Being an English-speaking country is a blessing — and a curse. It is a blessing to be native speakers of the language of Shakespeare — and the language of world science and popular culture. The success of UK science is built not just on its excellence but also its English, which since the decline of the Soviet Union has been the only serious global scientific language. The success of UK universities in recruiting international students also owes a great deal to the language.

But it is also a curse. As the incentives to learn other languages decline year by year, the English-speaking countries are increasingly locked into an Anglophone prison. It may be an advantage to travel almost everywhere and be “understood”. But maybe the ability to understand other cultures is declining. The Chinese speak English; not many British speak Mandarin. Maybe there is a wider lesson here: monolingualism inhibits multicultural sensitivity.

This inhibition is expressed in a number of ways. Within the university, the humanities, where such sensitivity is crucial, are hardest hit. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects may be able to flourish as a monoglot domain (because their language is as much mathematics as English). But that can never be the case with literature, philosophy, history — and even some of the less theoretical social sciences — without a narrowing of perspectives.

What’s Globlish?

In wider society, it is at least possible that the lack of challenge to neo-liberal ideas can be attributed partly to monolingualism. Alternative ideas can only become influential when they are translated into English. Secondly, we are not really talking about English but “Globlish”, a communication tool stripped of most of its cultural resonances. Non-native English speakers can easily become fluent in Globlish. Maybe they can even speak it better because most are not inhibited by faint memories of the King James Bible or Hamlet. For them Globlish is largely a functional language.

The way forward is not just to promote other languages; we also need to learn to celebrate wider cultural differences. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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