Whose English is it, anyway?

Global English is the New Standard English

By Farhad Desai

In Toronto. My students came from all over the world, but in 1995 the world was quite different. South Korea was a rising industrial nation, Japan was about to peak. Hong Kong would not belong to China for another two years, and China had not yet begun to focus intensively on providing its children with an English language education.

The cold war had just ended, the Berlin Wall fallen. I taught students from newly unified Germany, and from budding democratic nations like The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, and Russia. Every day, I would get new insights and perspectives into global affairs from them. In Toronto, the English we spoke was different to what it is now; we used more idioms, sports expressions, male gendered-references and regionalisms. We had different standards of grammatical correctness.

…there are twice as many non-native speakers of English in the world as there are native speakers.

At first, as the world globalized, native English speakers had an advantage. Most native English speakers haven’t had to learn a new language in order to communicate with colleagues and customers in a job, to talk to other people around them, in their everyday lives.

The English Language keeps evolving. It is dynamic. Life itself is dynamic, so is culture. Nothing stays the same. We no longer speak the English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or even Mark Twain. The English of 50 years ago is already outdated.

We need to acknowledge and accept this change because it makes it easier to let go, to grow and adapt and be happy. Denial ultimately results in creating obstacles to progress and it throws up unexpected problems. Languages are promiscuous. They change, simplify and mingle, borrowing words and concepts from each other.

group of people sitting indoors
English is the Lingua Franca, Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Native English speakers no longer dominate the rules and conventions of the English language, No one nation sets the gold standard – not even England. Using prepositions, articles, and verb tenses correctly is simply the way of a standard native speaker of a specific dialect. One dialect isn’t the measure of all other dialects. Native speaker dialects of English are no longer as influential as they used to be.

No one nation sets the gold standard – not even England.

With global business, messaging, video games, and access to TV shows and movies from around the world, the English language has now morphed into something more international; there are twice as many non-native speakers of English in the world as there are native speakers – and the power of the non-native-speaker is growing.

The people who speak English in all those other places have more money and, therefore more power and clout; they have a say in determining what Global English is and will be. The decision is no longer in the job description of the six main Anglophone countries. There are more educated, privileged, English-speaking people in countries outside the Anglophone countries. That’s why we are seeing this power shift in Global English.

… a shared time-table that fairly accommodates different countries.

English is even more widespread than it was in 1995. Obviously, this is due to the Internet. Covid notwithstanding, travel is an inevitable part of virtually every corporate job. When I was growing up, people used to tell me they’d love to go to India one day. Today, I can’t believe how many people I meet who’ve been to India more often than I have and more recently than I have. The chances are, many of you reading this article have travelled to India for work, or pleasure, or you know someone who has. Even if you’ve never been to Bangalore, Chennai, or Mumbai, there’s a good chance you may know of them.

With globalisation we’re seeing the power structure shift towards a shared time-table that fairly accommodates different countries. Before, in India, I coached Microsoft engineers on their communication skills and our hours were coordinated so that they would suit the engineers working in the US and Canada, not me or my colleagues. My shift was from 5pm to 2am. When I’d leave the floor each night, I’d see engineers who wouldn’t leave till 6am. But recently, I taught Asian students online from Toronto and the time-table was designed to suit them. Weekday classes started at 7am and weekend classes at 8pm, Toronto time. This kind of schedule is becoming the norm, where ten years ago it would have been the exception.

The pandemic has accelerated the evolution of Global English

Today, China and India are more powerful than Canada. The Canadian government used to freely (and rightly so) criticize both China and India for their human rights violations. Now, as these abuses intensify, Canada says almost nothing. It is fearful of the economic repercussions that would follow. Globalisation also means Canada’s domestic human rights abuses, its mistreatment of indigenous peoples, can no longer be hidden behind a screen of first world privilege.

I think many of us in native-English-speaking countries thought Global English meant everyone else would learn to speak our language and we wouldn’t have to learn anything new. Instead, what’s happened is we are all creating a new language together called Global English. We are doing this right now as we adapt to a range of different accents, pronunciations, cadences and rythms, modes of delivery, vocabulary sets, and stylistic conventions.

We are morphing together culturally and globally faster than at any other time in history.

In developing this Global English we must keep borrowing more and more words from other languages in order to posess and use concepts we don’t yet have in English, but need. This developing lingua franca means that, like magpies collecting shiny objects, we are all picking up bits of English and foreign words that come from different countries and languages and including them in our everyday lives. In certain circles, Cheers! and Namaste! sometimes seem interchangeable. This cross-language pollination has become more intense.

While retaining its expressiveness and power, Global English is constantly simplifying so that people can use it more easily. Is it far-fetched to think that in another twenty-five years we won’t bother so much with commas or apostrophes? Or perhaps we will simplify preposition use and or subject-verb agreement even further, We might no longer make a distinction between countable and uncountable nouns. For that matter, even sentence structure and paragraph structure might change beyond recognition. So called ‘question tags’ at the end of sentences seem to be disappearing. Instead of hearing:

You like reggae music, don’t you?

You might hear. You like reggae music, no? Or, You like reggae music, right?

In the UK, you might even hear: You like reggae music, init?

we are all creating a new language together called Global English

These simplifications occur inside countries where English is a native language, but they are happening even faster now outside, where the majority of English speakers are from non-native-English-speaking-nations and those nations have some of the strongest economies in the world.

The last time we saw this shift in the geographic centre of English was about 75 years ago, after World War II when the USA finally became the most powerful nation on Earth. General American became dominant because America’s hard economic and military power backed it up. The soft power of Hollywood and the USA’s burgeoning creative industries also projected the USA’s cutural influence, and its dialect.

new dialects of English, being spoken all over the world

Nowadays, new dialects of English are being spoken all over the world. In particular, throughout Asia and the Middle East. The economic power of Asian and Middle Eastern nations is increasing and strong economies are emerging in Europe and Latin America where English is an important language; this means that these countries will also contribute to shaping Global English, the lingua franca of science, business, travel, culture and on line communication.

No one nation, culture, or even generation will dominate Global English.

The pandemic has accelerated the evolution of Global English. Online meetings and training sessions in English have become the norm. We work even more globally now. As a result, the language will change more, and faster in order to keep pace with national, generational, technological, and economic changes.

We are morphing together culturally and globally faster than at any other time in history. Global English reflects this new norm. No one nation, culture, or even generation will dominate Global English. It will keep growing and changing. English belongs to the world now. It’s all of us together who will shape its future.

Farhad Desai

Farhad Desai is dedicated to peace, prosperity, and equity for all beings. Farhad was born in Mumbai and grew up in Toronto. He has also lived and worked in Bangalore, Ras Tanura, Seattle, and San Diego. 
He is co-founder and mindfulness facilitator at Beyond Binary Consulting, and the author of Orientation: For the Journey of a Lifetime. You can read his blog on mindfulness, here

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