As if â€œglobal villageâ€ and â€œglobalizationâ€ were not enough, hereâ€™s another â€œglobeâ€ word to muse and worry about: a recent article by the British paper The Observer tells us about a new language, Globish, which is fast taking over the world, ending the time-honored hegemony of English as the worldâ€™s language of business.
Â â€œ'We are now nearing the end of the period where native speakers [of English] can bask in their privileged knowledge of the global lingua franca,'â€ The Observer quotes British linguist David Graddol. â€œIn other words, the future belongs to Globish.â€
What is this new language they are talking about? Letâ€™s hear from its main promoter and spokesperson, retired French businessman (and former naval commander) Â Jean-Paul NerriÃ¨re.
Â In the late 1980â€™s, NerriÃ¨re was a vice-president of IBM, and specifically in charge of international marketing. It was during his trips to the Far East, communicating with Japanese and Korean business partners in his own â€œheavily accented Englishâ€, that he had what The Observer calls â€œa life-changing revelationâ€. â€œIn scenes reminiscent of Lost in Translation,â€ the paper goes on to tell us, â€œNerriÃ¨re noted that his conversation with the Japanese and Koreans was 'much easier and more efficient than what could be observed between them and the British and American (IBM) employees who came with me'.â€
Ohâ€¦so itâ€™s about English. No wonder The Observer feels they should spare no superlative. If â€œlife-changingâ€ and â€œrevelationâ€ left you unimpressed, thereâ€™s more:
â€œThen NerriÃ¨re came to his radical, perhaps revolutionary, conclusion: 'The language non-Anglophones spoke together,' he says, 'was not English, but something vaguely like it.' In this language, he noted, 'we were better off than genuine Anglophones'. This language, he decided, 'was the worldwide dialect of the third millennium'. In a moment of pure inspiration he called it 'Globish' (pronounced 'globe-ish').â€
In other words, he discovered that non-native speakers (typically) speak a simpler form of English than native speakers, and that such speakers tend to understand each other more easily than they understand rapid-fire swallow-your-words idiom-happy Brits, Yanks or Aussies.
I have to admit Iâ€™m surprised. I can see how someone who has never learned a foreign language to the point where they can, at some level, communicate in it would be amazed at this â€œrevelationâ€. But a Frenchman? I swear I can hear half of Europe (and as we have just seen, the rest of the non-English speaking world) ask: so what else is new?Â Itâ€™s an experience all language learners are familiar with: itâ€™s easier to understand other learners at our level, even if their native language is different from ours, than an authentic, unadulterated and unrestrained native speaker. The teacher is the easiest to understand, of course, even if she is a native, because she knows how much we know and speaks accordingly. But the â€œrealâ€ natives out there? (The London bus driver? The American rock musician?) You never know what arcane stuff they're going to come up with.
What else do we find out? The article continues:
â€œGlobish is not 'pidgin' or 'broken' English but it is highly simplified and unidiomatic. NerriÃ¨re observes that in Globish you could never say, 'This erstwhile buddy of yours is a weird duck who will probably put the kibosh on all our good deeds.' That might make sense in Acacia Avenue but it will not play in Buenos Aires or Zurich. In Globish you would express this as: 'Your old friend is too strange. He would ruin all our efforts.' Globish, says NerriÃ¨re, is 'decaffeinated English, or English-lite'.â€
Well, I suspect there are quite a few native speakers of English who would draw a blank on â€œerstwhileâ€, and too many phrases like â€œput the kibosh onâ€ might make one sound like a â€œweird duckâ€ oneself. Incidentally, â€œweird duckâ€ will probably be understood by most intermediate English learners. You just need to know the meaning of â€œweirdâ€, and that of â€œduckâ€; the rest (a person referred to with a noun phrase comprising of â€œan adjective meaning something badâ€+ â€œthe name of animal that gets no respectâ€) seems to be a human universal. Nevertheless, I would think that unless you and your interlocutor are on really good terms, you would probably pass on that phrase too, regardless of your respective mother tongues. But then Iâ€™ve never been vice-president of anything, let alone a multinational corporationâ€¦.
I admitÂ though that â€œyour friend is too strangeâ€ does sound like a good example of what a non-native speaker will come up with. So this, apparently, is Globish. But does it really deserve a name?
NerriÃ¨re obviously thinks so, because he wrote a book about it. Donâ€™t speak English, parlez GlobishÂ lists the 1500 words the language is supposed to have, and describes its rules. Letâ€™s hear from NerriÃ¨re again:
â€œParlez Globish, says NerriÃ¨re, 'is not a manual. It develops and demonstrates a theory and gives only a beginning of the recipes required to make Globish work.' Still, he concedes that the grammatical rules of Globish are based on English grammar. A typical conversation in Globish would be painful to a native speaker but might bridge the communication gap between, say, a Korean and a Greek trying to hammer out a business deal. 'Chat' becomes 'speak casually to each other'; and 'kitchen' is the 'room in which you cook your food'. But 'pizza' is still 'pizza' because Globish recognises the word as international currency, like 'taxi' and 'police'. NerriÃ¨re insists that, for all its simplifications, Globish is not a 'me Tarzan, you Jane' version of English.â€
The funny thing here is that NerriÃ¨re apparently expects language learners to learn perfect English grammar like â€œthe room in which you cook your foodâ€, but restrict their acquisition of vocabulary. Really, is there anyone in the world with an internet connection who doesnâ€™t know the meaning of â€œchatâ€, however they might pronounce it? â€œCasuallyâ€, on the other hand, is not a word that appears in most beginnersâ€™ coursebooks. (While â€œkitchenâ€ obviously does.)
The silliness reaches astronomical heights by the end of the article. The difference between English and Globish is supposed to look like this:
â€œSay it in English
I went to my niece and nephew's party the other weekend. I played the piano and we were all singing along when a mouse ran out from behind the sofa with a piece of peach in its mouth.
Say it in Globish
At the party of my children's brother the other day, I played an instrument with black and white keys and we all sang along. Then an animal chased by cats ran out from behind the seat with a piece of fruit in its mouth.â€
Anybody who has ever learned a foreign language or spoken to non-native speakers of his own language must know that this is very far from what happens. It is a by orders of magnitude easier to learn the word â€œmouseâ€ (most beginners will know it, especially if they started learning as children) than to use a passive structure like â€œan animal chased by catsâ€ correctly. (Just think about English-speaking toddlers.) The passive voice is perhaps the biggest boogeyman in English as a Foreign Language classes (though admittedly the continuous tenses, which NerriÃ¨re seems to try to eliminate, are close behind). Itâ€™s possible, of course, that the passive is easy for French speakers, but if NerriÃ¨reâ€™s constructed language is based on what French people can learn easily, but others canâ€™t (because thereâ€™s no passive structure in their native languages), Â itâ€™s hardly going to have a â€œGlobishâ€ appeal.
And thatâ€™s the biggest problem here: a lack of understanding of how languages work and how people use them. People are not going to forgo vocabulary they have been exposed to for the sake of a neat theory about a special language called Globish. Speakers of a language, whether native or non-native, choose from all the forms that they know, are appropriate to the situation, and are likely to be understood by their audience. Native speakers will vary in their language use based on their education and innate verbal abilities. Non-native speakers will also be affected by those factors, and in addition by how much exposure they have had to the target language and how much effort they have put into learning it.
NerriÃ¨re is banking on that last part: people like to get results without too much work. But he is forgetting that people also like to be thought of as smart and accomplished rather than mediocre and inarticulate. He is imagining a sea of homogeneous Globish speakers out there, when in real life those â€œnon-Anglophoneâ€ Â businessmen will at every point speak the best English they can produce (and that their audience will understand), not the artificially restricted variety he proposes. And the better their English, the brighter their opportunities with â€œAnglophoneâ€ (native English-speaking) business. In other words, human nature is likely exert an â€œupward pullâ€ on most peopleâ€™s English, making them learn as much as they can, rather than allow them to say: I donâ€™t speak English, I speak Globish and so I use these 1500 words and I don't care about any others .â€
The idea that non-English speakers form a homogeneous mass of Globish speakers seems to be one of the premises of the Observer article too, as they claim that 1.5 billion people â€œspeak it [Globish] as a second languageâ€. That is, of course, the estimated number of people in the world who speak English as a second language. They range from people like the enthusiastic mother who recently wrote on a mailing list I belong to that she wanted â€œto practice the bilingual raise onâ€ her baby, to people who publish sophisticated philosophical treatises on websites populated by native English speakers, and nobody would realize they were not â€œAnglophonesâ€ were it not for the weird vowels they insist on in their names. And of course, a negligible minority of these people have even heard of NerriÃ¨reâ€™s project, let alone be the least bit interested.
Even more questions are raised about the Observerâ€™s definition of â€œGlobishnessâ€ by their suggestion that Booker prizewinning writer Kiran Desai is somehow â€œemblematic ofâ€ it. That Desai, having lived in three different countries, is a global citizen is clear, but what has that got to do with NerriÃ¨reâ€™s Globish language? Here are the first two sentences from Desaiâ€™s novel,Â The Loss of Inheritance, courtesy of Amazonâ€™s excerpt, and provided here with a fair use declaration (and despite their annoying disabling of the copy-and-paste function in the browser): â€œAll day, the colours have been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.â€ Whatever it is that distinguishes this writer from JK Rowling (whose Harry Potter series is mentioned earlier in the article as something you would need to learn English, rather than Globish, to read), it is definitely not the language.
Equally confusing is the â€œGlobishâ€ connection of a decision in the House of Lords about torture in Iraq. Surely important decisions made in Britain have had a global audience (albeit not in real time) for a couple of centuries now. And that takes us to the main question: if English has been used as a global lingua franca for quite some time; if non-native speakers have always, on average, sounded different from native speakers; if literature from Britainâ€™s former colonies has long been part of English literatureâ€”then what, exactly, is new? Why the need for this new concept?
One possible answer is â€œnothing muchâ€. The British have expressed worries about their language going to the dogs before (American English being the biggest threat, obviously), and the French have been talking about reducing the influence of English for some time (and that is one of the stated objectives of M. NerriÃ¨re in promoting his â€œEnglish-liteâ€, though I suspect that in saying that he might just be complying with a â€œpatriotic minimumâ€ that is expected of every self-respecting Frenchman). But the other possible response is that the 1.5 billion non-native speakers are simply more visible, as everything is more visible these days, because of internet. People are now talking to strangers living on different continents without having to leave their rooms, and this obviously makes them more tangible to each other than looking at a map, or reading â€œBulgaria, population 8 millionâ€, was able to do in the past.
So what about â€œGlobishâ€, and NerriÃ¨reâ€™s books? (Yep, he wrote a second one.) One of the many sidetracks in the Observer article, ironically, is a reference to past attempts, supported by G.B. Shaw and others, to simplify English spelling. Maybe the author does realize, after all, that Globish, just like wide-spread spelling reforms, ignores the realities of language use and is likely to be a non-starter.
Or DOA, I could say, since Iâ€™m pretty sure that any reader who got this far speaks enough English to either know the meaning of that phrase, or hit google and find out. Even if they are supposed to be â€œGlobishâ€ speakers.