Monday, June 13, 2011

Why English?

(Note: Delivered 13 June 2011, this is a talk about the importance of the English language and what makes it important. Talk presentation can be found here.)

A few weeks back, I have been replying my friends with the word “kiitos”. As expected, nobody understood it until I translated it. “Kiitos” is the Finnish word for “thank you”.

Last Friday, we were asked the question, “Why is the English language important in the business world?” Apparently, we have answered the question with the aforementioned anecdote: for us to understand. Moreover, English is important because of internationalism. Internationalism was first coined in 1995 in Time’s Cycle and Military Strategy:

“Once again the opposite poles of isolationism and Wilsonian internationalism appeared as alternatives that split the liberal and conservative camps.”

It means a political, economic, and cultural cooperation among nations. We have to take note of the word “cooperation”.

But I have a more important question, “What makes the English language important?” Three points: firstly, English has a rich vocabulary; secondly, it is widely used; and lastly, it provides opportunities.

The English language has a rich vocabulary. When we say “rich”, it’s either we mean quantitatively or qualitatively. Quantitatively-speaking, the English language has 171 476 words in current use and 47 156 obsolete words according to the Oxford Dictionary. If that’s not rich, I don’t know what is.

As we all know, English is not an original language. It is a plethora of world languages. This, I believe, is the definition of “rich” qualitatively. A single sentence may contain a lot of borrowed words. “The English language has a rich vocabulary,” for example (see slide 5).

I have an argument, it goes like this:

Latin, Tagalog, French, etc. are the languages of the world.
Latin, Tagalog, French, etc. are the foundations of the English language.
Therefore, English is the language of the world.

I know that it is fallacious; committing the fallacy of four terms, but this argument is one of the best ways to understand that English is indeed the language of the world.

If English is the language of the world, then it is being used in every corner of the world. Thus the second point, English is widely used. But as I was creating this talk, I had a question, “How ‘wide’ is ‘wide’?” Wide here is used in a geographic sense but it cannot be measured mathematically such as the number of square kilometers or square miles. Rather, we measure it demographically like answering the question, “How many countries have English as their official language?” (See slide 7 and explain. Note: de jure language means English is official by law and by fact; de facto language means English is official by fact only).

However, another question arises. How about those countries that does not recognize English as official but speak it? A December 1997 study by George Weber presents us information (See slide 8 and explain). These 115 countries represent roughly half the world’s population. Then again, in a certain country, not all of its population can speak the language. Thus, the best way to measure how “wide” English is, we count the number of speakers (See slide 9 and explain). In the same study by Weber, we notice that mandarin has the most number of speakers, English coming second only. Why isn’t Mandarin the language of business (and the world) then? Because Mandarin is largely confined in China.

Like I’ve said, “wide” is used in a geographic sense but measured demographically. Since Mandarin is confined to a single country, then we resort using the next language with the most number of speakers and being used by a significant number of countries, that is, English. With this, a friend of mine, NJ Soliven said:

“Internationalism requires a common language as means of communication. That being said, the obvious choice for a common language is indeed English since most countries, regardless of the location, know how to speak it.”

As proof, English is the language of international competitions such as the National Geographic World Championship, Eurovision, and the SIFE World Cup. It is also the language of media and communication: CNN, Wall Street Journal, Google, National Geographic, Time Magazine, and even the Official Gazette of the Philippines. Moreover, English is the language of business. Another friend, Alps Aguado said:

“In the business world, globalization is becoming the major trend so it is important that business people from different countries understand each other. Think of it like a currency. You can't use Philippine Peso to buy something in Europe because they ‘don't understand it’.”

On to the third and last point: The English language provides opportunities. And by opportunities we mean better life. And by better life we mean high-paying, satisfying jobs, better food on the table, education not only for you but your future children, and even wants such as digital cameras, cellphones, et cetera.

Around two billion people learn English worldwide: Africans, Indians, Malaysians, Filipinos, and even the Chinese and Japanese. In the Philippines, we spend three years in preparatory, six in elementary, and four in secondary. That’s at most 13 years of learning English. Why? Because we want to enter the country’s prestigious universities such as the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle University, University of Santo Tomas, and, yes, our dear Mariano Marcos State University. The entrance examinations of these universities are mostly in English that is why we need to learn the language.

Whether you want to work domestically or in abroad, sufficient knowledge in English is required. For example, when you want to work in the United States, you need to get a visa. In turn, you must apply for one. But it’s not as easy as asking for it on the counter but rather you have to pass an interview where in English is the language of communication. Jay Walker once said:

“English represents hope for a better future.”

Reiterating the points, English is important because (1) it has a rich vocabulary; (2) it is widely used; and (3) it provides opportunities. Kiitos.

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