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Swedish TV show probes growth of English

The Local · 20 Jan 2010, 11:28

Published: 20 Jan 2010 11:28 GMT+01:00

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No other language in history has spread so far or been spoken with ease by both diplomats and delivery boys, lords and ladyboys. That’s a fact I can personally vouch for, as travelling around the English-speaking world for the series Family Foster has given me the opportunity to chat with all of them. Wherever I went in Jamaica, India, England, Ireland, South Africa, USA and the Philippines, conversation in English was no problem, apart from with one angry baboon and, of course, anyone living in Newcastle.

Now you may be wondering why the series is called Family Foster. Well apart from the fact that it’s a great name (comes from “forester”, so they say), it’s because I’m joined as host by my teenage daughter Julia. Together we meet other people who share our family name pretty much wherever we go. From an extremely charismatic pastor in Jamaica to one of Hollywood’s youngest movie directors to Africa’s best nature documentary film-makers.

But back to the way English has been spread all over the world as if it was God’s own marmalade... In the series we have chosen to look at six factors that have been decisive throughout history: war, trade, education, the written word, the spoken/filmed word, and modern music.

War was crucial. Languages follow political power. In fact, look through the history of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries and you’ll be hard put to find many years without armed conflict. But the British have always maintained a sense of humour, even when dealing out death and destruction, and some of their wars are delightfully named. How about the “war of Jenkins’ Ear” (against Spain 1739-42) or my personal favourite, the “Pig War” in America in 1859. Happily the only casualty in that one was a single pig. It was Irish.

Trade in goods like spices and tea was also important. India still accounts for more than thirty per cent of the world’s tea production, but another industry is taking the country into the 21st century. In one programme I wander around the city of Chennai, dodging wandering cows and stepping over sleeping or dying dogs while I look up at one of the shiniest, sleekest buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the city’s IT business centres where every employee, whether they work in research, programming or customer services, uses English as their working tongue. One of them told me “Tamil is my local language. It’s my skin. But English is the shirt I put on every day.” Lots of people in India wear that shirt.

War, trade... there have also been fun ways of spreading the language! And here the USA has made a major contribution. Culture! Art! Terrible sequels! Yes, storytelling, on the printed page and in TV and films. Everything from Beowulf, the first written legend in English, all about a vile monster threatening the surrounding castles and farms, to modern classics like Lord of the Rings, all about a vile… well some things haven’t developed all that far. But you get the idea.

A quarter of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature have been English-speaking. The others are always described as “obscure” by English-language media when they win. In our series we visit the home of storytelling – Ireland, where writers like Shaw, Yeats, and Joyce emerged to dominate the literary world from a land that had hardly spoken English a century previously. Have you ever tried reading aloud Joyce’s Ulysses on an Irish clifftop in the middle of a freezing Atlantic hailstorm? Into a TV camera? You tend to miss some of the subtleties, in my experience.

Who knows where English will end up? In the last programme in the series I interview the world’s top expert on this, David Crystal, under a tree in rainy Cambridge. Crystal says there are three alternatives to English as a future world language. Spanish is currently the fastest-growing language in the world, Arabic could develop if Islam becomes more important and Chinese is the language of the new economic superpower. Any could be a world language if the nations involved achieve sufficient power. However, the Chinese aren’t pushing their tongue around the world: in fact they are learning English faster than any country ever has.

Story continues below…

So it looks like we’re stuck with English as, ironically, the lingua franca.

Family Foster starts on SVT2 at 7.30pm on Friday, 22 January.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

13:07 January 20, 2010 by krigeren
Sounds like an interesting show.
13:26 January 20, 2010 by Nemesis
Might be worth watching.

I wonder if they will go into the old Anglo-Saxon and other influences.
13:28 January 20, 2010 by Tennin
Cool, I will be looking forward to catching the show on Friday.
14:45 January 20, 2010 by JethroGreenmantle
Sounds interesting. I'll be tuning in.

As far as the next world language goes, Josh Whedon had a crack at making Chinese co-star with English in the Firefly SF series. The actors spoke English but every so often broke out into Chinese curses. I'm told Chinese speakers found it very funny.
16:30 January 20, 2010 by Nemesis
@ JethroGreenmantle

Firefly was brilliant.
18:48 January 20, 2010 by Mox Mox The Manburner
This Foster guy has been the host on some of the worst TV shows ever on SVT. One of the many reasons not to have a TV-set at all and have to pay the mandotory licens fee.
19:00 January 20, 2010 by theNorthumbrian
Would love to be able to view the programmes here in the UK - and will take the reference to my home town of Newcastle in the, am sure, light minded manner in which it was intended.

Good article and will now be a regular reader of The Local.

Best wishes to all in Sweden
21:37 January 20, 2010 by moaca
The English language is rather easy to learn and most european countries have this as a obligatory language to learn from young age at school. The English have been trying to conquer the world since the crusades, so no wonder they left their mark. Most immigrants crossing over to America were also from the Brittish isles, so that is why they speak the language there. The French went to Canada and other parts of the world, hence that language is also spoken all over.

Brittish domination goes back a long time. The series start at SVT2 on 22 january at 19.30.

I think you might be able to view this online via rapport.se website. There is an a-ö selection to chose from. It should be under the letter F. I will look at it if is uploaded on their website. May not be available on the day of broadcasting, but a day later or so.
16:27 January 21, 2010 by Arcticman
I hope the TV series isn't based on bubble-gum logic and takes a comprehensive look at the origins of the English language, and why, and it is, quite an easy language to learn and acquire a modest if viable working vocabulary. Specifically, I hope the TV-programme examines the pivotal contributions made by the Germanic tribes, Angles and Saxons, and not to exlcude Norse and Scaninavian influences, as well as the rich French input. The English language is a stew.

The many powers that conquered England (or regions), the Romans, Vikings, Normans and Celts, among others, enriched the stew.
20:32 January 21, 2010 by wxman
This is easy. English has been the language of commerce for more than 200 years. Couple that with the English speaking world being victorious in WWII and the subsequent domination of the world economy by the USA for 60 years, and there you have it. Even as the world evolves, and if China becomes the dominant economy in the world, English will still be the international language. Probably forever.
22:15 January 21, 2010 by Euro22
A German diplomat [or similar] once told me in Turkey that 3 votes separated the USA from speaking English rather than German!!

According to him when they wanted to decide which language should become the official language - they took at vote and English won by the votes of just 3 people.

It could be an old legion - but it is worth checking out in more detail.
05:36 January 22, 2010 by swede7814
My great-grandparents came over from Sweden and they did not speak Swedish when they hit American soil. My grandmother told me she would always try to speak Swedish, but would get yelled at because she was, "an American now."

I wish they would have spoke Swedish(I would have learned more at a younger age), because in Minneapolis the Swedish-American population was very abundant and vibrant. There are still plenty of Minnesotans who speak and love Sweden though!!

When I studied in Sweden I was also asked to do interviews and help write some stories for English language books for Swedish high school students! It was a great experience!
12:55 January 22, 2010 by Love-refugee
I read that China will be the biggest speaking English language country in the world by 2018! Certainly, all the Chinese I meet say that they are only learning English outside Mandarin or Cantonese.

Spanish is not that fast growing language is the world. English is the fastest growing language in the world and that will be accelerated by the exponential global growth of the internet.

The reality that everyone in the world will be able to speak English (plus their mother tongue) in the not-so-distant future is a good thing. Communication is King!
13:12 January 22, 2010 by Great Scott

A German diplomat [or similar] once told me in Turkey that 3 votes separated the USA from speaking English rather than German!!

Strange, I was told by a French man that it was 3 votes between English and French, after all it was the French that had their armies in the US not the germans.

However I do think that Europe should have a common language just like over things within Europe. But can anyone see that happening.
13:44 January 22, 2010 by David Kemp
Ironic that the one place where he can't communicate is the place where the local dialect is probably closer to original English than anywhere else. Although Northumbria north of the Tees was never settled by Vikings and we have no Viking place names I can only assume that Old English and Old Norse had much in common as we still share lots of pronunciations. 'Can aa gan oot noo?' would probably be better understood by more Scandinavians than by most other English.
18:22 January 22, 2010 by RussUSA
Yes, it's true that German almost became the official language of the US about 200 years ago. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the Founding Father of America were so enraged with Great Britain that they tried to dump the English language in favor of German. They soon realized that this was irrational and impractical since most people in America at that time were of British descent and spoke fluent English as their mother tongue.
19:20 January 22, 2010 by zeulf
I learned the Story as such'' High percentage of German Speaking immigrants at the time of Revolution, (almost 50% )made it a tie for usage, English won the day. SVT.SE may put it on their site some days later . I never learned about French Armies in the U.S, at the time of Revolution....Volunteers Yes
21:50 January 22, 2010 by wxman
This is true regarding English vs. German as the official US language. It was close to 50/50 speaking each language, primarily because Pennsylvannia was almost exclusively German speaking, with the exception of Philadelphia. New York state was also loaded with Germans. Even to this day, more than half of Caucasian Americans claim German ancestry. In college, our history teacher used to like to play a game called "What if?". We would choose an historical event, and then discuss how things would have been if one thing altered. I wonder how the first half of the 20th Century would have played out had we chosen German in 1776? Would we have stood on the principles of good and evil, or gone with our native tongue speakers?
22:37 January 22, 2010 by Cowbridge
"Wherever I went in Jamaica, India, England, Ireland, South Africa, USA and the Philippines, conversation in English was no problem..."

That could be because each one of those countries has Engllish as an official language. Might be interesting to go to countries without English as an official language and gauge the progress of English as an international lingua franca.
10:25 January 23, 2010 by Weekend_warrior
Yes I heard it as being a very close vote between German and English. As a side note, I do have German ancestry and was born and raised in California, so I guess I'm part of the 50% Caucasian Americans.

I am also under the impression that the United States as a country does not have an official language. The vote between German and English was a vote for the language of Government.

Some loophole like that, which allows some public schools to teach things like Mathematics and Science in Spanish rather then English. Which if you ask me is both a waste of tax payer money and harmful to the individuals learning. Great, you learned math and science...too bad you suck at English and this is America, so go pick the grapes at our California Vineyards and we'll continue to perpetuate the poverty.

This is of course Sweden....why without Swedish your refugee's will fail and continue to feed off Government...And I apologize for the tangent.
21:17 January 24, 2010 by nochquatsch
Myth: that German was ever considered to be the official language of the U.S. To those who eagerly concur that German was once considered (and failed by 1-3 votes) to become the official language of the U.S., have you ever heard of Google?! Google "german as official language of usa" and read all the articles about this subject! Several decades ago I actually went to the Library of Congress to research this topic...and was directed to another building at which I found a clearly labelled stack of handouts (for the general public!) explaining the origin of this myth. In short: This is a myth; this event never happened.
13:37 January 26, 2010 by BrittInSweden
British Empire - The End.
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