The Working Language
of the Global Village
Lord Watson, the Chairman of the English Speaking Union, explains the position of English as the world's "preferred adoptive language", and describes his organization's role in promoting education for English speakers worldwide for Prague Club Magazine
The English Speaking Union has just officially opened a branch in the Czech Republic. Can you tell us a little about the ESU and its goals?
The aim is to further global understanding through English. The idea is that English is a way in which peoples of different generations, different backgrounds, different cultures and different countries can communicate. It creates a shared language. That's really the purpose. We do it through scholarships, student exchanges, conferences, and international competitions.
We're in over 50 countries now. The ESU has accelerated enormously, and the reason is the way in which English is being used. And that has changed amazingly in the last decade. The four most numerous languages in the world are Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, and English. English is different than the other three, which are there because of the number of native speakers of those languages. English is there today because more people are now speaking English as a second language than speaking it as a first. That's why I describe it as the working language of the global village.
For instance, our international public speaking competition has been won twice by people from the Chinese mainland. And they've learned English without ever leaving China! It's remarkable. If you want to go to a university in mainland China, you have to take an exam in English first. It doesn't matter what you want to study. The result of that, given the size of China, is that every three years there are another 20 million English speakers in China! In a few years, they have created as many English speakers as we have people in Britain!
Central and Eastern Europe, and the collapse of communism have also given English an enormous boost. The process of EU enlargement was substantially effected in English. 87 percent of all officials in the European Institutions - that's the Commission, the Parliament, and the Council - have English as a second language, as compared to ten percent French and three percent German! So, it's very clear what's going on.
Was the decision to open a branch here connected with the Czech Republic joining the EU last year?
Not directly, but indirectly, yes. You can't have an organization like the ESU in a country which doesn't have political freedoms, because it's all about self-expression. The Czech Republic has reconnected with the Western world, and the English language is one of the ways in which that reconnection works. People are now more motivated in the Czech Republic to learn English, because they are part of the EU, part of the global village.
There's already been Czech participation in various programs [before the current launch of the ESU branch], but that will now accelerate and involve larger numbers of people. I'm sure that most of the activities will be to do with young people. An ESU American scholarship was announced yesterday which will enable a Czech student to study in California each year. And we've pioneered debating on the Internet - formal debating, that is. It's not dumping down to the Internet, but actually using the technology for proper debating. And it works!
Our belief is, if young people learn how to debate and express themselves in public, it helps democracy. If young people don't know how to express themselves and how to win an argument democratically, they will be frustrated and may seek to make their case by throwing a brick through a window! This is a better way.
How is the organization funded?
Through membership. We also focus a lot on sponsorships. We're independent of the British Government. Unlike the British Council we have no remit to promote the British way of life. Our activities reflect the fact that English is not owned by Britain or America, but really is a lingua-franca, belonging to everyone who uses it. English is driven by the market and that market consists of young people savvy enough to see that if they want a career that's international, and most young people do want a career that's international, they have to learn English. It's as simple as that.
Do you think English will remain what you call "the preferred adoptive language" worldwide, or could it lose that status in the future?
The appeal of English is not just the fact that it's international. It's also associated with the key communication technologies. It's the primary language of the Internet, of international communications, international aviation and navigation, medicine and science. Nearly 70 percent of all scientific theses are published first in English! It appears that if you are scientist in the Czech Republic, and you've got something that you think is really interesting, you've got to put it down in English because that's how you'll share it with the rest of the world. That's why I don't believe that English will lose its position.
There's a theory that, at some point around 1000 A.D., Latin-speaking populations could no longer understand each other. The question is, will this happen to English? Will we reach a point when the Japanese speak English that a British person won't be able to understand? And I don't believe it will work like that at all. In the Middle Ages, people did not travel, there was no electronic communication, and the nation became the most important entity. The language separation happened because of that. I think English will be a sort of a 22nd century Latin!
Does the ESU try to preserve a particular standard of English?
Actually, we're quite happy with different forms of English, and it's a very flexible language. It doesn't mean I don't care about grammar or syntax - I do. If you emphasize public speaking, as we do, you've got to understand how a sentence is constructed and how it hangs together, of course. But in terms of words, we're taking words from pretty well every culture now, and they're becoming part of the English language!
As I have said English is not owned by either the US or the UK. I think it belongs to everybody who uses it. And therefore our attitude towards English mustn't be too proprietarily.
Something I passionately believe in is that English is a shared language, not a replacement language. It's very important, if, for instance, a young person in the Czech Republic wants to learn English well and use it, they should not in any way leave the Czech language behind. They should stay within their culture and their language.
I'll give you two downsides of the global reach of English, just to balance the picture. It can make those who speak English as a native language extremely lazy. It can make Brits and Americans very insular, linguistically. The second thing which would be a great pity would be if people compromise their own cultural inheritance and end up speaking a sort of second- rate English as their basic tongue. So, for instance, I don't like it when major English words and phrases are incorporated into other languages, and I think the French are quite right to resist it.
What other languages do you speak?
I speak German. My wife is German, and I've always been fascinated by that language. In fact, I'm President of the British German Association, and I chair the annual bilateral conference between Britain and Germany. So I have a love affair with Germany, its language and culture.
What are some of your personal goals?
I'm writing two books; at the moment I'm writing an autobiography, and I'm planning that when I step down from the ESU Chairmanship which I will do at the end of this year, I will write a book on the contemporary role of the English language. I'll call it "An English Speaking World?" with a question mark. I want to look at the pros and the cons.
I'm very fortunate because I'm doing things which interest me. I enjoy the House of Lords - and of course I can't retire from the House of Lords! I may gradually begin to scale down my business life a bit, but I have no intention of retiring.
I've had such a good time leading the ESU. I have given it a lot of time and a lot of energy, and I've been lucky that it's coincided with this great period of growth in the use of the English language. It's been enormously worthwhile. My experience is that if you put a lot into something, you get a lot out.
By Margot Buff