Swamped by English could be an excerpt from British colonial history or, maybe, a report sent back from the Spanish Armada after Sir Francis Drake had finished with it. However, in this instance, it’s a phenomenon relating to the voracious spread of the English language across the world.
The English language is extremely hard to master, so I am told, but it’s relatively easy to acquire in a simplistic sense. That sounds like a contradiction in terms and, in a way, it is. However, it appears to be true. Acquiring enough of a basic knowledge of English has to be fairly easy because it has reached almost all corners of the globe. If it was difficult, that would not have happened. Why, then, the apparent dichotomy between basic command, and language mastery? Let’s look at a comparison between English and Spanish.
Why has Spanish been, in essence, swamped by English in many places? Spanish conquests in many parts of the World occurred before the British Empire rose to dominance, so the Spanish language should have had an advantage. It is also much easier to learn than English. Spanish obeys most of language “rules”, whereas English breaks more rules than it obeys.
Spanish has another advantage as well. In Spanish, you have a word to describe something, which is then modified by a phrase that qualifies it to match different nuances of that word. English tends to have a different word for each nuance, which means you have to learn many more words. Using the wrong word can get you into serious trouble even though its meaning is very close to what you actually intended to portray. Spanish is more forgiving.
Another reason for English dominance, is the fact that Spanish has tried hard to retain its purity. English is a prostitute or, more politely, an amoeba. It absorbs words from anywhere.
Winston Churchill was alleged to have a vocabulary of over 10,000 words. However, the average native-speaking English person uses two to three thousand words, and that number is decreasing as sound-bite communications increase. However, you can communicate in English with as little as a few hundred words and that is why it is easy to use in a very basic way.
Another example of a language is being swamped by English, is Arabic. On paper, Arabic is one of the world’s most successful languages. Over 400 million people speak it. However, they speak a plethora of dialects so it is often difficult for two people speaking Arabic to understand each other. In addition, poor education in Arabic countries is eroding its influence and purity. Some experts predict that Arabic may be a dead language within a century, unless serious steps are taken to protect it.
India is another good example of a country swamped by English. India has such a myriad of languages and dialects that its parliament operates in English. If it didn’t, the Indian government couldn’t function. Yes, the use of English is a remnant of British colonial rule but, more importantly, it is a very practical solution to a basic problem of trying to communicate across the country.
Obviously, television, films and, particularly, the internet and computer technology, have been major contributors to the English tsunami that is overtaking many of the world’s other native languages. These media have contributed to better world communication, which is obviously good, but they have also subjugated many native languages and, in the process, even dumbed-down English as well, which can’t be good.
I don’t think anyone, including governments, can do much about this overwhelming trend, but recognizing what we are losing by just letting English run rampant might prompt someone to develop programs to preserve and promote native languages, including English itself. It would be a tragedy if “swamped by English” was the inscription on many headstones in a dead-language cemetery.