ELFA project

The decline of the monolingual English native speaker


Click the image to jump to “The English empire” from the Schumpeter blog on the Economist website.

I like to watch for articles and commentary on the role of English in the world today. Linguists live in a world of their own, and it’s nice to see what the broader world has to say about my research subject. From time to time, an online news source publishes something on English as a lingua franca (ELF), and especially its spread in international business. Usually the stories themselves are fairly dull, but the public forum for comment and discussion can be an informal barometer for language attitudes and ideologies surrounding English.

Last week’s column in the Economist (Schumpeter, 15.2) was no exception. Entitled “The English empire”, the article reads like an advertisement for global English. A long list of multinational companies are listed where English has been adopted as an official language and serves as a lingua franca between non-native speakers and users of English. This spread of English as a business lingua franca (BELF) is hardly news, but the column helpfully gives a list of quotes from various experts who think this is a good and natural development. Then, three obligatory components that must be included in articles like this:

  1. taking a shot at the EU translation regime – “a babbling army of translators costing $1.5 billion a year”
  2. a gratuitous reference to colonialism – “English is the language on which the sun never sets”
  3. a token finger-wag toward monolingual English native speakers – “Too many of them [English native speakers] risk mistaking their fluency in meetings for actual accomplishments”

As with an article from the Guardian that I earlier discussed on this blog, the interesting part comes in the reader discussions which follow. Sure, there’s the expected snobbery of language purists toward non-native English speakers1 (and toward American English, of course), along with suitably indignant replies. But in the midst of this and other folk linguistic speculations on the suitability of Mandarin Chinese to be a global lingua franca, an interesting theme emerges – the decline of the monolingual English native speaker.

Monolingual in a multilingual world

It seems that both native and non-native speakers of English are gradually awakening to the fact that English native speakers who do not learn other languages are not to be envied. Not only do they miss out on opportunities for cultural enrichment, but they likely fail to appreciate the realities of using a second or foreign language. Even English native speakers are becoming aware that English “works” well – until the native speaker joins in:

I work in a predominantly non-English native speaking multinational that has English as its official language.

What strikes me is that communication in English works best when there are actually no native speakers talking.

We native English speakers should not rest on our laurels as we need to learn a whole new way of communicating – slower speed, more clarity, dropping of idioms, for example – if we are to succeed in making ourselves understood as well as our new found language friends.

Ironically, for now the “winners” are those who speak English fluently as a second language.

Nordic Kiwi

I don’t believe that this is a condescending comment. The author shows awareness that in order to succeed in a lingua franca setting, native speakers are the ones who must adjust, not the other way around (as it is typically presented in English language teaching). In other words, in an ELF setting, it’s no longer “our” language. In spite of this, some of the native-speaker comments express feelings of good fortune that English is the global lingua franca. However, multilingual ELF users are also becoming aware that the tables of good fortune are turning:

I used to believe English mother tongue speakers were so lucky and had such a huge and unfair advantage.

After having learned English at a level where it’s more common for me to spot a mistake from a native speaker than learn a new expression or word – and let those laurels be because it happens very often 🙂 –, I find it’s actually me the lucky one for having learned to speak 2 languages fluently and for dabbling in another 3.


Of course, we have to keep in mind that not all English native speakers are ethnocentric dullards. On the other extreme are the “polyglots” who collect foreign languages like trophies to be dangled in front of their monolingual compatriots:

As a native English speaker, who speaks ten other languages, I agree with you that it is the native English speaker who feels that they need not bother learning other languages, who is the loser here. They do not develop cultural awareness, thinking that as everyone speaks their tongue, they think the same way.


While cultural awareness is certainly one of the benefits of language learning, I would further argue that monolinguals lose out when they don’t know how it feels to use a foreign language that is not necessarily fully mastered. This lack of language awareness can be just as limiting as a lack of cultural insight. It would seem that some English native speakers realise this, as with the commenter who sees the spread of English as “[a]n encouraging development, almost certainly a net benefit to all. That being said, I sympathize with anyone not born speaking the language”.

But as it turns out, this feeling of sympathy is not necessarily appreciated. On the contrary, another commenter returned the favor:

No need to sympathise, we are perfectly happy being multilingual. We are comfortable mastering English in addition to our respective mother tongues and a couple more languages as well. If anything I sympathise with English speakers for falling into cultural provincialism.

E. Meursault

Confessions of a puolitoistalingual English speaker

You might wonder where the author of this blog falls within the native speaker spectrum. Like everyone else in my grade in an American high school, I began my first foreign language, Spanish, at age 15 (read “too late”). Though I reached a conversational level of Spanish in college, it has since gone dormant. Since then I’ve also studied basic Italian and Hindi, with little of the latter remaining apart from it’s wonderful script and phonetic system. My only foray into language learning for personal survival began at age 30, when I moved to Finland.

My Finnish is better than Conan’s.

While I don’t expect I’ll ever be especially fluent in Finnish (or suomi, the same as the real name for Finland), I learned it to a level that satisfies citizenship requirements, enables me to function in everyday life, and permits pleasant conversation with my mother-in-law. As I generally avoid human contact in any language, it remains a vehicular language (i.e. a language for getting things done). Yet, every time I use Finnish successfully in interaction, I feel proud. It’s a very long way from professionals who use English as a lingua franca in working life, but I worked hard to learn Finnish and I regard it is as one of the important achievements in my life.

I don’t say this to gloat – many other immigrants (including other English native speakers) far surpass my Finnish skills. I can’t exactly be called a monolingual, but I’m not multilingual, either. Thus, I regard myself as puolitoistalingual: puolitoista is Finnish for “one-and-a-half”. And I expect I’m among the last generation of English native speakers who can get away with it.


1 My personal favorite: “Although English is the best, it is often dilluted [sic], corrupted or hijacked by non native speakers.” Not only does it include a misspelling, but it suggests three independent linguistic processes – dilution, corruption, and hijacking – just awaiting empirical verification.