Global English: A European Perspective

Thierry Kakouridis & Myrna Magnan

This paper addresses, from a European perspective, the issues raised in a joint session of the back-to-back EAIE-CIEE (European Association for International Education/Council on International Educational Exchange) conferences, held in Barcelona, Spain, from November 18-22, 1997. The session, entitled «Global English: the only future?», dealt with the following questions: (i) Is English, as a modern lingua franca, an appropriate means of interaction among people from different linguistic backgrounds or is it becoming a threat to cultural diversity? (ii) Are there other ways to communicate in a globalized community? (iii) Does the use of English distort communication across cultures resulting in inaccurate comprehension?First and foremost, it must be noted that the term «global» is attached only to English … in English only! This double fact seems to underline both the uniqueness of this language and the tendency for many Anglophones, and for quite a number of unaware non-native speakers of English, to equate uniqueness with uniformity. In the European context, this confusion, be it intentional or not, poses a threat to cultural and linguistic diversity, which is the quintessence of European identity. We may also argue, to set the tone for this article, that global English is very different from British English, and that, as such, it turns out to be the official language of no European nation. Besides, ironically enough, global English has estranged the British themselves from the rest of Europe. Most Britons, indeed, because of speaking an allegedly universal language, hardly ever feel the desire, much less the need to learn another European language. To be sure, this must be considered as one of the major paradoxes of a language that is purportedly aimed at making people from all over the world, including Europeans, understand and communicate with each other. In an article titled «A faraway continent of which the British know nothing?», published in the Opinion section of the Times Higher Education Supplement (8 August 1997), John Reilly, Director of the UK SOCRATES-ERASMUS Council, criticizes the Dearing report which ignored British participation in European mobility schemes. He asks : «What impact will this [report] have on the UK role in Europe? How will it enhance the opportunities for young people if they find that, in the European environment in which they will spend their working life, they are increasingly handicapped by linguistic incompetence and lack of experience of living and working in another European country?»

The need or desire for a global language goes back to the dawn of times; there have been previous attempts to overcome linguistic differences such as the Babel Tower and Esperanto, both of which were doomed to failure. Global English offers a new twist to this utopia, albeit along somewhat different lines. Indeed, global, again, but on whose terms? The question is all the more relevant as a language is intricately bound to a culture. Can the same be said of global English? What culture is it anchored in? A global culture? If so, whose culture has been globalized along with the language?

It would be meaningless to discuss «global English» without first seeking to dissipate the ambiguity that the phrase «English language» conveys. Our contention is that English is indeed ambiguous, in that it is a multi-purpose language with three distinct statuses.

First of all English, like every other language, reflects the cultures and mindsets of its native speakers. The British, Americans, Canadians, Australians, etc. speak their own forms of English which unite them as specific peoples while distinguishing them from each other. Parenthetically, even as a native language, English, like French, Portuguese and Spanish, is not homogeneous. Indeed, these four languages were exported from Europe to other parts of the world through colonization, and were made to evolve as a result of new geographical, historical and cultural realities. Ambiguity is already inherent in this first dimension of English; this common language would seem to build bridges between the Anglophone peoples, but its various native varieties also create boundaries among them due to cultural differences.1

Non-native varieties of English make up a second category. By these we refer to local variations of the language found in several countries where English, the native language of a privileged few, is either the country’s official language or a common second language, or the means of communication with all foreigners. None of these NNVE’s are European: they can be found in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Nigeria, Uganda, etc. The former colonies have integrated the colonizers’ language, transforming it from a second or foreign language into their own primary one.

As for so-called «global English», one cannot help but wonder, considering today’s historical, political and economic context in Europe, why and how English has been let to become a universal lingua franca. For it has, to such an extent that even in France, where a difficult battle has been fought to promote the French language in and out of Europe, the current Minister of Education, Claude Allègre, asserts that English can no longer be regarded as a foreign language. For a European, the question is doubly relevant, first because English is the mother tongue of but one nation -Great Britain- out of the fifteen nations currently composing the European Union, and the thirty-odd countries in greater Europe who hope to become members in the near future, and second because other European languages, such as French, German and Russian, could historically claim equal status as «federating languages».

The answer, as ever, lies in history. The English language was exported by English immigrants to North America and other parts of the world. By dint of several military victories, and the diplomatic leverage consequent on them, England managed to impose its rule and its language on much of the globe. More specifically, when it comes to the USA, England built a cultural and linguistic bridge between the Eastern and the Western shores of the Atlantic Ocean. After the independence of the USA in 1783, the new nation, which was to be built by successive inflows of immigrants from diverse linguistic and cultural origins but in search of a common ideal, had to find an element of cohesion. The English language served that tremendous purpose to the detriment of cultural and linguistic diversity. Thirsting for freedom and self-fulfillment, immigrants did not think twice about discarding their cultural identity. Indeed what is the melting pot but the one and only path to complete integration? Indeed, what has come out of it is Homo Americanus, a hybrid creature whose original inherent diversity has been melted down to uniformity. Nonetheless the immigrants’ languages managed to reshape and transform the original English language, making it more flexible and open to change. This new language, commonly referred to as «American English», crossed the Atlantic back to Europe in the twentieth century, notably after World War II, in a new form distinct from British English.2 This distinction had already been modeled by one and a half centuries of immigration, new values and lifestyles, all of which had been set against the backdrop of a unique geographical environment. American English, as it came to be termed, now established itself as the language of a nascent economic, military, and diplomatic superpower. The emergence of the United States on the world scene, and its subsequent ambition to have, as President Reagan put it, «the splendors of our natural ressources spread across the tables of the world »3 , proved an ideal boon to the dissemination of American English. True, having to play a game whose rules were set by the USA, the people of the world came to use the language that these rules had been written in, much to the helpless dissatisfaction of former world rulers like Great Britain and France. However, at a time when shattered Europe was busy picking itself up from the rubble of war, and collecting the pieces of its ruined economy and society, many were content with having to speak a language that embodied a new, easier lifestyle, even if this language was opportunely filling the vacuum left by the other federating languages, namely French, German, and even Russian (the Soviets imposed their language on the satellite countries for whose populations English became the language of freedom). From then on, the USA, boosted by the Cold War, established its economic, diplomatic and cultural domination over much of the planet. The soldiers who liberated Europe, then the Marshall Plan and its future corollaries, proved instrumental in spreading American language and culture.

The de facto adoption of American English by non-Anglophone people around the world, and even, to a lesser degree, by non-American Anglophones, was necessary in order for them to function as adequately as possible in an economic and cultural environment where traditional boundaries were being pulled down. The globalization of trade, of the economy, and of the American way of life, in short their «Americanization», was expressed, ushered in, and supported by the specific language that reflected the mindset that had produced them.4 The use of American concepts, imported verbatim into other languages, bears witness to the specific meaning of words, and to their dependence on a particular reference system. For example, the word «business» evokes intense activity and a specific approach to time, which are far from being universally shared. Glen Fisher, who served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, suggests that the word ‘business’ « connotes ‘busyness’, doing things – and that is good. One is going about one’s business, is getting down to business, is responsible for attending to one’s work responsibilities; one is not loafing or pursuing pleasure before the business at hand is completed. (…) In Spanish, [however] the word is ‘negocio’. Here (…) the value is turned around. The key is the ‘ocio’ part of the word, which connotes leisure, serenity, time to enjoy and contemplate as the preferred human condition and circumstance. But when harsh reality forces one from one’s ‘ocio’, when it is negated, then one has to attend to ‘negocio.’ The subjective meaning is obviously less positive than in English ».5

The cultural specificity of universalized American concepts led the French linguist Claude Hagège to refer to global English as «américain de commodité» -American of convenience- in his thought-provoking book, Le souffle de la langue : voies et destins des parlers d’Europe.6 Indeed, we may contend along with him, that using a concept as such rather than trying to translate it, is a much easier and convenient, if not a wiser way to handle new and inescapable, albeit strange realities. In so doing, one wittingly accepts the fact that «a global economic power is just as determined to promote its language as it is to conquer markets for its products (, and that) the two are in fact closely bound, for the exporting of the language opens the road for the exporting of goods».7 The acceptance is all the less difficult as «of all the languages in the world, English happens to be the language that best adapts to emerging needs, and is the first to express them (…) Hence English conveys contemporary needs, whether natural or artifically created; by spreading everywhere it obviously spread those needs»8 The Marshall Plan, which came in as a blissful conclusion to World War II, not only helped Europe recover from the war, but it also created new needs, expressed by new concepts, which permeated European and other cultures in times of psychological and economic frailty.

Today, we believe, one should reach beyond the concepts themselves, and consider the whole syntax of the language, as is appositely suggested by the English philosopher J.L. Austin and the French linguist André Martinet. The former posits that some statements are neither true or false, that they establish nothing in particular, but that they actually do things: they are actions unto themselves. Austin distinguishes three different aspects of speech act: locution itself, simply saying something, then perlocution, which is the effect produced by the saying of things, and illocution, which is the act itself as produced by speaking.9 The latter states that language is behavior. A language, he contends, reflects, up to a certain point, the conceptions or the human behavior of the society that speaks it.10 If using language is acting, with reference to specific conceptions and behaviors, then it should be easy to understand that acting within a particular reference frame is impossible if one does not master the corresponding language. One telling and familiar example of what it is possible to achieve through language are the many student exchange programs that actually get off the ground thanks to careful and accurate negotiation and grant writing. Extending this view to global communication, the new world order, which has been willed and masterminded by the USA, and accepted willy nilly by a huge number of other nations, is one that is difficult to take part and be active in if the global «américain de commodité» that underlies it is a language with which one does not feel comfortable.

And so, as a matter of course, after being established as the overriding language of worldwide entertainment, business, science and the like, American English has laid the groundwork for further cultural expansionism. After global entertainment standards and global markets, the time has now come for global communication, that is, global action through global language. Again, communication on a world scale both reflects and suits the specific mindsets of its promoters. Electronic mail and the Internet, for example, are privileged means to exchange information in real time, and act accordingly, that is, efficiently. Now, efficiency and saving time are by no means concepts that are universally recognized as positive values. Mediterranean peoples, for instance, have been made to act and interact in a global context in a way that is not at all in-keeping with their own «laid back» cultures. Moreover, the language that is used to communicate, and therefore to act globally, via electronic mail and the Internet, hopefully in one’s own legitimate interests, is more often than not English. When English is not used, because the interlocutors have chosen to use a different language, the latter has to be defaced for technical reasons : accents are not allowed, and only the Latin alphabet can be used, which compels Greeks, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, etc. to transcribe their language in order to comply with these norms. Besides, «fast-track English» comes along with its own code of ethics and courtesy, which dismays many; the conventional «(best) regards», or «warm wishes», for instance, is just not felt by the non-native speaker who automatically types in a good-looking formula at the end of his electronic messages. Even worse, these new fast-track communication tools further alienate the non-native speakers of English, especially those whose command of the language is inadequate. Instead of bringing people together, more and more are left by the wayside. The American journalist Flora Lewis suggests that even « English-speakers will be the losers if their Internet victory leaves them mute in other languages». 11 Here is another astounding paradox for a language that is meant to facilitate communication and interaction on a world scale! The paradox, we can safely argue, may be intentional this time!

Even in traditional communication situations, for example face to face or telephone conversations, or conferences, negotiations, publications, etc., non-native speakers are always at a decided disadvantage. Language is not the only stumbling block: culture is an additional hurdle. In effect, and quite understandably, non-native speakers of English keep thinking in their own language and trying to express their specific mindset in a language not ideally suited to this task. When dealing with a native speaker of English, their effort to make themselves understood in a language not their own should be shared and commended by their interlocutor. The latter should admit that (s)he is in a privileged position and act accordingly: speak slowly, articulate, choose appropriate words, avoid slang, jargon, and complex sentence structures… A sympathetic native speaker will do so spontaneously, making up for the language imbalance thereby showing respect for otherness and fully acknowleding parity of status.

However, this is usually not the case. The native speaker either through unawareness, or deliberately, to be sure to get the upper hand, will make no allowance for the non-native speaker’s disadvantage. This attitude, the mirror image of a complete ignorance of other languages and cultures, has given Anglophones, especially Americans, a reputation for ethnocentricity. Because they already master English, as a birthright, because they think the world looks up to them as a model and that they are invested with a civilizing mission, they feel no need to learn other languages and to experience other cultures. In his second inaugural address, President Clinton stated that the 20th century is «the American Century (…) America became the world’s mightiest industrial power; saved the world from tyranny in two world wars and a long cold war; and time and again, reached across the globe to millions who longed for the blessings of liberty (…) America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation».12 This quotation, like the whole address, goes beyond simple patriotism; one can, indeed, sense ethnocentricity in the President’s discourse. Moreover, Bill Clinton refers to the «rich texture of racial, religious and political diversity», but never once mentions language diversity, which, as everyone knows, is a real issue today, not only in the world but in the USA, too. The condescension that transpires through Bill Clinton’s speech came to the fore during the «G8» summit that was held in Denver, Colorado, in July 1997. Everyone remembers Clinton’s « cowboyism », and Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl’s point-blank refusal to dress up as cowboys. The incident, which may have raised a smile around the world, revealed American «triumphant rhetoric and condescension»13, as the American journalist Charles Trueheart puts it.

The European Union has bravely set itself a unique goal that will be difficult to attain: to create political, economic and social unity through genuine cultural and linguistic diversity. This is a challenge for all the nations of Europe. The uniqueness of this challenge stems from the specific nature of Greater Europe. There are over 60 languages spoken within a well defined geographical area, each with its own culture and traditions. Some languages have been dominant in the past, others dominated or repressed, but most have survived to the present day in both an oral and a written form. The countries making up the European Union have had fairly strong identities within relatively constant areas. The countries of eastern Europe have had successive waves of invasions which have shifted boundaries and territories. Language has always played a crucial role in defining the specific identity of each nation. For example, even a supposedly common language can hide very different aspirations. Take Serbo-Croatian: 1 hyphenated language, 2 alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic), 3 cultures… Hence the novel challenge for Europe is to encompass each and every one of these nations within a common entity, Europe, preserving, promoting and thriving on cultural and linguistic diversity.

Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. Claude Hagège points out that the Jews were precursors of the ideal European citizen. Because of successive persecutions and exiles they lived in different cultural environments and had to speak many languages: Yiddish, German, the Slav languages of Central Europe, Spanish for the Sepharad Jews. Aside from all other considerations, the Holocaust was also disastrous from a linguistic point of view. The extermination of millions of Jews, who had become language nomads and polyglots by necessity, also proved a tragedy in this respect. The challenge for Europe in the 21st century is to reinforce its cohesion by teaching as many languages as possible to today’s schoolchildren, i.e tomorrow’s citizens, who will then become polyglots by choice.

Though English is not mandatory in the schools, it is, by far, the foreign language chosen by the vast majority of pupils. Without denying the importance of English, two other categories of languages should be supported by the educational systems and the legislators to create a more balanced and equitable situation for all. The first one is languages spoken in neighboring countries, natural partners for trade and recreation: these languages will obviously be more useful for personal and professional life than English. The second one is the other federating languages, French, German, Russian and Spanish, mentioned earlier.

In this context, we cannot and should not be content with a supra language coming from elsewhere. Globalization, if it is to happen on the terms of only one culture and one language, will negate the originality of Europe. Global English is not European and is not suitable for Europe inasmuch as it is «extracultural». By extracultural we mean a language severed from or deprived of a familiar or easily identifiable cultural backdrop. To an overwhelming majority of Europeans, English is an extracultural language because it is a language they use more or less adroitly by piecing together words and phrases, and which does not reflect their intrinsic mindsets. What most of them do not even realize, or do not bother to give a thought to, is that they are at a constant disadvantage when it comes to communicating in English for professional purposes. A common language is obviously necessary, but it should be made to vary according to the specific communication situation. Global English should not be imposed in situations where people communicate with their immediate neighbors, which is very often the case in Europe. Whatever common language seems most appropriate should be chosen. English may or may not be this language.

We have attempted to show throughout this paper that, from a European perspective, global English has no raison d’être. First for historical reasons: as Claude Hagège aptly contends, «Europe, unlike the United States, is not a new land where immigrants have made a single language a factor of unity over and above their diverse origins. European states have long forged their identities on the basis of cultural traits deeply rooted in languages.»14 Secondly, for cultural reasons, as linguistic and cultural diversity is the foundation stone of European identity. Claude Hagège again insists that «because Europe is diverse through its languages, it gives its inhabitants the authority to embrace the diversity of the world. Hereby, Europeans should be in a position to escape the dangers of monolingualism, a serious threat to the United States, because of blindness to the needs of the other, which can be brought about by the exclusive attachment to English. As citizens of a multilingual land, Europeans cannot but hear the polyphonic clamor of the languages of mankind. Being attentive to the other speaking his own language, such is the prerequisite for building solidarity with more concrete substance than speeches of propaganda».15 The point, therefore, at least from a European perspective, is not simply to try or to pretend to understand each other, but to fully get through to each other’s cultures, to build on these cultures, and to ultimately produce an interdependent community that is inherently enriched by its differences.

Finally, to sum up, we shall once again quote Claude Hagège : «The Europe of languages has a destiny of its own, and should not look to foreign models for inspiration. As opposed to the United States where the adoption of a single language appeared to each new immigrant as a seal of identity, the originality of Europe stems from the diversity of languages and of the cultures which these languages reflect. The domination of a single language, such as English, cannot help fulfill this destiny. Only a permanent opening onto multiplicity will. The European will have to bring up his sons and his daughters in language variety, not in unicity. Such is for Europe the call of the past and the call of the future».


1. See Lewis, Richard D. When Cultures Collide. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1996.
2. For a concise description of the differences between British and American English, see R.D. Lewis, op. cit., pp. 108-109. See also Hagège, Claude. Le souffle de la langue: voies et destins des parlers d’Europe. Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1994. pp. 49-51.
3. President Reagan’s « Thanksgiving Day Proclamation », November 1987.
4. For more details on the relationship between language and mindset, see Kakouridis and Magnan’s article: «Language and Beyond: Cross-Cultural Awareness Through Language Learning », in Journal Of International Education, Vol. 8, No. 2 (1997).
5. Fisher, Glen. Mindsets. Yarmouth: Intercultural Press, 1988. pp. 148-149.
6. The Breath of Language: Paths and Destinies of the Spoken Languages of Europe. All the quotations from this book have been translated from the French by the authors of this article.
7. Hagège, op. cit., p. 42
8. Hagège, op. cit., pp. 42-43.
9. Austin, J.L. How To Do Things With Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.
10. Martinet, André, in Linguistique et communication. Lausanne: Editions Grammont S.A., 1975. p. 85. See also Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964.
11. Lewis, Flora. « When ‘Everybody’ Is Speaking English, Something Is Lost », in The International Herald Tribune, Summer 1996.
12. President Clinton’s second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1997.
13. Trueheart, Charles. « France: Going Its Own Way, Despite Global Economic Trends », in The International Herald Tribune, July 15, 1997. Note how the title of this article speaks for itself.
14. Hagège, op. cit., p. 272.
15. Hagège, op. cit., p. 275.

Comments (4)

Henry VIIIthjuin 18th, 2009 at 23 h 39 min

> Without denying the importance of English, two other categories of languages
> should be supported by the educational systems and the legislators to create
> a more balanced and equitable situation for all. The first one is languages
> spoken in neighboring countries, natural partners for trade and recreation:
> these languages will obviously be more useful for personal and professional
> life than English. The second one is the other federating languages, French,
> German, Russian and Spanish, mentioned earlier.
Although I agree with most of your points, I should add the following category of languages: languages of use for cultural integration. For instance, Arabic should be available, as well as Chinese. While this may seem an intrusion, I see it mostly as a two-way opportunity for better integration. I have seen the impact of French education systems located out of France, for instance in Turkey and Romania, and I think it could be very profitable under all perspectives to establish cultural and linguistic relations not only with neighbouring countries but also with countries from which we receive people.

Thierry Kakouridisjuin 20th, 2009 at 10 h 42 min

It goes without saying that cultural integration as you call it depends on one’s approach to (any) language. I happen to teach a language that too many consider universal, which it is by no means! Some even dare to suggest that my colleagues and I teach globish. This is downright stupid! I trust that you’ll take great interest in Claude Hagège’s enlightening books. In a future life, I’ll teach Tagalog or some other exotic language.

Henry VIIIthjuin 20th, 2009 at 22 h 15 min

Try elfic languages from Tolkien’s works. They’re marvellous, although English « way-of-mind » can be seen as a watermark under some expressions and grammar (I am not an expert, though).

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