English Guilt

English is everywhere — the lingua franca (should be lingua anglica) of today’s world! Its universal usage minimizes transaction costs in an increasingly integrated world — and that integration has increased interest in learning the lingua anglica.

I feel guilty about this, and all American economists should: It’s easier for us to write our scholarly papers than it is for other economists; it’s easier for us to function internationally.

I try to work on this, by speaking German with German economists whose English I know is not as good as my German.

No luck — they all want to practice their English with me. I suppose I should be charitable and help them with their English instead of bucking the tide, but I feel guilty about the whole thing. I suppose there’s nothing to be done; and the future will bring still more dominance of English, until it goes the way of Latin, its predecessor.


I studied abroad in Vienna and found that I would speak German to the Austrians and they would speak English back! We were all practicing on each other; which made for very hilarious nights.

Mike B

Don't feel guilty, English has earned its place in the world more through its amazing flexibility than by any act of conquest. In the free marketplace of language English is less bound by rules than most others. It also freely borrows words and ideas from other languages and is able to use them in a seamless manner. In other words English has been largely de-regulated and is also free to innovate. Its the perfect language for an economist to speak.

Compare with French, that in its homeland is kept pure by government language police, or Japan, that inefficiently uses different words when counting different types of things or German, where word order in sentences is critical for understanding.


I completely agree with this post... As a college student, I visited Germany for my German class to practice the language and experience the culture... THe first day I was there, I was in the pedestrian mall and asked where is the bathroom in German, and the shop keeper proceeded to say "Upstairs and down the hall." All in English! Suffice it to say that I gave Germans a chance to practice their English instead of me practicing my German.


Back when I started using the Internet in earnest, in the early 90s, I got the idea of learning languages from native speakers around the world. I ran into a similar problem, though, which is that the people I contacted inevitably wanted to learn English from me, rather than the other way around.

Even so, it worked to a degree, and I did learn a thing or two -- and I hope my correspondents learned from me.

FWIW there are now more formal language-learning exchanges on the Internet. I've not availed myself of them, but I know they exist. Conversation Exchange is one; there are others. I cannot vouch for them, but they are an option, especially for those not lucky enough to be able to work for a while in a foreign (to them!) country.


I don't feel guilty about being a native English speaker. My people's native language (Irish) is on it's death bed. The English accent I have (Lawn Guyland) is dying too.

I got my culture robbed, and I'd trade the English advantage any day for a chance to be in touch with my cultural history like those Germans are.


I live in Japan and speak Japanese. Here the English skill level is so poor and the demand is so high that native English speakers, not trained in education whatsoever, can make a decent living teaching English. I've never taught English full time, however, I've found people rather demanding of time practicing English with me. Paying for actual English instruction costs a small fortune, and everyone is out to get a free lesson at any cost. However, the Japanese people are often timid, and I have to hear through back channels that my coworkers think I hate them because I won't speak English to them. Of course, they never expressed any desire or interest in speaking English to me so I just go on speaking Japanese to them. After years working at a Japanese company, I found that no one really appreciated my efforts to do things the Japanese way and only criticized my relatively minor failures to do so. I thought I was being more "international" by acculturating myself to the local surroundings, but in the end, perhaps I was acting more out of liberal guilt and less out of what is really best for the people around me. I work at an American company now, although still in Japan.

I think that until the rest of the world demands flexibility from Americans and other native English speakers, you're better off not being flexible. Don't get me wrong, I think other people SHOULD be demanding it. But until they do, you're just going to piss them off.



Oh yea, and I somehow feel lucky - funny thing - that my country, Nigeria, was colonised by Britain, which means that we have the English language as the official language, and which means that I have received instructions most of my academic life in English. I work in an anthropology institute in Germany, and you can imagine that it is even more of a problem for an anthropologist to get their idea across clearly in a foreign language.

I guess the best way is to go on helping them verbessern their English. You probably should let the knowledge that you have learnt German, and that you have a measure of competence in it help with your guilt.


"I feel guilty about this, and all American economists should: It's easier for us to write our scholarly papers than it is for other economists; it's easier for us to function internationally."

Really? Anytime you have means that someone else doesn't you should feel guilty? I don't think that's what you're saying, but what are you saying? If you're saying it took you less effort to learn English than the German economists, then what you should really feel guilty about is making their efforts even greater by not speaking English to them.



karim kanji

why do u feel guilty? you speak english. u didn't invent it.


The deregulation of English has lead to it being more flexible but it's also lead to it in some ways becoming more difficult to master.

Have you ever tried to teach phonetics to someone who is not a native speaker, it's a disaster. English spelling seems to be mostly memorization, heck I"m a native speaker and I'm a terrible speller, to me that signifies a problem.

Arabic is an interesting study on the adaptability of a language, due to the fact that Modern Standard Arabic does not indicate short vowels in writing then a reliance on the consonant roots is necessary.

Thus the formal Arabic language body is always fighting a a huge influx of mainly English words these days, trying to find a good fit for them in a consonantal root system. Generally it takes too long that most people just end up using the English word.


I don't this English is going to go the way of Latin or for that matter go anywhere at all. The rise of Western (American) culture i.e. increasing generic nature of our social interactions, standardization of norms are all contributing to rise of English as the primary language. As long as we do not identify and respect the diversity of cultures around the world and the negative consequences of spread of American cultural influence we will continue to progress towards a bland future. Maybe after a while when all the world cultures are assimilated into this bland future, people might get fed up with it and start to bring back their local flavors. Till then just be thankful that we have the first mover advantage in this new era.


When I'm learning another language, I find it's easier to speak than it is to understand natives speaking.

Thus, I've often had conversations with another person -- who wants to practice their English as much as I want to practice their native language -- in which I will speak to them in their language and they will speak back in English.

This way, we both get the practice, and it slows both of us down in our speaking a bit so we can be sure we understand each other.

social historian

It is true that common language makes for community. But get this, if hue-man is Chinese in origin, then it should be possible to translate from one language into another so that all are in a position to understand. So let's think positive.


"English is everywhere - the lingua franca (should be lingua anglica) of today's world! Its universal usage minimizes transaction costs in an increasingly integrated world..."

Then why does our (US) government spend money creating information in other languages? Why not spend all of that money on ESL classes?

And why aren't the people allowed to vote English as the official government language?


I've had a few interesting, and somewhat drunken, evenings in Germany where my fluent German-speaking English friend speaks German to his friends and colleagues, and they speak English back. Excpet that randomly they would each speak their native tongue too. My grasp of German is pretty poor - I can understand about 20-50% of an average conversation, but seem to be completely incapable of formulating even the most simple sentence.

Somewhat similar to my grasp of French :-/

I'm British, but I now live in America. Now I find that I need to get a better understanding of Spanish, as over 60% of Americans speak Spanish as a 1st or 2nd language.

With statisticians predicting an increase in the number of Spanish-speakers in North America over the next few decades, we could find a cultural shift by the end of the century that starts to push English aside as the 'first' language of the world.

And let's not forget that far more people speak Mandarin in the world than speak English. Or so 'they' tell us :-)



You only feel guitly due to a sense of entitlement. If you were a British National, you would not feel this way, though they are the reason that the inital expansion of english language, during the time of the British empire, all the providences were required to speak english in all state matters(just as the Dutch & French did). Then after World War II, and the US's rise as the world economic powerhouse, all countries that wanted to be able to do trade, learned english, then as part of a homligation of air traffic control, all International Airports were required to speak english, since it was the most known language.


Rejoice that English is the world's langauage. I read that more people in China speak English than in the United States.

This is a good thing!

It breaks one of the toughest barriers to communication...a lack of which leads to many more misunderstandings.

I am DELIGHTED to be part of the winning team! It means I don't have to learn another language. And for those who have to learn English, well, it comes with a benefit--they will be able to better operate and prosper in the world in which we find ourselves.

No, English will not go the way of Latin. Latin was far too rigid, and did not "conquer" all the lands into which the Roman Empire spread. Instead, it became more and more the language of the intelligensia more than the language of the people.

French used to be the language of diplomacy. But that, too, belongs to the intelligensia, and so was eventually dethroned by the language that was spoken by the people at large.

Very simply, English is not only the language of intellectuals, it is the language of carpenters, butchers, farmers, and the such like. And so it will endure, every spreading, every conquering, until the whole earth can speak English.

Yes, I mourn the loss of native langauages, but there is an evolutionary imperative going on in our cultures as well as our genetics, I'm sure. Languages that cannot communicate as effectively and nimbly are simply not going to win in the marketplace of language. And while we respect and honor these native langauges, and I trust seek to preserve them, they are incapable of becoming the first truly global language.

If the foreigners aren't complaining, why should we???



The great irony is that only Americans feel guilty about this.

Ask a native UK citizen about the British Empire and english as the lingua franca, and an American is likely to get a surprise.

Jonathan Katz

Latin didn't disappear: it fragmented into a whole family of romance languages. Only the classical form turned into a dead or zombie tool of scholarship rather than of everyday life.

English (at least written English) won't do that because communcation is so much easier and more frequent than 1500 years ago, knitting together any beginnings of regional dialect. Spoken English is another matter---many dialects are mutually incomprensible (try Cockney), though that may fade as world-wide voice communication increases.