Probing Question: How is the English language changing?

Someone once said that if you can speak three languages, you’re trilingual. If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you can speak only one language, you’re an American.

crossword puzzle with the word international highlighted

But does that joke still hold true in our era of rapidly shifting demographics? While English is still the de facto national language (though not the legal one: there is no federally mandated official language) we are a nation in which the number of first-generation immigrants has quadrupled since 1970.

According to Suresh Canagarajah, not only does this suggest that more Americans than ever speak multiple languages, but that “as diverse communities take over English and use it according to their values, English itself is also getting diversified.”

Canagarajah, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor in Penn State's Department of Applied Linguistics and English, and director of the Migration Studies Project, researches the ways in which migration has altered the global landscape, including the way we use and shape language.

“Globalization is not new, of course,” he explains. “There are at least four other forms of globalization before today’s era. The last one, modernist globalization, which featured industrialization and colonization, is the period in which English spread outside the British Isles to South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. However, that form of globalization featured a one-sided flow of influences from the west to the east. In today’s postmodern globalization, there is a more multilateral flow of influences.”

Notes Canagarajah, this flow and exchange of influences means immigrants no longer aspire to simply replace their own dialects with “the Queen’s English,” but to mold the language to their own needs. “English is used by non-native speakers for their purposes. This shift has led to a redefinition of the notion of ownership. Non-native speakers are shaping the grammar and style of the language in their own terms, without regard to the norms of native speakers.”

Scholars have coined the terms “World Englishes” and “English as an International Language” or EIL, to signify that today’s English is actually a rich multinational family of languages, rather than a single “neutral global norm,” explains Canagarajah. Variants of English, such as Sri Lankan, Nigerian, or Singaporean English “shouldn’t be considered deficient or unsystematic,” Canagarajah says, “but rule-governed in their own way. Native speakers will be surprised that they are not the majority using the English language anymore.” Research suggests that non-native English speakers now outnumber native speakers three to one. In Asia alone, an estimated 350 million people speak English, roughly the same as the combined English-speaking populations of the United States, Canada and Britain.

To those who decry these shifts as evidence of declining standards in both spoken and written English, Canagarajah points out that English has a long history as a hybrid tongue. “The language emerged from the tribal dialects of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons that migrated to England from the European mainland around 449 AD,” he explains. “It then combined with local language resources from Frisian and Celtic tribes, which were themselves already influenced by Latin colonization, to gain an identity as English.”

English was gradually standardized through technological developments such as printing, political imposition of rulers such as King Alfred, and lexicographical efforts of scholars like Samuel Johnson, he adds. “Yet even as Johnson tried to systematize English, he acknowledged the importance of migration and contact that would continue to hybridize English.”

Given today’s rapid developments in technology, migration, and communication, we can expect further pluralization of English, says Canagarajah. These changing norms affect people the world over, he adds, even the Queen. “Some linguists have recently studied the Queen's speech, and observe that she herself doesn't speak the Queen's English. Anyway, no one treats this as the preferred form of English anymore. People are more interested in letting their own voices come through the language.”

What is to be desired, believes Canagarajah, is not a homogeneous language, but an increased ability to tolerate, accommodate, and even celebrate, diverse dialects and languages.

Suresh Canagarajah, Ph.D. is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics and English, and directs the Migration Studies Project. He can be reached at asc16@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 17, 2012