Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Switzerland has three official languages; German, French and Italian. However, the country routinely markets itself in English. Before I arrived in Geneva for my year abroad, I worried that socialising and simple daily errands would be a struggle without speaking fluent French. Surely, as native English-speakers, we should persevere in learning new languages; for engaging in business propositions, integrating into new communities and developing global relationships? This has certainly not been necessary for me.
Even though my social interactions are in French, in the background of the idle chatter is constant English-language music; from Marvin Gaye to the Beatles, The Smiths to Dizzee Rascal and Chaka Khan. The crowds sing along in English between sipping their drinks, smoking or flirting. The English language dominates popular music worldwide, and studies show that words relating or identifying human emotions are more likely to stay planted in the brain.
We also find American television and film almost everywhere. On a childhood French exchange, I was sat in a room watching the Twilight Saga in English. Even at ten years old, I remember finding it bizarre. I had moved to France to speak French, not to listen to Kristen Stewart speaking English. This is partially because modern America is a nation of immigrants: from the pilgrims seeking religious freedom, to the famished Irish seeking stability. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million immigrants arrived in America. This emigration rendered American synonymous with civilization. This planted a seed for generations of anglo-phones globally.
Whilst I’m reluctant to say this, British imperialism brought widespread benefits for Anglo-phones. Our mother tongue gives us a platform we all take for granted. The establishment of the East India Company expanding into Asia, primarily India and China, had a huge linguistic impact on these countries. The British Empire, along with countless other injustices, crushed many languages, dialects and literature. We are still living through the consequences with the world losing a language every two weeks.
Even in lectures and seminars, my Swiss professors dabble in a bit of English ‘slang’. Globalisation, urbanisation and the rise of the internet have all accelerated the adoption of English words and phrases. “Does anyone really think that French teenagers, are going to trade out ‘sexting’ for Texto Pornographique?”. Absolutely not, Lauran Collins. It is estimated that70-80% of the content on the Internet is in English which surely has tangible linguistic effects worldwide.
Swiss international schools are full of English-speaking children living in Switzerland with barely the most basic level of French. It simply is not mandatory for everyday life. You have to make a concerted effort to find French-speaking people and ask them to speak to you in French. It will be long before you ask yourself, “does the world speak English, or do we speak the language of the world?”Conducting business internationally, playing FIFA or listening to Pitbull’s Mr Worldwide, is all a struggle without English. English is still regarded as a passport to success. The World Economic Forum estimates about 1.5 billion people around the world speak English, but fewer than 400 million have it as their first language. The reality is that English is the language most people turn to: to engage with the dominant cultural products of our globalised world.