Dominant English

3 min read

If you’re a language enthusiast, but you love your own native tongue, have you ever wondered why some languages seem to be valued more than others by businesses and the academic world? Why is English still an obsession, often overshadowing local languages? Is this evolution desirable? I’ll tell you what I think, and I want to hear what you think at the end of the video. Let’s start the debate now.

First, let’s look at what’s been happening in Northern Europe for more than 30 years. English has spread in the business world to the point that it becomes mandatory at certain professional levels. Thanks to the Internet, music, and streaming TV series, children are immersed in English and often master it even more thoroughly than their native language. In schools, English is sometimes used as the medium of instruction for certain subjects. In higher education, Shakespeare’s language is becoming the preferred choice in universities in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

In Denmark, over a third of university courses are taught in English, while Danish, the national language, is marginalized, especially in technical fields like engineering or computer science. Danish is spoken by 6 million people, but it seems that the Danes themselves don’t hold it dear. It’s as if Danish cookies were made with butter from Ireland; they might taste good, but they’re not the same.

The Netherlands is also caught in this linguistic whirlwind where English is dominant. Dutch is spoken by about 25 million people, including the Flemish part of Belgium. This language faces a double pressure: French is already displacing Flemish in Brussels in the south, while English is prevalent in businesses and higher education institutions in the north. The government in The Hague even passed a law stating that two-thirds of undergraduate courses be taught only in Dutch, but this battle has been lost, because the universities responded that in that case they would have to close down. Teaching solely in Dutch won’t attract international professors, and therefore, foreign students won’t enroll.

Well you know…I can tell you first hand that this wasn’t the case before. I studied at the University of Amsterdam in the 80s, and a very difficult Dutch exam was mandatory for me. Heel moelijk !

So why this influx and dominance of English? Well, universities aim to shine globally and rank high on lists like Times Higher Education. But there’s a price to pay: either abandon the native language or become a third-tier institution. While it might be understandable for private universities to teach in English, the question remains for public institutions that rely on state subsidies. They also want to be on the international radar, often employing professors who only teach in English to students from China or Africa, who have English as a second language. Indirectly, these students enjoy subsidized higher education paid for by the local Dutch or Norwegian taxpayer, study in English, and return to their countries without contributing to the nation that financed their studies. While they study in the Netherlands or Sweden, they often remain isolated within their international circle, failing to integrate into local culture.

Yes, friends, English is the global language, the lingua franca for business and worldwide communication. But we’re heading in the wrong direction if it becomes the sole language, synonymous with one single way of thinking and expressing thoughts and emotions. That would be terrible. Out of the 7 billion people in the world, over 6 billion don’t speak English at all. 

I’m concerned about Spanish in Latin America and Spain. Among the elite, English is encouraged from an early age. If children pursue an international baccalaureate, they may learn subject matter only in English, resulting in a lack of vocabulary in Spanish. In Spain, the promotion of regional languages may push aside the common language, Spanish, the language from Castile that is spoken by 21 countries and 500 million people. Thankfully, Spanish is the second most popular language on the Internet and is essential in youth culture.

Returning to Northern Europe, we must remember that language is not a zero-sum game. English can be a powerful tool, but it shouldn’t eclipse Norwegian or Dutch. The French, for example, actively protect their language by making it mandatory at all educational levels and they have the so called “exception française” to protect the language in any cultural expression like cinema. 

So, the next time you find yourself lost in translation, remember that each word, whether in English, Spanish, Dutch, or Danish, is a step toward a global community. Let’s defend diversity.

What’s your opinion on this debate and the prevalence of English in certain media? I appreciate your comments below.

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