Education and Skills

Is the English language too powerful?

Not only is English the most powerful language, it is more than twice as powerful as its closest rival, Mandarin Image: REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Kai Chan
Distinguished Fellow, INSEAD Innovation and Policy Initiative
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In 2016 I published the “Power Language Index”, a research note on the efficacy of languages. It was a systematic data-driven analysis using 20 indicators to compare the clout of the world’s languages. It tried to answer the question: which language best serves a person to engage in life from a global perspective?

The index was designed as a cardinal measure, meaning that the output - a number that ranges from zero (least powerful) to one (most powerful) - not only ranks the languages, but also indicates the magnitude with which they are more or less influential vis-à-vis another.

Not surprisingly, the index showed that English, with a score of 0.889, is most powerful. It is the world’s lingua franca. In second place is Mandarin at 0.411. So not only is English the most powerful language, it is more than twice as powerful as its closest rival.

However, even with such a dominant score, the index likely underestimated the power of Shakespeare’s tongue. For one, official data often do not pick up the fact that English is almost universally the second language in most countries. In today’s society, “bilingual” is usually taken to mean fluency in the home language and English.

Thus when strangers from different countries meet for the first time, the instinct is to ask the other party if they speak English. Similarly, English is often the medium used to teach a second language to a diverse group of foreigners. Moreover, English is a Latin script language, which makes it easier to learn for a majority of the world.

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In some follow-up work on the efficacy of languages, the dominance of English is confirmed to be more prominent than first demonstrated. Indeed, when I set out to create the index, there were many significant challenges in constructing it, as often there is an imperfect mapping between languages and the indicators of the index.

For example, universities (which are part of the index) may operate in a language other than in the home language(s). This is especially true of global and research-intensive institutions. Universities may also offer programmes or degrees in English to attract an international student body. Wholly English language universities can even be found in non-Anglo countries.

In fact, given the dominance of English as the language of science, business and research, it is common in many settings for the home language to be used for “kitchen” conversations while professional interactions are in English.

Case study: Aruba

There are two official languages in Aruba, a small independent island state in the Caribbean that is part of the Kingdom of Netherlands. Papiamento - an Afro-Portuguese creole language - is the majority spoken tongue and has been recognised since 2003.

Dutch, the language of the colonizers, is the other official language. Although it is spoken by just 6% of the population as a mother tongue, it is the sole language of government and is the primary language of instruction at school. Given its geography, Spanish also functions as a key means of interaction on the island. In fact, it counts more than twice as many native speakers as Dutch.

Although English is the mother tongue of just 7% of the island, the majority of tourists come from the US. Moreover, English is used as the medium of communication by most tourists, with the possible exception of those from Spanish or Dutch-speaking backgrounds.

Applying a modified form of the Power Language Index to ascertain the local power dynamics of the common languages in Aruba, it turns out that English is the most powerful.

Image: Author’s calculations, Central Bureau of Statistics (Aruba), CIA Factbook
Case study: Montreal

The city of Montreal is the second most populous primarily French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. French is the mother tongue of two thirds of the city. Over 90% of residents are capable of speaking in the language of Molière. English is the mother tongue of just 13% of Montreal.

Although English is an official language of Canada, it does not have status in the province of Québec or the city of Montreal, where only French is recognised. However, the limitation on English has not stopped it from being an active language for 60% of the city. Moreover, the majority of visitors and temporary residents of the city function in English. For example, McGill University is an English university and attracts almost two thirds of its student body from outside the province.

Calculating a modified Power Language Index for the Greater Montreal Area shows that, in spite of the protection of the French language and the lack of status of English, Shakespeare’s language is competitive.

Image: Source: Census Canada, government of Canada, Institut de la Statistique du Quebec, Tourisme Montreal
Dominance without status

English is not only dominant on a global level, but can even be dominant on a local level relative to the home language. This can happen even when English does not have any legal or official status, or counts few fundamentals that would suggest a strong English-speaking community or infrastructure.

Situations like that of Dubai, where English acts as a lingua franca even when the majority of the population do not speak it as a native tongue, are far from exceptional. In diverse international settings, the default nowadays is to speak English.

Policy-makers who want to protect their home language(s) must therefore take into consideration the role that English might play in becoming the de facto language of communication, even in the presence of laws to protect the home language(s) and in the absence of a prominent English-speaking community. Even when the home language is powerful, the weight of English may be strong - thus the threat against minor languages is even more so.

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