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Parag Khanna:  Welcome to the Global Roundtable.  This series focuses on the future of economic competition.  I’m Parang Khanna, joined by a very distinguished panel including:  Dambisa Moyo, Daniel Altman and Anand Giridharadas.  Today’s topic is actually the power of language.  We can’t be complacent anymore in the west about controlling the financial levers of the economy, but what about controlling the language of the global economy, which is, of course, English.  What’s the future of that advantage for the west? 

 Anand Giridharadas:  It’s interesting, at one level you have millions of people in India and China and elsewhere scrambling to learn English, so at one level that simply erodes the singular advantage that English-speaking countries have.  But I think something deeper is also going on, which is English is no longer an instrument of soft power in the way that I think a lot of Americans assume it is.  It’s purely an instrument.  It is an instrument for the people who leaern it to get ahead and I think we still have a residual Cold War idea that every time someone learns English, they like us more, they like democracy more, they like our policies.  There’s a whole number of people in the world today that are learning English as a tool for getting their next promotion, but who don’t… who still need to be convinced about our values and ideas. 

Parag Khanna:  But doesn’t that still matter to be better at English? 

Daniel Altman:  I think there’s an economic advantage, but it’s not necessarily in the quality.  Think about education in general.  When babies are born, they’re born with as much education today and they were born with 100 years ago or a thousand years ago.  And yet you need so much more education to get ahead in the global economy today.  Not learning English, not having to spend extra time learning English is an advantage that American babies have.  They’ve got it from the beginning; they don’t have to spend extra time on that.  It may not be a big advantage, but maybe it’s a couple of years that they can study something else, if only we would devote more time to something else. 

Dambisa Moyo:  I think that’s exactly right because they aren’t, unfortunately, there isn’t this crowding out tradeoff.  The fact that Americans are not spending time learning English doesn’t mean they’re not spending time doing math and science.  And if you look at the OECD, the International Organization the OECD’s **** survey, every year, the fact of the matter is that Americans are underperforming in mathematics, in sciences, but also in reading.  So I mean, you have to then ask yourself, well what exactly is going on and I think it’s absolutely essential to also stress that people are learning Chinese and other languages. 

Parag Khanna:  So if English is just a neutral instrument, even Chinese are learning English in record numbers, before, during, and after the Olympic Games, which they played host to.  Could it really be that countries that are not even made of English-speaking such as you know China and other who actually disintermediate the western sort of grip on English in terms of jobs? 

Anand Giridharadas:  I think, to disagree with Dan a bit, if you think about the U.S. or England, the UK.  A certain number of people in those countries speaks a kind of English that is globally competitive and kind of the language of global business, but most Americans and most people in Britain, particularly Britain I would say, don’t speak an English that gets them a job at Citibank tomorrow anyway.  So I think we can over blow the number of people who speak the kind of English we’re talking about as the language of global business even with an English-speaking countries. 

Daniel Altman:  I think if you make that distinction though, you start to bring in other cultural factors.  I mean, there may not be people in India or China which we are viewing as these big threats to American dominance who are learning the right mindset to work at Citibank, so you know, we might as well throw these other factors into the mix as well. 

Anand Giridharadas:  Absolutely. 

Dambisa Moyo:  I mean, I think the main trend that I think is quite interesting is that even across African countries, people are learning Chinese and I think there is something to be said that with governments in Africa, places like Cameroon are actually devoting scarce… relatively scarce resources to learning Chinese over English.  So we have to ask, I think it’s fundamentally grasping at what this trend really means. 

Parag Khanna:  So not only is English not the only global language, but language itself is not the only instrument.  And there are other languages that people need to understand, like math and science, those too are languages that can help you succeed in a global economy, but one thing is for sure, language is going to be very important in terms of determining winners and losers in the future of the global economy.  Thanks very much for your insights and more on that and other relevant topics at BigThink.com.  


More from the Big Idea for Sunday, November 24 2013

Global Language

World history, or better: the writings thereof, is still administered by the West. However, if Asia truly wanted to escape the suzerainty of European words over her thoughts and originality there ... Read More…


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