The Rise and Fall of the American Linguistic Empire

In an op-ed piece entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know,” published on January 20, 2012, in the New York Times, former president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers called upon American universities to revamp their curricula in order to better prepare their students for the twenty-first century. Among his propositions, Summers made the case that the study of foreign languages represents a waste of time. As more and more people acquire English across our increasingly interconnected globe, he argued, mastery of foreign languages will become less and less necessary. Colleges and universities should instead teach their students leading-edge skills better suited to an increasingly competitive employment marketplace.

Cost-cutting university administrators have been putting this modest proposal into practice in institutions across the United States for some time now. In 2010, for example, cash-strapped SUNY Albany shuttered its degree programs in French, Italian, Russian, and classical languages (it has since restored French and Russian as undergraduate minors and course offerings in Italian). This closing of linguistic minds is by no means peculiar to America. In Britain, the government’s 2004 decision to cease requiring secondary-school students to study a foreign language has triggered a precipitous drop in university language departments’ enrollments. The University of Toronto, where I teach, moved in 2010 to merge all foreign-language teaching into a single school of languages before a firestorm of public debate forced its administration to beat a hasty retreat back to the disciplinary status quo. As public funding for higher education shrinks and endowments plummet, language education is now the first up on the chopping block—an unmistakable sign of the low esteem in which university and government leaders hold the study of languages today. At the very moment my dean and provost went to war against foreign languages, contractors were hard at work building a massive new addition to the university’s business school, a telling symbol of the hierarchy of academic values now in play. That Summers lent his name to such arguments drapes them with all the legitimacy that his résumé as former chief economist of the World Bank, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, Barack Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, and president of Harvard University can offer.

It is tempting to dismiss this trend as the work of barbarians inside the academy’s hallowed gates, bent on doing away with the humanities. Given the purchase such ideas currently have on education decision makers, however, Summers’s arguments merit serious attention. Most university administrators piously blame tough budgetary times, waning student interest, and the quest for “synergies” as they shut programs. When the richly-endowed University of Southern California closed its German department in 2008, its dean explained that the eleventh-most spoken language, the national tongue of the world’s fourth wealthiest economy, and the idiom of foundational scientific and philosophical works had no place in his institution’s “enlarged vision” of the world. In the place of cant, Summers articulates an educational rationale to justify cuts. Parsing its explicit aims and implicit assumptions about language and the very purpose of education tells us much about what is currently driving university reform. A deeper understanding of the history of language suggests that our universities would do well to ignore such exhortations and stick to teaching foreign languages.

Summers builds his case upon a profoundly reductive understanding of education. His vision of higher education is one aimed at instilling applied skills, those that add value, maximize utility functions, and improve economic productivity. Though he protests his liberal arts good faith, he clearly sees the future headed in an entirely different direction. “Of course, we’ll always learn from history,” Summers writes, “But the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased” thanks to the social and hard sciences. By positing an understanding of language as utilitarian as his vision of education, Summers assumes all languages to be neutral media for communication, undifferentiated vehicles for the transmission of content. The medium is decidedly not the message—and it’s the message that matters, not the particular linguistic system in which it is delivered. In such a functionalist conception of what students should learn, there can be no room for considering the classical or vernacular literatures as worthy of study in and of themselves, let alone for the idea that reading them in the original might convey something specific and indispensable. Given just how central the study of language and literature has been to western knowledge since Antiquity, and to higher education since the creation of the university in medieval Europe, it is nothing short of astonishing to behold the former president of the world’s most prestigious institutional heir to the humaniores litterae ring their death knell.


By denying language any cultural, literary, or linguistic specificity, Summers construes language barriers to pose exclusively practical challenges, semiotic gaps that need to be bridged in order to make communication possible. It is for this reason that he sees in “English’s emergence as the global language” (my emphasis) the beginning of a wondrous linguistic utopia, where the pesky challenge of cross-cultural understanding will at long last be resolved. The fact that English is now widely spoken as a second language therefore liberates anglophones from the need to study foreign languages. In the age of the Internet, jet airplanes, and globalization, the world has become a village, and English is its common tongue. “While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential.”

Essential for what, one might ask? Summers imagines universities preparing future generations for a very specific set of tasks: tackling the financial crisis, “doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.” That Summers celebrates George Marshall for leading the stabilization of Cold War Western Europe and David Petraeus for directing counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan makes clear that he intends university education to be evaluated in light of U.S. strategic interests. In the brave new linguistic world opening up before us, English is all that the leaders who will run the U.S. government, manage America’s businesses, burnish its international image as Peace Corps volunteers, staff its Foreign Service, and fight its wars will ever need.

Viewed in this context, English itself offers a decidedly less neutral linguistic vehicle than a cursory reading of such arguments might suggest. Like all utopias, this particular dream of a linguistically unified world carries heavy political and social valence. The learned elites across Western Europe who both communicated in and celebrated Latin for over a millennium also shared a common Christian faith and a veneration for ancient Rome. More recently, the creators and promoters of Esperanto saw in this linguistically simplified code freed of any associations with a specific nation-state a means to foster universal peace and socialism. For Summers, English is the language of globalization, the linguistic infrastructure for the deregulated circulation of capital, goods, elites, and information. It also furnishes the linguistic middle ground for American diplomacy and military action. We are invited to imagine the twenty-first century as a Francis Fukuyama–like end to linguistic history, marked by the organic triumph of capitalism, liberal democracy, American hegemony, and the idiom of Adam Smith and John Foster Dulles. English is at once a consequence and an instrument of American imperial power, an appreciable asset for American anglophones in the twenty-first-century global contest for competitive advantage, prosperity, and power.

We are invited to imagine the twenty-first century as a Francis Fukuyama–like end to linguistic history, marked by the organic triumph of capitalism, liberal democracy, American hegemony, and the idiom of Adam Smith and John Foster Dulles.

Those who have studied the history of language will be reminded of other linguistic empires. Ancient Rome proudly planted Latin’s banner across its vast Mediterranean empire, and its memory has defined the idea of linguistic empire for thinkers in the West ever since. Antonio Nebrija famously dedicated the first grammar of the Spanish language to Isabella of Spain in 1492—the same year the Spanish crown conquered the last of the Iberian territories under Muslim rule and Columbus laid claim to Hispaniola—declaring that “language has always been the companion of empire.” The French poet Pierre de Ronsard wanted kings to make this maxim royal policy: “Princes should be no less desirous to expand the boundaries of their empire than to spread their language among all the nations.” Countless would-be educational reformers before Summers have made the same functionalist argument against the study of foreign tongues. A sixteenth-century French apothecary called for teaching medicine in French rather than the Latin in which university teaching took place in his day, declaring, “It is easier to study in one’s language, than it is to have to study in foreign languages.” Some of his contemporaries judged that nobles were wasting their time on Latin and Greek and should devote themselves to more practical subjects such as horsemanship, fencing, history, geography, and geometry, which would make them better military commanders. And twenty-first-century Americans are by no means the first to proclaim the universality of their vernacular. In the late seventeenth century, a member of the French Academy bragged not only that the “French language is today the language of a great Kingdom,” but that it was also “a language which is by no means enclosed within the limits of France, which is cultivated with zeal by foreigners.” The promoters of English draw from a venerable stock of commonplaces to paint their portrait of a global anglophone future.


Summers’s celebration of the global reach of English can only be read as an unabashed apology for American empire. By even the most strategically hard-headed criteria, however, cadres drawn from a monolingual American elite are a poor choice as ambassadors of U.S. interests. Imagine for a moment what America’s interlocutors abroad—say, the minister of foreign affairs of Tunisia’s emerging democracy, China’s delegation to the World Trade Organization, or corporate executives in Québec—think when faced with American counterparts who expect them to communicate exclusively in English. In the same way that American power creates asymmetrical geopolitical and economic relationships with certain parts of the world, so too does the reliance on English as an international lingua franca engender cultural asymmetries with non-anglophone cultures. However widespread the mastery of English is in academic, business, and diplomatic circles today, to cease teaching languages is quite simply a recipe for cultivating anti-American resentment around the world. Languages have always been more than semiotic systems for the transmission of information, and the belief that English’s status as a global idiom will ease twenty-first-century life belies their powerful symbolic charge, notably as banners for national, ethnic, social, and cultural identities.


And just how global is the English that will allegedly suffice for America’s future? There is, of course, no question about its enormous reach. Estimates put the number of English-speakers (both as a native and a second tongue) at near five hundred million. Anglophone tourists traveling in many parts of the world are generally relieved to discover that they can get by with English. Universities across Europe have switched their language of instruction in certain degree programs entirely to English. Anglophones marvel at the impressive mastery of English displayed by well-educated interlocutors from the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Germany. The working language for the cosmopolitan community of engineers and managers employed by the European aerospace giant that manufactures Airbus aircraft is English. In ports and on the high seas, ships’ captains communicate in a standardized form of English known as Seaspeak. Pilots and air traffic controllers learn a similar form known as Aviation English. World leaders today generally chat in English when they gather at summits. During Jacques Chirac’s presidency, even France—the modern nation-state that has invested perhaps the most energy and resources in promoting its national vernacular within and without its borders—ceased insisting on the systematic use of French in international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations.

But it would also be a big mistake to overestimate the reach of English. Though it is widely assumed that the planet is becoming more linguistically homogeneous, hard evidence suggests otherwise. Most of the approximately six thousand languages in use today are indeed spoken by relatively small communities, nearly half by populations of less than ten thousand. Although a great many of these idioms are in danger of dying, many new languages and dialects are coming into existence as well. More broadly, there are a number of major world languages other than English, used by large portions of the planet’s inhabitants, in the context of dynamic social, cultural, and economic activities. Fifteen idioms are spoken by at least one hundred million people—including Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. At around one billion, there are more than twice as many speakers of Mandarin Chinese as of English. Chinese is almost as equally present on the Internet as English. India, home to the world’s largest film industry, produces movies in a staggering number of languages: in 2010 alone, 1,274 films were produced in a total of twenty-three languages—of these, 215 were shot in Hindi, 202 in Tamil, 181 in Telugu, 143 in Kannada, 116 in Marathi, 110 in Bengali, and 105 in Malayalam (and 117 films were dubbed from one regional language to another). Only seven were produced in English. While the Moroccan government joined the broader trend in English-language higher education when it opened the anglophone Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane in the 1990s, it is also currently breaking ground for a French-language engineering school in partnership with France’s elite École des Mines. Once outside Tokyo, try navigating Japan with only English. In the central Asian republics, Russian will get you a lot further than English, just as French will in most of West Africa. Good luck, by the way, to any well-meaning monolingual American doctor who heads off to treat villagers in Mali, Angola, or Chad.

Though you wouldn’t guess it from current trends in higher education, the United States is itself home to a multilingual society—and is becoming more so with each passing year. Consider that the number of native Spanish-speakers in the United States has doubled since 1990, and is spoken at home today by 37 million people. There is a vast and rapidly growing domestic Spanish-language market: the U.S.-based Spanish-language broadcaster Univision is today the fifth-largest television network by audience in the country. Savvy executives doing business in Miami or California don’t need to be told the value of hiring Spanish-speakers. The day when candidates for national office will need to speak Spanish may not be very far off.


Even the nation-states and empires most committed to promoting particular tongues have invested considerable resources in ensuring that their cadres could speak other languages. Whatever pride they took in Latin, educated Romans also always learned Greek. However invested absolutist France was in promoting French, Louis XIV was also well aware of the need to train diplomats and interpreters, and set up schools to this effect. The modern French and British empires created a constellation of institutions to teach colonial officials the languages of their subject peoples, including the school known as Langues O’, in France, founded in 1795, and the School of Oriental and African Studies in Britain, founded in 1914. U.S. military and intelligence agencies have never given much credence to the notion that English suffices. Several generations of American graduate students pursued language immersion studies abroad thanks to the cold-war Foreign Language Areas Studies fellowships. When the U.S. intelligence establishment discovered itself to be woefully understaffed with Arabic-, Urdu-, Pashto-, and Dari-speakers after September 11, 2001, it poured enormous resources into language training. The annual budget of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center alone is today over $300 million.

The masters of the universe who gather each year at Davos may converse in English today, but nothing guarantees that they will still do so several decades from now. Like Summers, ancient Romans, early modern Spaniards, the eighteenth-century French, and nineteenth-century Britons, too, imagined that the sun would shine forever upon their linguistic empires. This is both to mistake the factors that transform particular languages into widely used media for communication and to neglect the rapidity with which particular linguistic dispositions can change. The rise and fall of major international tongues is always a complex and unpredictable process. Powerful states are often responsible for the dissemination of particular idioms. Latin would never have spread had Rome not carved out a Mediterranean empire. But many widely spoken media for communication came into use largely independent of state frameworks. Arabic was the language of pilots across the Indian Ocean in the medieval and early modern periods, well beyond the reach of Arabic-speaking states. Thanks first to Venetian sea traffic, the idiom derived from Venetian dialect and known as Lingua Franca became a widely used medium of communication between speakers of different languages across the eastern Mediterranean from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries (thus offering a generic name for all such vehicular idioms). French slave traders negotiated the purchase of slaves on the Angolan Coast in the eighteenth century in Portuguese, well after the Portuguese had ceased being the dominant commercial presence there. Chinook Jargon, a contact language born of interactions between Amerindian communities in the Pacific Northwest in the nineteenth century, served as the region’s principal trade language well into the twentieth century.

The masters of the universe who gather each year at Davos may converse in English today, but nothing guarantees that they will still do so several decades from now.

The cultural status with which people endow individual languages can also offer powerful incentives for their spread and durability. It was Latin’s immense prestige that continued to attract and bind together religious, administrative, and cultural elites in much of Europe for more than a thousand years after Rome’s fall. Individual languages can enter into wide use with surprising speed. French became generalized as a polite language of elite sociability among European aristocrats in a short period of time in the second half of the seventeenth century. The rise of English to global stature has been even more rapid: it only became an obligatory subject in European schools over the past few decades, for example, and Seaspeak came into being in the 1980s. International languages can decline or disappear just as rapidly. Few today recall that Istanbul’s middle classes spoke French up until the 1950s.

It could even be argued that English’s status as a global lingua franca is particularly fragile, for two reasons. First, outside of Britain’s former settler colonies, the vast majority of its locutors speak it as a second language, a fact that makes future shifts in regional or global lingua francas substantially more likely. Second, in the absence of concerted cultural policies aimed at endowing English with high cultural prestige of the sort previous empires have engaged in (France or Spain for example), English does not enjoy the same kind of social capital that makes some languages potentially so attractive. Istanbul’s middle classes spoke French not because France was the colonial overlord—the city had for centuries been the capital of another imperial space, the plurilingual Ottoman Empire—but because French was a politically neutral and culturally prestigious lingua franca. Students around the world flock to Alliance Française language classes for a range of intangible cultural motives. If, as the ad copy for a Paris-based language school proclaims, the only reason to study America’s language is to master “Wall Street English,” what will stop the next generation of career-minded Parisians from preferring “Beijing Financial Street Mandarin”? This should perhaps give university presidents pause before expelling the study of English literature to the academy’s margins.


Ultimately, it is hard not to imagine Mandarin Chinese taking on increasing weight. China’s rapidly growing economic and military power; the sheer numbers of Mandarin-speakers; Chinese’s huge Internet footprint; and the presence of large numbers of Chinese companies, workers, and diasporas across the world today all suggest that English will have plenty of company on the global linguistic stage. Consider the following facts: Chinese-language Internet penetration grew a flabbergasting 1,478 percent over the last decade, compared to only 301 percent for English; the Chinese government and private sector have invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects across Africa, where more than 750,000 Chinese nationals live today; and China has helped to engineer the retreat of the English language in one of the world’s biggest financial capitals—Hong Kong—since the handover from the United Kingdom in 1997. Other signs of China’s linguistic rise abound—only this past June, the New York Times launched an online Chinese-language edition.

There are thus many reasons to reject prophecies of an anglophone future. Those committed to the intrinsic value of studying the humanities and convinced of their capacity to open minds, cultivate critical thinking, and instill an appreciation for the good and the beautiful will naturally be quick to reject them. But the argument for English only is also, it must be said, a recipe for reproducing ugly Americans. There are practical reasons for the study of foreign languages as well: periods of intense transnational migration and commercial exchange like our own are precisely when linguistic skills take on particular importance. Finally, the argument for a monolingual university betrays a profound misunderstanding of the lessons of historical precedent, the linguistic situation around the world today, and the considerable uncertainties surrounding our linguistic future. Linguistic plurality has always been the historical norm, and universities should prepare their students for this fact. We cannot predict the future, linguistic or otherwise. The rise of China to superpower status is not inevitable—its economy could stall, the Chinese empire could break up, the Communist Party could loose its grip on power. Nor is the decline and fall of the United States ineluctable. But they are possible. The Pax Americana may have spoken (some) English, but nothing guarantees that global capitalism will continue to do so.


Paul Cohen is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto currently working on a book-length study of the invention of French as a national language in early modern France.

Author’s note, Jan. 9, 2013: One reader has helpfully pointed out that the British government’s 2004 education reform made foreign-language study optional for students embarking on their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which British students generally begin at age 14, suggesting that my use of the term “secondary school” might be misleading.  By “secondary school”, I meant what Americans think of as “high school” (grades 9-12, which students complete at roughly the ages of 14-18).