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Is English the world’s oyster?

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Friday, 13 January 2006

Media in anglophonic countries echo frequently with triumphant reports that English has become the world’s lingua franca. The belief has apparently become the norm in the wider community. But how true is it in fact? Authoritative researcher David Graddol has produced statistical evidence that, while the number of people who grew up speaking English in 1950 was 9 per cent of the world’s population, the projection is 5 per cent or less by 2050. According to these figures, there will be 1,384 million native speakers of Chinese, 556 million of Hindi and Urdu, 508 million of English, 486 million of Spanish and 482 million of Arabic.

There can be problems in the research methods used to ascertain the extent of English-speaking ability. For example, terms like native-speaker, foreign-speaker, bilingual - even English itself - have been defined in conflicting ways. Some researchers accept a person’s self-assessment of English competency, but others have discovered that self-assessment tends to inflate considerably the level of proficiency. (Barbara Walraff, "What Global Language?" The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 2000) It does seem, however, that English is finding global acceptance in the general area of science. (David Graddol, "The Future of Language", Science, (27/2/04.)

Languages tend to ride on the back of national power around the world - Latin under the Pax Romana, French and Spanish during the era of European expansion. Following the British colonial period, English has been swept along by the US as the prevailing world power. This too will pass. Already a number of languages are challenging English on the Internet. And if regionalisation of trade and security wins the day against globalisation, languages of influential nations such as China are likely to loom far larger.


Having lived and taught English in China for a while I can agree that there is great enthusiasm for learning the language. Many Chinese believe that it is already the global language and therefore essential for worldly success. In streets and markets strangers would often call out in English - either to sell me something or to trigger a practice-conversation - assuming that anyone with fair skin and fair hair would talk English, whatever their national origin.

The language is already a core component of the primary school curriculum and proficiency is a pre-requisite for tertiary entrance. For the fast-growing middle class, education expenses for their child are the most important item in the family budget. There is a huge demand from such parents for kindergartens with English programs and for out-of-school special tuition.

What about the quality of the English education? My tertiary Chinese students had been learning it from high school onwards and most could handle reading and writing very well indeed. Listening comprehension tended to be more of a problem and speech even more so - a common observation by foreign teachers in China. There are, though, many outstanding speakers of English among the students and graduates, as exemplified by the contestants in the national English-Speaking Awards broadcast annually by CCCTV.

Formal surveys of proficiency rank China fourth in all of Asia, and significantly higher than Japan or South Korea. At tertiary level at least, sophistication of the English education process is progressing at speed. Web-based learning involves three million students across 1,000 universities and colleges and is spreading, with determined moves to refine the methodology. Continuous research also aims to improve learning of young children.

But some factors could gradually lead to a revision of the priority given to English in China. Despite the government’s thrust, many vocal citizens do not see the language as a vocational tool. Foreign trade companies use English-speaking proficiency tests to select recruits, while dissenters say that contact between foreigners and most employees will be minimal and inconsequential. Workers in most other fields will not need English at all, they say, and the standard set by universities is appropriate only for the elite band headed for overseas study.

I listened to Huang You Yi, vice-president of the Chinese Translators Association, stress that the greatest need was not for more English-speaking, but for more Spanish-proficient Chinese, due to the rapidly expanding trade ties with South America. For the same reason, he added, Arabic language skill would soon become equally important. The national television organisation CCTV has recently complemented its established English-speaking channel with a new one operating in French and Spanish. In 2004 German joined English, Japanese and Korean as a specialisation at the huge college where I taught. French, in particular, is likely to gain a strong following since France and China have just shared a Year of Cultural Friendship and signed an extensive economic and trade agreement.


The Chinese Government aims to have 125 million school-students speaking English by the opening of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. The effect of this push on China’s national language is another bone of contention in the country. Secondary school teachers complain that they often cannot understand the essays they are marking because the students’ knowledge of basic Mandarin is inadequate. Many students, they say, insert terms plucked from the Internet which make no sense in the Mandarin context.

Chinese children have many different mother tongues but pu tong hua (Mandarin), originating from the Beijing region, is purportedly the national tongue. Some researchers claim that Mandarin is the most effective medium for education in China but is starved of resources in favour of English. (South China Morning Post, 19/3/05.) One source claims that only 45 per cent of the total population is fluent in Mandarin.

Chinese, both rulers and ruled, are quite nationalistic, and if resentment like this becomes strong enough they may well put the brakes on English-learning. Similar viewpoints tend to arise in other countries where English makes inroads.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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