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10 September, 2013

Priceless Words

The people of Britain have an asset worth billions of dollars and effective soft power across the globe in their tongues

The people of Britain have in their tongues an asset worth billions of dollars across the globe: the English language. New research has shown that it is not only the rich and powerful who benefit from mastery of the first truly international language: from Nigeria to Bangladesh, from Brazil to Vietnam, even humble carpenters and plumbers who speak a smattering of English are at least 30 per cent richer than their competitors who do not.

With around 1.75 billion speakers - a quarter of the globe's population - English now belongs not just to Britain but to the world: those who have learnt English as a second language now far outnumber native speakers. The language gives Britain a competitive edge in culture, diplomacy, media, academia and IT, and in the use and practice of "soft power" - an advantage shared with America, Australia, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand and all those Anglophones who take their mother tongue for granted. And the British Council, the cultural organisation committed to spreading knowledge of English, has now called in a new report for a massive new effort to teach the language that increasingly is the basis for Britain's prosperity and global influence.

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English is big business indeed, and not just for the world's leaders, statesmen and diplomats, all of whom are routinely required to master it. Millions of children on every continent now spend years studying the language. English has become the passport to wealth and opportunity, an essential requirement for almost every profession and the means by which a third of all internet communication is conducted.

Planes take off and land in English. UN officials negotiate war and peace in English. Protesters in distant countries scrawl their demands on placards in English for the world's cameras. It is the language used to pioneer the latest research, open the Olympic Games, voice the frustrations of Egyptian demonstrators and draw up communiqués by global leaders in St Petersburg.

English, which has been steadily gaining ground since the Second World War, is nowadays being embraced by entire countries and regions. The elites of Egypt, Syria and Lebanon have dumped French in favour of English. India has reversed its former campaign against the language of its colonial rulers, and millions of Indian parents are enrolling their children in English-language schools - the surest way to joining the global Anglophone middle class. In India about 100 million people now speak English - far more than before independence. Rwanda, in a move dictated as much by regional economics as post-genocide politics, has decreed a wholesale switch to English as its medium of instruction in schools and universities. And China is about to launch a colossal programme to tackle one of the few remaining obstacles to its breakneck expansion: a lack of English-speakers.

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As Britain's former economic and industrial dominance fades - leading one of President Putin's aides to describe Britain nowadays as "just a small island" - its language has become ever more vital to its prosperity. Millions of tourists visit Britain, not because of the weather, but because they can understand the language (even if they have trouble understanding the Cockney dialect of London). Language schools are booming. Universities earn millions from China and other nations keen to educate their elites in English. The BBC World Service and the British Council are arguably greater agents of global influence than the country's entire diplomatic corps. And one reason for Britain's continued importance as a centre for diplomacy and global communications is its native language, which has by now almost entirely replaced French as the language of diplomacy.

Last year the British Council taught English to more than 280,000 learners, in 80 centres spread across 60 countries, and delivered almost 2.5 million exams to more than 1.6 million individuals worldwide. The demand appears to be unstoppable: The British Council forecasts at least double-digit growth – in some cases up to 40 per cent – in demand for English in Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil and Mexico, as well as the large African countries, particularly Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sudan. The Russian government has stated that fluent English will in future be a requirement to become a civil servant. In Vietnam, English has become compulsory from the fourth grade and it is now compulsory in all Japanese primary schools. The government of Thailand has set the ambitious goal of teaching English to 14 million students in 34,000 state schools, from pre-primary to university age; and the Kazakhstan government says 30,000 more English-speakers will be needed for Expo 2017, an international exhibition on sustainable energy to be held in Astana.

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Research has found that most people learn English because it gives them access. It allows a young woman in Pakistan to communicate with a professor in the US, a farmer in Ghana to get international weather reports and commodity prices via his mobile phone, or a student in Myanmar to share hopes with community organisations in Belfast. English allows football fans in a fishing village in the Gambia to listen to live Premier League commentary, or those with enough money to travel abroad, knowing that they will find a way to be understood more readily.

Most people in Britain do not realise the vast wealth the country earns from its language. Last year more than 600,000 foreign students from 200 countries came to study at universities, colleges and boarding schools in the UK and a further 600,000 came to do a short English language course. In 2011, they contributed the main part of the Britain's £17.5 billion education-related export market. Analysis by London Economics suggests that the value of that market
might be approximately £21.5 billion in 2020 and £26.6 billion in 2025.

Britain no longer "owns" the language. But there is still a surprising snobbery abroad about "British" English. Apart from Latin America, most countries in the world insist on teaching and learning British, rather than American, usage of the language, believing that the language of Shakespeare is somehow more cultured than the accents of Texas. The United States makes surprisingly little effort to promote English abroad, believing that anyone who wants to deal with America will find their own way of learning the language. This leaves Britain as by far the biggest promoter of English, followed by Australia. This has important psychological advantages: in thousands of phrases, sayings and associations, the English language continues to spread both knowledge of its birthplace and familiarity with the British "mindset". 

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It also means that Britain has an enormous "soft power" tool of diplomacy in its hands. The British Council can reach and teach English in places few other organisations could – in conflict zones and developing countries like South Sudan, the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. In the turbulent Arab world, where the influence of Islam and the fight against extremism is of vital importance to Western stability, the British Council has a contract to teach English to Muslim scholars in Al-Azhar, the ancient university in Cairo that is the leading source of Islamic theology. It also teaches English in universities, military colleges and civil service academies in countries that do not normally have close relations with Britain. 

Most people in the small islands of north-western Europe do not know how much their tongue has earned them. Few realise that Shakespeare is probably the most influential non-religious figure in the history of global culture. And none know that when they shout slogans from footballs terraces to cheer on their favourite English premiership club, their words will probably be seen and understood around the world. 

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