English in the Middle East

The world's lingua franca in 2018

How did English become the lingua franca of global business?

Iraqi students take an English language exam at a bookstore in Kirkuk, Iraq, July 24, 2018, Picture taken July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

As David Crystal, a world renowned linguist, put it, “In 1950, any notion of English as a true world language was but a dim, shadowy, theoretical possibility.”

Today in 2018, however, that remote possibility has come to pass. English as a world language has become so ubiquitous that in some parts of the world—in Iran for instance—the word “language” uttered on its own refers to English and not the speaker’s own language.

For better or worse, English is no longer merely a language; it is the language: a de facto, a lingua franca, and most importantly—in a world that everything revolves around money—the language of money.

As a western Germanic language mixed with a good dose of Latin and French—courtesy of William the Conqueror— English was, for the longest part of its existence, a European tongue, among many others, without any ambition of going beyond the British Isles.

As it turned out, however, the imperial might of Britain took the English to all the five continents, and, years later, the United States’ cultural dominance over the world consolidated the status of the language.

The cruelty of imperialism notwithstanding, the rise of English turned out to be—in certain ways— beneficial for the initially reluctant recipients of the language. British Hong Kong and Bombay under British rule, to name but two great cities, would probably not have become as iconic as they did, in their respective golden years, if English was not spoken there.

Even today, former British colonies which have kept the English Language and localized it fare significantly better than their non-English speaking neighbors. Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong are cases in point.

In the present post-colonial, post-industrial, post-internet world, few people may still remember the early years of the rise of English and its bitter connotations, and only the most hardliner pessimists may believe that there is a neo-colonial agenda behind the spread and popularity of the language.

Nevertheless, the spread of English is influencing the world in completely unexpected ways, and some misgivings about the impacts of the English language are justifiable. While in some parts of the world, including in the French speaking parts of Canada and in most of Europe, there are mixed feelings about the teaching of English, the Middle East seems to like the idea.

Known for having a knack for business, people in the Middle East are among the most passionate learners of English as a foreign language (EFL), and the Middle East is where many young native speakers of English head for after taking a short course in the teaching of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).

According to the British Council, the demand for English language learning in the Arab world is on the rise, and, even in the wake of the demise of colonialism, “attitudes toward English have remained generally positive. English has always been perceived as a facilitator of, rather than a hindrance to, the process of nation building.”

Non-Arab countries in the Middle East seem to be just as keen on learning the English language. Turkey and Iran have booming EFL markets, and the middle class parents in these countries have come to regard the enrolment of their children in private English classes as a kind of investment that will pay off one day.

Arab or non-Arab, Middle Eastern countries are traditionally reliant on trade, and foreign language learning in, say, the UAE, is more than anything a business necessity. It is rarely an activity done purely for its intellectual merits.

One of the most remarkable impacts of the English language on the Middle East—and one which is often ignored—is that the widespread mastery of English in the region will give it a voice to express itself in a world where all the dominant discourses are being shaped in English, and thus construct a better and fairer image of itself.