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English, What Next? Perspectives;
Approaches; Attitudes
by Neil McBeath
- 1


The title of this paper, fairly obviously, is taken from Graddol's (2006) publication English Next, which was available, free, from the British Council at the 2010 TESOL Arabia Conference. English Next is an interesting book, but it is perhaps interesting in ways that its author did not really intend.

To begin with, it is something of a Doomsday Book. If Graddol's thesis is correct, we have already passed the high water mark of EFL teaching. In fact, we passed it last year, in 2010 (Graddol 2006; 98-99). Our profession will now contract, and we, the EFL teachers who remain, will be forced, like the elves at the end of Lord of the Rings, to make our dignified way to the Grey Havens, and sail off into the West.
Cue Annie Lennox.

I have my doubts about the accuracy of this scenario, however. I have doubts because we have seen this end-of-days prediction before. In 1965, there was a conference in West Berlin that suggested that teachers of modern languages – NOT EFL, because in those days the EFL industry was in its infancy – were equally doomed (Padagogisches Zentrum, 1965). This was at the very start of the audio-lingual phase of language teaching, and several of the more enthusiastic delegates at that conference, particularly Moore (1965) were convinced that the language laboratory would effectively replace all teachers.

More recently, we have seen a prediction from South Korea that robot teachers will replace the human variety by 2018 (de Lotbiniere 2010a) and there have been a large number of almost equally inflated claims for the benefits of Computer Assisted Language Learning. Interestingly, however, in their latest collection of papers on materials development, Tomlinson and Masuhara (2010) were unable to find any contributor to cover the impact of the new technologies. Most tellingly, Nicholas Ostler, Chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, rejects the entire theory, stating bluntly "English is on an up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history." (McCrum 2010; 6)

English Next – Language Issues

So let us look more closely at Graddol's evidence, and see precisely the grounds on which he claims that the demand for English teaching will decline.

To begin with, he offers figures for first language speakers, and suggests (P. 62) that "both Spanish, Hindi-Urdu and English will have broadly similar numbers." The pedants among us, of course, will have noted that you cannot use "both" when referring to three entities, but let that pass.

What is interesting here is Graddol's use of the term Hindi-Urdu to bolster his case. In the days of the British Empire in India there was a broadly vernacular language called Hindustani, which enjoyed various spellings, but since 1947 it has generally been accepted that Hindi and Urdu are separate languages, and that they are growing further apart with the passage of time.

Hindi is written in the devangari script, while Urdu is written using Perso-arabic script. Urged on by nationalist feelings on both sides of the Indian/Pakistani border, Hindi has added to its wordstock by replacing foreign borrowings with derivations taken from Sanskrit, while Urdu has followed the same path, using Arabic and/or Farsi. It does nothing to help the debate on language size if these developments are ignored, simply because they do not suit an author's argument.

Another point here, of course, is that while no one would dispute that Spanish is an international language, the same cannot really be said of either Hindi or Urdu. Ironically, while Tamil has a genuine claim to international status, there being Tamil speaking communities in India, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka, there are only limited clusters of Hindi or Urdu speakers living outside the borders of India and Pakistan, and most of those speakers are likely to be bilingual.

With Spanish, of course, the position is further complicated by the fact that many people living within metropolitan Spain would not, now, identify themselves as Spanish speakers. Basques and Catalans are particularly jealous of the autonomy that they acquired after 1977, and so it may be that Graddol is overestimating the numbers.

There is then his direct point that English is being challenged by both Mandarin and Spanish (P. 63). Back in January 2006, the headteacher of Brighton College made the triumphant announcement that, from now on, his students would receive tuition in Mandarin. This announcement had the desired effect. He got his headlines in the local and national press, and for a few days his school looked as if it had stolen a march on its rivals.

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