Wanna Speak English?

TIME Jun. 24, 2002/Vol. 159 No. 25

A resurgent English-Speaking Union is spreading the word about the world's leading language


It's hard to imagine the Eurovision Song Contest having anything in common with the English-Speaking Union. The brash songfest is an annual reminder that petty nationalism is alive and well in the new Europe; the ESU's lofty mission, by contrast, is to create global understanding through the use of English. But improbable as it may seem, these two institutions have found a common denominator. Last month, little Latvia won the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest with a number entitled I Wanna. More remarkable than the song itself (check out those crazy lyrics at www.eurovision.tv) was that it was one of 16 entries allegedly sung in English. And if that wasn't enough to rile the champions of linguistic diversity, Latvia earlier this month became the latest country to open a branch of the English-Speaking Union.

At a time when a language dies somewhere in the world every two weeks, Latvia's double anglophone whammy was clear confirmation that people everywhere just wanna speak English. Mandarin may have the largest number of native speakers (about 800 million), but English, with 1.9 billion speakers — including some 350 million native speakers — is far and away the largest global lingua franca. The next largest, Spanish, claims 450 million competent speakers worldwide, while French is spoken by a mere 130 million. The most vital statistic is that some 1.5 billion people around the globe speak English as a second language. "It has become the working language of the global village," says ESU chairman Lord Alan Watson.

The English boom has also brought the ESU back from the brink. Founded after World War I to "promote friendship between the English-speaking peoples," the London-based organization seemed destined to mirror Britain's fortunes. As the sun set on the British Empire, the ESU entered its own twilight zone, aging genteelly like many of its members. All that has now changed. Last month the finals of the organization's international public speaking competition in London brought together 50 young contestants from 32 countries including Russia, Argentina, the Philippines and Mongolia. Speakers from Commonwealth countries might have dominated the contest, but the winner, Sophia Gorgodze, came from Georgia, while runner-up Pia Zeinoun hailed from Lebanon. "For non-native speakers," says broadcaster Sir Jeremy Isaacs who helped judge the event, "the quality of English was sensational."

The coming of age of an Internet-savvy generation with more exposure to English and fewer cultural hangups about using it is one reason why the ESU is now expanding. Pragmatism is another. "I'm not seeking to promote English over French," says Beatrix de Montgermont-Keil, president of the ESU in France, "but even the French need English to thrive in the globalized economy." Yet another reason for the ESU's revival, as its director-general Valerie Mitchell explains, is that the Union is both apolitical and independent. Unlike the Alliance Française or Germany's Goethe Institute, it gets no government handouts and does not get bogged down in the business of classroom teaching. "We promote the effective use of the language through public speaking and debates," Mitchell explains.

The ESU, which has an American counterpart with 77 branches, also runs a lively program of student exchanges and scholarships. Recently in Sierra Leone, where child soldiers were more likely to learn Kalashnikov than English, the ESU has been working with the British Council to upgrade language and debating skills. Could there be a dark side to the power of English? "We can't be triumphalist or complacent about the success of English," warns the ESU's chairman, "especially if it comes at the expense of other languages and cultures." Watson prefers to see English as an asset for everyone: "English spans the divide between people and cultures. It isn't owned by Britain and America: it now belongs to everyone."

As the recent example of genocide in Rwanda shows, a common language is no guarantee we can all get along. But as Winston Churchill, a former ESU chairman, once observed, "to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war." The ESU is helping to make the jawing easier and more global. Now if it could only do something about the Eurovision Song Contest.