The Downside of English’s Dominance

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The Wall Street Journal

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When France takes over the European Council presidency in January, it has been reported that President Emmanuel Macron plans to make French its official language. Many EU diplomats who have invested time and energy in their English skills are anxious and annoyed. It’s just one example of the “language wars” raging around the world, as countries from South Africa to Morocco to India come to terms with the unrelenting expansion of English.

Since the end of World War II, when the U.S. emerged as an economic and military superpower, the English language has been punching way above its weight. Today 1.5 billion people speak English, fewer than 400 million of whom are native speakers. It is the language in which the Brazilians do business with the Dutch and the Japanese do business with the Italians. English is an official language of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court and NATO. Political activists from North Africa to Myanmar tweet in it.

A growing number of multinational companies are adopting English as their official language, with significant consequences for their workers. In 2010, Japan’s largest online retailer, Rakuten, announced that all employees had to take an exam to demonstrate English proficiency within two years or risk being dismissed or demoted. The majority of Rakuten’s workforce couldn't make the cut, and by 2018, 80% of the new engineers in its Tokyo offices were non-Japanese. Some of those who remained claimed they felt like “expats” in their own country.