Why there’s no going back from English as the world’s universal second language

Why there’s no going back from English as the world’s universal second language

Published: Mar 2, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver

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As I’ve begun my travels around Asia over these past four months, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: English as the world’s second language is here to stay.

The reputation for the amount of English spoken in many places across the world has not kept up with the reality. Maybe this is because of COVID stopping people from traveling over the past three years, but I’ve found that what people tell you about the English abilities of people in many countries is not nearly giving enough credit to their actual abilities.

Take Japan, where I am currently. I started in Tokyo and have made my way down south now to Kobe, and I have yet to find a restaurant where even the most elderly of staff can’t at least communicate with you in the basics like “closed,” “last order” “water” “where is the toilet?”.

This may not impress you much (quick shoutout to Shania Twain for that classic), but this is something that people tell you isn’t possible in Japan. Many people I know who have been to Japan just a few years ago advised me, “Japan can be a difficult place to travel because no one speaks English there.”

I’m going to give these people the benefit of the doubt that the amount of English has just improved over the years, or else -- where in the world were they trying to go, and what were they expecting them to understand?

english international second language

English usage in transportation in Korea and Japan

Even when it comes to non-speaking situations, such as getting around with public transportation, navigating from point A to B couldn’t be much more of a dream in Japan, thanks to the entire system having English as a duplicate version written on everything and spoken everywhere. (They also have Korean and Chinese in many situations, so it’s genuinely a helpful system for travelers)

In South Korea, the use of English is just as prevalent and helpful. Everything is written and spoken in English, from the largest trains to the most remote busses.

(Tangent -- The only difference that makes it a bit harder to get around in Seoul than in Tokyo is that Tokyo has that incredibly handy number system. This is convenient when you’re not sure which direction you need to go, and sometimes names of Japanese/Korean cities/stops as a direction you’re headed don’t work or click. Tokyo compensates for this by saying, “You’re at A15, you need to get to A4, and this subway goes to A1.” Super simple.)

When you go shopping in Seoul, clerks will ask you in understandable English – “Do you need a receipt? Do you need a bag?”. At cafes across Japan – “Hot or iced?” The amount of English I’ve encountered has been incredible.

Where it starts to get really interesting, though, from the point of view of the original topic of this post is when you look at how people from the two different countries act when they visit each other.

Koreans and Japanese speak English to each other

I met three young Korean kids in a public bath in Kyoto who asked me where I was from in English. I replied in Japanese that I was American. They responded, “Sorry, we don’t speak Japanese. We’re Korean.” So I spoke with them as much as I could in Korean.

A few days ago, I was in a Ramen place in Osaka that serves some of the best braised pork Ramen you could pray for. Three Korean girls were to my left, probably around 23 years old. Every time they communicated with the staff, it was in English. And the Japanese staff were happy to oblige in English!

The same happened in Seoul when I would eat at the Gwangjang market next to Japanese tourists. They would mostly speak English and throw in any Korean words they knew sparingly when they could.

But Japanese and Koreans aren’t the only Asians doing this. I once helped translate English to Korean for a lovely Thai couple who wanted to try and order in Korean just for the experience. But besides situations where people try the language for a bit of fun, most Asians traveling to other Asian countries use English as their primary language.

using English internationally when traveling

Chinse, Thai and Europeans use English as their second language to communicate

Chinse and Thai are two of the world’s most historically closely related languages. What language do you think Chinese tourists use most in Thailand? I’ll give you one guess.

Do I have to mention Europe and explain how this has played out there? I’ll just briefly explain that the same situation I mentioned about Japanese people not getting enough credit for speaking English also applies to France.

You’ll always hear the stereotype, “Oh, French people don’t/can’t speak English.” From my experience, that’s also patently false. I have seen some situations where French people refuse to speak English to some American tourists whom they found (quite rightly so in my view) to be obnoxious.

And I also admire that in France they try to bring you into the language and make you speak it. But overall, if you go out to drink or eat at a bar or restaurant in Paris, Nice, or similar metro areas, you will most likely be waited on by someone who speaks enough English to help with whatever your restaurant-related need.

People in the Netherlands are practically about to make English their new native language, and Germans are improving as fast as possible. Scandanavians consistently rank as some of the best English speakers in the world every year.

Why Emanuel Macro is wrong about French & English

The Emanuel Macrons of the world, who nostalgically long for a day when French was some form of a lingua-franca for the western world and a sign of elegance for Americans, Asians, and others, need to snap to reality and let go of fantasies.

He makes valid points that French is a valuable language to learn due to the vast number of Africans who speak it as their first language. And I’ll admit, the one time I traveled to Africa was to French-speaking Senegal, and I felt the strong urge to learn French to get in on all the exciting activities that seemed to be taking off across the French-speaking part of the continent.

But French is not replacing English. And it’s ridiculous Macron would even suggest it’s a competition for so many reasons. I’m not even sure I should list them here, so I’ll just give a couple.

using English on asian public transportation and internationally

Why English is here to stay as the world's universal second language

Number one, the infrastructure for English learning worldwide is so vast and well-built that it would take significant investments from someone to match that for a language like French. Organizations like The Alliance Française network exist and are effective. But there’s no financial incentive for anyone to make any more French schools. Students wouldn’t attend. Therefore, they don’t build more.

Number two, a language like French would need a significant catalyst even to come close to matching English’s global dominance via cultural relevance and utility. A catalyst like the K-pop phenomenon, the dominance of post-WWII Hollywood vacuum filling, and the Beatles’ invasion all rolled into one.

Spanish had a huge moment and increased relevance, with Reggaeton rising to global popularity. But it didn’t lead to millions of Americans, Europeans, and Asians rushing to Spanish language schools or conducting business meetings in Spanish. I will give you that it did lead to some people doing that for sure (including myself).

The future may be Asian, but still English-speaking

And probably, in my eyes, the most critical reason that English will only build upon its status as a global lingua-franca was best said by Parag Khanna when he titled his recent book “The Future is Asian.”

Maybe I’m a bit biased now due to my most recent foray. But Khanna and others point out the sleeping giant that is Southeast Asia, and other emerging Asian economies. Contrary to Africa’s economies, which will be a force to be reckoned with later this century, Asian economies are a force to be reckoned with now.

When I was a 6-year-old kid in Texas, they told us that we better start learning Mandarin because everyone would be speaking Chinese by the time we had jobs. That wasn’t a joke. It was the prevailing thought of the day.

The “red dragon” was coming, and we’d better get ready!

Well, the Chinese dragon came, but it came speaking English or with translators. My point is that ambitious Chinese business people didn’t say, “Let’s first build our economy, become a powerhouse, then sit back and wait for everyone to learn our language. Then we’ll engage on the global economic stage.”

Chinese business adoption of English

Chinese people who wanted to engage in international business, for the most part, either learned English or hired people who did. And as a result, it’s common practice for Chinese business people to use English as their language of business with other Asian countries, and African countries for that matter.

If Chinese leadership is anything, it is usually pragmatic. They didn’t see the world through an Emanuel Macron-type lens: “There are more native Mandarin speakers than any other language in the world. Therefore, we should chart a course to be the lingua-franca!” I think they thought there was a better chance of their currency replacing the U.S. Dollar than that.

As a result, China is well equipped and positioned to engage in and potentially dominate the global business order in the future (I don’t think they will, but they’ve at least given themselves a chance).

English used on signs internationally

Admitting my own biases about English

But this is all coming from me: a guy who makes money by selling people online English courses. So it’s subjective and should be taken with a grain of salt, right?

I admit I have my biases, but I don’t believe this analysis is subjective. If you disagree and can correct me with facts and logic, please do.

As a native English speaker who travels, I’ll admit to deriving pleasure from the thought of the entire world speaking English effectively as a second language. It’s almost like a sense of nationalism where you feel your mother tongue is “winning.” We Americans can’t seem to get away from the addiction to competition.

But having the whole world understand your language also has its drawbacks. I sometimes envy Dutch people who can go on holiday and speak to each other, and almost literally no other humans know what they’re saying.

Koreans can travel the world and gossip about people in elevators and get away with it 99% of the time (although you better be careful if you try and call me a hot caramel macchiato for here, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll understand you ;) ).

Also, I, and many other native English speakers but not all, carry around this sense of guilt that “the whole world is speaking my language.” You get this feeling that the whole world is speaking this language for you, and even though it’s not true, it’s tough to shake the feeling.

While I wouldn’t trade the convenience of most of the world speaking my native language to feel a little less guilty, the guilt might actually be a benefit. It certainly at least somewhat drives me when I’m doing these language lessons in Korean, Japanese, and now Chinese as I prepare to go to Taiwan.

English as the global second language is here to stay

I might expand on this subtopic more in a future post, but for now, take it to understand that I’m well aware of my biases. And those withstanding, I stand by my original thesis wholeheartedly:

English, as tricky as it is to learn how to pronounce the words of and possibly needlessly wordy at times, has taken its place as the world’s lingua-franca, and it’s here to stay.

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Lucas Weaver from the Weaver School

Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.

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