For all that modern technology has changed our world and how we communicate with each other; the defining feature of how we communicate is, of course, still our choice of language. Language is much more than a series of boring grammatical rules that occasionally appear to be designed solely to frustrate and anger anyone who dares to try and learn a foreign language. Language; and crucially our own personal choices in how we use it, can show how a person perceives themselves and also the world around them. One only need to listen to an old BBC broadcast from the 1950’s to realise that is definitely not the same language that you would find today walking around any major British city today. The quintessential 1950’s BBC accent is rife with old-fashioned diction and an accent so sharp and taught it seems that the speaker sees every single word as a constant battle to appear as proper and polished as possible. Today, modern English is defined by its much more American nature with expressions such as “like” and occasionally even “awesome” entering into modern parlance. So, should we all lament the fact that we are no longer refined English speakers with an accent that would be fit for an audience with the Queen?
Obviously, no. First of all, it is a myth to say that 50 or 60 years ago everyone talked with an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent. Just because the BBC wanted the world to believe that everyone talked like a British Gentleman does not make it so. In many ways, languages are like oceans: both are constantly in motion and it would be foolish to think otherwise. So although it would be pointless to ever worry about how a language develops, that is not to say that we don’t currently have a language problem here in modern Europe. This problem, to put on a name on it, is the English language itself.
You only have to look around Europe to see the powerful and damaging effect that the English is having. It is now considered cool and chic (ironically a word with French origins) to use words such as “Food” or “Hot Drinks” on menus in cafes and restaurants in Germany. To be clear, these menus are not designed to be read simply by Anglophone tourists, these menus with their English words are to be read by native German speakers every day. Even the French, who have had long a reputation for being proud of their language and for their poor English skills, now frequently say the English word “e-mail” rather than its French equivalent “courriel”. What does this all amount to? In many ways, it is an invasion by the English language.
At this point I am sure that many are saying how brilliant it is that English is the international language and one can now communicate with everyone. To an extent, this is true. One would be hard-pressed to find a well-educated German, Czech or Pole who speaks absolutely no English. So yes, the spread of English has in a certain sense made travelling for English speaking families much more accessible. However, this comes at a cost. If English continues to spread in the extraordinarily rapid way that it has since the end of the First World War, national cultures could be under threat. One only need look at the example of the French regional languages. 200 years ago, these languages were alive and well and spoken by millions of people every day. Today, with the exception of certain regions such as Corsica and Brittany, many of these languages are all but dead. That is not to say that languages such as German, French and Polish are all doomed to extinction. However, it does mean that fewer and fewer people will experience the thrill and joy of learning a language like French, and who knows? Maybe one day people will talk about German just like people talk about the Irish language today.