My first trip to Europe in three years offered renewed insight into language complexities of the early 21st century. Despite a pause in mass tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic, English continues to expand. At the same time, migration is creating “superdiverse” linguistic spaces in cities.
At a conference in Leuven, Belgium, a Belgian professor casually mentioned that English was becoming a neutral common language that helps the country bridge the sharp division between Dutch- and French-speaking areas. The website for the airport in Brussels, for example, uses the name “Brussels Airport,” not the Dutch or French equivalent. The use of English in proper nouns is increasing because people find it easier than translating into Dutch or French. Young people increasingly prefer to use English outside their native-language circle because they speak it better than the other national language.
After Brexit, Ireland, with a population of 5 million, is the only country where English is the dominant native language in daily life. Malta uses English as an official language, along with Maltese, and there are native English-speaking expats spread across the EU. Despite the small number of native speakers, English remains the most important language in the EU because of its status as the de facto global language. Inside the EU, 96 percent of high school students learn English, whereas only 26 percent learn Spanish, the next most popular language. French comes next with 22 percent, followed by German at 20 percent and Italian at 3 percent. This means that, as the situation in Belgium illustrates, English is by far the most practical choice for communication outside one’s native-language speech community.
Not everybody is happy about the dominance of English. Intellectuals, particularly French ones, have long decried the influence of English. The EU and cultural organizations such as the Council of Europe have worked, with some success, to preserve regional languages and promote linguistic diversity. The core argument in this line of thought is that linguistic diversity reflects cultural diversity, and that language decline and loss equals cultural decline and loss. Valid as the argument is, the practical need for a common language for communication continues to feed the spread of English.
At the other end of the spectrum, a different version of linguistic diversity is emerging as migration continues to change the face of cities in Europe and elsewhere. “Superdiversity” has emerged as a term to refer to the extensive ethnolinguistic diversity that has emerged in cities that attract migrants from around the world. Waves of immigrants to New York in the 19th and 20th centuries created the world’s first superdiverse city.
For bilingual countries like Belgium and Canada, superdiversity complicates the language question considerably. Brussels has historically been mostly French speaking, but the percentage of people who do not use Dutch or French at home is about 20 percent. Another 25 percent use French and another language at home, whereas only 5 percent use only Dutch. In this situation, traditional Dutch-French bilingualism ignores the reality of the superdiverse third group that has different experiences with language.
In Canada, Montreal has long been known as the world’s second-most-populous French-speaking city, but sustained migration means that almost half of the city’s residents are non-native speakers of French. Like Brussels, they learn French because it is dominant in Montreal, but they do not have the nationalistic attraction to French that has long animated politics in Quebec. The increase in non-native French-speaking migrants since the 1980s may help explain the steady decline in support for Quebec independence.
As a major trading nation, South Korea has long been keen on English as a global language and that shows little sign of changing. The rise of superdiverse cities, however, has created a situation that many Koreans find difficult to understand. Instead of speaking English with native speakers in New York, many Koreans find that they speak it with non-native-speaker migrants. The same holds true for London and most other large cities, such as Toronto and Sydney, in traditionally “English-speaking” countries.
This poses a problem for endemic “native-speakerism” in South Korea. If many of the people that Koreans might meet in English-speaking countries are also non-native speakers, what is the point of upholding the native-speaker standard in English education? The question is even more relevant when thinking about Koreans speaking English in superdiverse cities like Brussels. The dominance of English as a world language has made the native-speaker standard obsolete, something that should be liberating to Korean learners of English.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.