Learning a new language? Try Globish, author says

NEW YORK (Reuters) - From Barack Obama’s simple “Yes We Can” presidential campaign slogan to countless Chinese people sending text messages using English letters, “Globish” is fast becoming the dominant language of this century.

So says British author Robert McCrum in his new book “Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language,” which expounds on the mishmash of English and other tongues that connects people from Beijing to New York.

McCrum takes the term Globish from Jean-Paul Nerriere, who coined the word in 1995 and has written books on the blunt new form of English that uses about 1,500 words, employs short sentences with simple syntax devoid of idioms and uses lots of gesticulations to make up for the lack of nuanced language.

“In the 19th century you had British English, which was international, in the 20th century, American English became the lingua franca,” McCrum told Reuters in an interview. “Now there is a third phase in the 21st century -- the Globish century.”

In Globish you say “strange,” not eerie, and avoid all jokes, humor and colorful expressions likely to be misunderstood. It is a constantly evolving patois that develops from practical use and includes words and sounds from other languages.

McCrum says business people looking for opportunities in places like China and India should learn Globish because even native English speakers will be at a disadvantage without it.

People who seek an understanding of Globish need look no further than President Barack Obama, how he was raised and how the language he uses transcends borders, McCrum said.

“He is a classic case; raised (by a mother from) Kansas, lives in Hawaii and Indonesia and of Kenyan stock. And when he speaks ... it requires very little adaptation to make it universally intelligible,” he said. “His slogan ‘Yes We Can’ works anywhere in the world.”


McCrum notes Japanese language schools use Obama’s speeches to teach English. Other examples of Globish, a sort of English as a foreign language on a grand scale, include the call and response teaching of “Crazy English” in China, and the adoption of English slogans by media-savvy protesters everywhere.

McCrum said he started the book after London protests at the Danish Embassy in 2005 during uproar over a newspaper’s cartoon of Mohammad, when he saw one Arab protester holding a placard saying “Freedom of Expression, Go to Hell!!”

“This is surreal. Here are people using our Anglo-American liberal tradition to attack the thing which is legitimating their protest. I thought this is the point where the English language and Globish has gone mad,” he said.

The use of English placards to make local issues global through exposure on international networks such as BBC and CNN has marked recent political protests in Iran and protests in Greece over the economic crisis there.

McCrum says he thinks English became the basis for the world’s communication partly because it has long been a mashup language, taking something from each invasion and occupation -- some Latin from the Romans, a bit of French and German influences and a touch of Swedish.

“English has always been a mash, it was a mashup in the 10th century and it was a mashup in Shakespeare’s time and it is a mashup today,” he said.

“There is something intrinsic to English which is contagious, adaptable and Populist. It is viral.”

Other languages that might have become globally dominant are different. For example, he said, “Mandarin Chinese is very pure, it is very refined and it is not hospitable.”

English was further boosted by the advent of Netscape’s web browser in 1995, which brought a flood of information to anyone with a smattering of English.

And that trend has accelerated with the flood of mobile devices.

“The educated Chinese middle class are acquiring Blackberries like there is no tomorrow,” McCrum said. “If you are Chinese and you are having to master the (English language) keyboard to send texts, you are being herded into Globish.”

McCrum, an author and journalist for Britain’s The Observer newspaper, is no stranger to mulling the past and future of the English language. He co-wrote the BBC and PBS television series from 1986, “The Story of English.”

That cast English as a language at its peak, set for a decline in power and influence.

McCrum admits that one lesson he learned from that was that people who make linguistic predictions generally “end up looking very stupid.”

“I am reluctant to make a prediction, but all the evidence suggests ... a century of steady linguistic evolution toward more use of Globish,” he said.

Editing by Xavier Briand