English as a lingua franca

Tens of millions of people use apps such as Grammarly and Hemingway Editor to edit their writing every day. Even if you don’t count yourself among those users, you’ve likely at least heard of technologies used to edit language output. There are many such apps to enhance your English writing, from casual emails to professional work. However, these technologies do not extend to or exist for most other languages. Why don’t we have similar applications for writing in Arabic, Persian, or even French? I did some research to find out why — full disclosure: I am no linguist but I find the science interesting — and I was fascinated by what I found out.

The first reason that comes to mind is that English is today’s lingua franca. Nearly 60 percent of the content on the 10 million most visited websites is in English (1). The leading scientific journals are predominantly published in English. In virtually every field, it is indispensable to learn the language.

Photo by Ivan Shilov

What is lingua franca? Historically, the term referred to the language used to communicate throughout the Mediterranean Basin during the Middle Ages. Today, the term is used to describe a common language understood by speakers of different native languages, therefore used as a means of communication between them.

By the start of the 20th century, British Imperialism had spread the English language to virtually every continent. The post-WWII landscape progressively led to American cultural dominance. American dominance in global culture and commerce established English as the all-time dominant lingua franca.

Thus, from the second half of the 20th century on, English gained relative simplicity. This simplicity is partly due to its widespread use by non-native speakers. This pushes the English-speaking community to get used to grammatical “errors”. Some errors can get so common that they become no longer considered as such. The best example of such “errors” is the use of the definite and indefinite articles, i.e. the and a. The use of articles is one of the most subtle ones, so that, unless you are a native speaker of a language, you will likely never use them perfectly. This is even more so in English, compared to other languages such as French or Spanish in which the use of articles is more pervasive and important to effective communication.

Let’s take the example of academic language. Many of the most prominent academics researching in the world’s best-ranked universities, publishing in the most prestigious journals, are non-native speakers of English. Suppose we have three authors writing in English, with the following mother tongues: English, French, and Persian. Let’s neglect the differences between varieties of English, e.g. British, American, etc. The English native speaker will use articles as they “should”. The French-speaking author will probably use more articles than they should. Finally, the Persian-speaking author will use fewer articles than they should. These differences lay in differences in authors’ mother tongues, with French using articles more frequently than English, and Persian having none at all.

Another interesting phenomenon is that human languages are gradually moving towards simplicity. To simplify, let’s say that languages are all moving in the same direction, i.e. structural simplicity. (A linguist will probably object to this, but it is fair enough to suppose it for our purpose here.) Yet, some are more “advanced” than others. This means that some have gained more simplicity over time, compared to others that are still on the way. Now, this might seem too abstract for non-linguists, such as myself and most readers of this post. Let’s give an example.

Languages have grammatical categories, such as nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs. Most of us have learned this at school. What teachers did not tell us was that many languages are aiming at having less grammatical categories, to gain more structural simplicity. Let’s take a look at that real quick. What?! Real quick, even if we need to use adverbs here: really quickly. In this example we see how adjectives are being used instead of adverbs. Put more precisely, the category of adjectives is playing the role of both adjectives and adverbs. This is one of the most salient instances of language simplification. The phenomenon can be observed not only in English but also in many other Indo-European languages, e.g. French, German, and Persian.

We might as well do a quick comparison between English as a lingua franca, and English as a mother tongue. As we know, a few hundred million people acquire English as their first language. Airport English exists, too. It is learned and used by millions of people all over the world. Most of these learners do not necessarily go farther in the learning process. They learn just enough to communicate as a tourist, a businessperson, a researcher, what have you. But this does not mean that English is now solely reduced to a lingua franca. It continues to be acquired as a mother tongue in native speakers. And literary work continues to be created in English.

There is another factor making English seem relatively “easy” to learn for many people with different backgrounds. The amount of work done to instruct English as a foreign language is incomparable to efforts made to teach other languages. This has led to “optimized” methods of learning English for native speakers of any given language. But this is true only to a certain extent. Let’s take the example of an Arabic native speaker. Thanks to the multitude of materials available, they can learn English up to the level needed for admission to a university. In the English-speaking academic context, they can improve their writing and speaking skills to the level expected from a researcher. All this can be achieved with relative facility. Nonetheless, to go still farther and perfect their English, they will encounter difficulties. At this level, English proves to be significantly harder than, let’s say, French or Spanish, for the same speaker.

Let’s get to the main point. What does all this mean? Why should it matter to a non-linguist anyways? This simplicity and global tolerance of English leads to liberty and acceptance for those who speak it as a foreign language, in a country such as Canada. You may take this liberty for granted. The same is not always true of other languages like French, in which non-native speakers often find themselves at a bigger disadvantage. For example, peaking limited French in France is much less tolerated than speaking limited English in, let’s say, Toronto. The case is even harsher in the Netherlands. There, you either speak fluent Dutch with no pauses or hesitations, or they switch to English, which most native Dutch speakers speak perfectly.

To sum up, human languages are naturally moving towards simplicity. On the axis of simplicity and “tolerance”, English finds itself leagues ahead due to the historical and political influences that determine how languages are viewed across different cultures.

. The tolerance of the English-speaking community towards non-native use of the language creates an atmosphere of enhanced equality in terms of an individual’s English capabilities. Better said, there are fewer chances for you to be discriminated against for the mere fact of being non-native, a fact that is less true in European countries, e.g. France or Germany.

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Healthcare, Business and Tech enthusiast. Passionate about arts, food, and road-running.

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Saeed Zeinali

Healthcare, Business and Tech enthusiast. Passionate about arts, food, and road-running.