the world: a commitment to help anyone – however impoverished and however far away – to access the tools they need to learn English.”

You know times are rough when people start giving away their product.

Because the English language is a product. It is a commodity that is bought and sold on the world markets.  In 2005, back when he was  chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown himself said that English was the UK’s biggest foreign currency earner.  The value of English to Britain’s economy was second only to North Sea oil, according to the British Council.

English language teaching in the strictest sense is a lucrative service industry, with annual global revenues of billions of dollars a year.  International education exports like textbooks – twenty-five percent of books sold in China are English learning-related! – and international students who come to study in British universities are worth over 28 billion pounds a year to the British economy.

But that doesn’t even come close to giving you an idea of the value of the English language for Britain and other English-speaking countries.

English on its own is useless, like Microsoft Windows on a computer that doesn’t have any other software.  The real value of English is that it is an essential technology for workers and countries that want to access globalized commerce networks and western science.  It’s a platform.  And just like when you choose a Mac over a PC or the Xbox over the Wii, your choice is a commitment to continue buying other related products and technology built on the English language platform.

When people adopt the English platform they are also adopting English education, English books and magazines, English engineering and English technology.

The 1990’s and the 00’s  was a moment of unprecedented profitability for anything related to the English language.  « Nearly a third of the world population will all be trying to learn English at the same time”, observed linguist David Graddol in a report to the British Council on the state of English in 2006.  « These children belong to a moment in world history – unprecedented and probably unrepeatable – at which students throughout formal education – from early primary school, secondary school, and students in college and university – are all learning English at beginner or intermediate level. »

“Unprecedented and unrepeatable”.   “A moment in world history.”  A bubble?

English, like oil and bandwidth, is inextricable from global commerce and trade.  The demand for English and the price people are willing to pay for it rises with the volume of trade in the globalized market.  When the market breaks down, as it just did, demand for all the lubricants of global trade – oil, capital, English –  drops, and the value of those commodities fall.

But in the case of English, the market broke down just as it was being flooded with new discount providers like the Philippines and Singapore.  Everyone was trying to get a piece of the English boom.  The United Arab Emirates alone opened at least five English language universities in the last decade.  Even France offers English-only programs in its universities, merde!

A market with no room for growth, saturated with way to much capacity is hit by a sharp and sudden drop in demand.

Pop goes the bubble?

Is a near universal skill still valuable?  How about when hundreds of millions people across Europe and Asia who have spent considerable time and money to learn English find themselves unemployed?

English is probably too deeply entrenched in the mechanisms of commerce and science to completely lose it’s position as the global language.  But during the last few decades just about every country in the world built up its ability to teach itself English through it’s public school system.  There is no longer the absolute necessity to purchase English on the private market.

So how do you keep your market share when your product is no longer competitive?  You give it away and flood the market.

That’s exactly what Gordon Brown did last week.

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Written by angryfrenchguy

January 25, 2009 at 7:23 pm

112 Responses

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  1. Sadly Le Devoir is only at about 20 000 copies. It’s a miracle it’s still alive at all considering it is one of the very last independent dailies in North America.

    angryfrenchguy

    January 31, 2009 at 9:06 pm

  2. Fagstein had some nice things to say about Le Devoir recently.

    http://blog.fagstein.com/2009/01/13/le-devoir-gets-better/

    Anonymous

    January 31, 2009 at 9:25 pm

  3. Edward:

    Been thinking about your comments about Britain/China/opium.

    Reminded me of this:

    http://www.thehindujobs.com/thehindu/mag/2002/12/01/stories/2002120100100300.htm

    Plus ça change…

    gcl

    January 31, 2009 at 9:35 pm

  4. oops. The 9:25 “Anonymous” was me. Sorry.

    gcl

    January 31, 2009 at 9:36 pm

  5. Le Devoir is the most valuable source of information on Quebec that I can find. I subscribe to it.

    I don’t know why Le Devoir is not more widely-read. Is it the lack of a sports page? I don’t care about sports. Quebec’s obsession with the Montreal Canadiens baffles me. Of course, pretty much every other country has an unhealthy obsession with one kind of sport or another.

    Or is it that people are intimidated by the perceived highh-brow nature of Le Devoir?

    Antonio

    January 31, 2009 at 10:12 pm

  6. It’s ok to have a comment.

    dudeguy

    February 1, 2009 at 2:34 am

  7. I know a guy from Trois-Riviere here who scoffs at Le Devoir as one of those separatist papers for people who put on airs and are snooty. Although he’s not really one to be taken seriously if you talked to him. He’s actually kind of ridiculous.

    I used to get the saturday Devoir, but I haven’t in the last few months because it costs me almost $100 for twelve issues to be delivered in MN. And I don’t like reading online too much. Well, my PR finally came through, so I’ll be there in the spring anyway.

    It shocks and saddens me that it’s circulation in Quebec is so small. But why should I be surprised that tabloid garbage like Le Journal de Montreal has such a high circulation? I just watched “stardom” by Denys Arcand. It’s hard to find here. It was devastating in how it showed how people believe bullshit transferred to them by newspapers, MTV, news, magazines, etc. People here proudly get their information from well known biased and slanted media (Fox News for one) and they all seem to know that this or that multi-national owns that paper, yet they do not want to here about how, because of that, any news put forth by that media will serve that multi-national’s interests. Then they lash out at you for having a “nasty and suspicious mind.”

    Thomas Dean Nordlum

    February 1, 2009 at 5:08 pm

  8. On a wider scale of things. (Musings on a slow Sunday…)

    One of the keys to understanding evolutionary biology is this : Living organisms strive to transmit their genes in a competition against other organisms. Humans are living organisms, and so live by that principle. (That is an evolutionary explanation as to why, historically, rich and powerful men have created systems where they could have more wives, sometimes where they could impregnate others’. Just as why raiding armies systematically commit mass rapes.)

    With humans though, sublimation of biological impulses occurs, which makes that this drive comes to operate at the psychological and cultural levels. So there is a competition to transmit world-views, ideologies, political systems and values.
    It is the sublimation, or rationalization, of a fundamental impulse.

    And so individuals will strive to impose the values that they’ve inherited to others, starting with their kids. (As they will do even when they adopt children who are biologically unrelated to them, and treat them as if they were their own).
    Likewise, groups will strive to do the same whenever they are in a situation of domination over others : They will try to transmit their world-view.
    When a group can achieve this, it creates an enormous survival advantage for itself, and brings in political, strategic and economic gains. In short, better survival.

    Back to the biological realm.
    Genetically speaking, if an organism were to achieve complete and utter hegemony in reproduction — i.e. in the capacity to transmit its own genes at the expense of all other competitors — grave problems would end up occurring. That is because evolution needs variability in order to remain an adaptive process, in order to provide a maximum number of answers to any change in the environment. When there is too much genetic homogeneity among a population, it becomes non-adaptive and is on a sure path to extinction.

    So evolution, survival of the fittest and all that, is basically a balance : On the one hand between selfish genes and selfish organisms vying to achieve hegemony, and on the other hand, the insurance that they will go extinct if they ever succeed.

    Back to Humans again.
    In this view of things, World History can be understood as different groups trying to achieve hegemony, then declining when they almost do, and then ending up fractioning.
    Any civilization – be they territorial, linguistic, political, religious… ; be it the Romans, Christendom, Islam, the French or the English colonial powers, and now the Americans… — any group that has at some point come to be in a position of domination, has tried to inseminate the rest of the World with who they were. And they have done so through different means, ranging from wars to religious missionaries to textbooks. And all have somehow become complacent and non-adaptive.
    Evolution comes from the shock of ideas.

    In this era, of course, the Anglo-Saxon world-view, driven by the spread of the English language as well as by the American dream (and its propaganda branch, Hollywood), is the dominant one over the World. And it has come to inseminate the global culture to an unprecedented level.
    That is neither good or bad in itself. (I tend to think I prefer this situation than if we were all living under sharia or Chinese communism, but maybe other world-views such as Scandinavians’ would be better on the whole…)

    That near hegemony is why today, from Inuits to Senegalese to Cambodians…, youngsters all around the World will all think it’s a good idea to prop up their own “unique” identity through rap music. Also why artists like Shakira or Celine Dion cannot hope to have an international career unless they express who they are in a language foreign to them : And this, regardless whether people who consume pop music around the World actually pay any attention to lyrics, or even if they actually understand English to start with.

    Now, I am in no way disputing the need for a “lingua franca” for international communications. Nor am I saying that English should not be it. In fact, I do believe it’s a pretty good tool for that purpose, compared to say Latin or French, which were once runners-up.
    English will certainly remain this “lingua franca” for a very long time, though it stands to be bastardized as more and more foreign speakers adapt it to their own needs.

    The only thing is this : We should not lure ourselves into thinking that the spread of the English language means it is on its way to final and complete cultural hegemony. For one thing, it would not be an enviable thing for Humanity. But also, the fact is cracks are already showing up everywhere, as many other groups are manifesting their intention to claim back more space : Even all the way to the heart of American society itself.

    As for us, French Quebeckers, it would be a bad time to abdicate.
    Though we cannot be accused of vying for domination beyond our little sphere, I certainly hope we continue the fight to keep our little cultural genome alive.

    Raman

    February 1, 2009 at 5:18 pm

  9. “The only thing is this : We should not lure ourselves into thinking that the spread of the English language means it is on its way to final and complete cultural hegemony. For one thing, it would not be an enviable thing for Humanity. But also, the fact is cracks are already showing up everywhere, as many other groups are manifesting their intention to claim back more space : Even all the way to the heart of American society itself.
    As for us, French Quebeckers, it would be a bad time to abdicate.
    Though we cannot be accused of vying for domination beyond our little sphere, I certainly hope we continue the fight to keep our little cultural genome alive.”

    Amen to all of this. I agree that English hasn’t yet said it’s last word and may very well end up being globally hegemonic, but it’s always better to be true to yourself first, if only because you might one day find yourself holding only Beta tapes when the entire world ends up switching over to VHS.

    Acajack

    February 2, 2009 at 11:10 am

  10. Regarding Sancho Panza and Don Quixote…

    I noticed that my comment a few days ago provoked a lot of confusion. The allusion was only to the “over the top” nature of some of the discussions here (especially Bruce’s wildly entertaining musings), and had nothing to do with fighting imaginary enemies (tilting at windmills) that I guess is what people here think of most often when they think of Don Quixote.

    Sorry about that. Guess I was a bit off the mark.

    Acajack

    February 2, 2009 at 11:13 am

  11. […] the most interesting, was this post by a Quebecois, where he makes a case with a question ‘Is the English Language Bubble About to Burst?’ Worth a read, this post. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)After The Death Of […]

  12. […] the most interesting, was this post by a Quebecois, where he makes a case with a question ‘Is the English Language Bubble About to Burst?’ Worth a read, this post. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)RK Laxman’s 50 […]

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    February 13, 2009 at 4:04 pm

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    February 3, 2010 at 1:52 am

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    Mack Wheeler

    June 14, 2010 at 4:58 am

  18. Just a thought – many people in China, Russia, Japan, Korea etc. learn English to do business and get better jobs.

    To make it worse – During the 1990s, the amount of publications written then was 10x the number of publications written from 1900 – 1990. And most of that was in English.

    Two other reasons why English continues to dominate – Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law. It is thought that the more links between participants there are in a network, the more likely new participants are to join a network.

    Metcalfe’s Law states that the number of links between participants in a network is related to the square of the number of participants.

    Reed’s Law states that the number of links between participants in a network is exponentially related to the number of participants.

    If you equate English to a network, then since English is already the most widely spoken language in the world, by Metcalfe’s or Reed’s Laws it also has the most links between participants. Furthermore, more participants will be attracted to the English network.

    To make it worse, since English is the language of international commerce, the average value of each of those links is higher than say the links in the French or Spanish networks. This makes the English network even more attractive to join.

    So yes, barring some unforeseen factor such as a Black Swan event, English is likely to be the dominant language for a while.

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