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What Generates the Global Desire to Learn and Speak English……?

By Peter Read

As EFL teachers the world over, we are acutely aware that English is the world’s dominant language and is spoken by an estimated 400 million people throughout the world. As societies and countries develop and become wealthier, better educated and more sophisticated, learning English will continue to be an essential part of future 21st Century needs.

The purpose of this article is to examine briefly some of the reasons why a command of English continues to be so necessary.

We need more pilots, don’t we?

Aviation is just one area where a very good command of English is entirely necessary. The media tells us that in the future there will be a serious shortage in the number of commercial airline pilots. This shortage means that it will be difficult to cater for the demand because of the sheer volume of flights. The biggest shortfall will be found in the Asia-Pacific Region, the Middle East and the Peoples Republic of China.

The aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus are both saying that the projected additional number of pilots required worldwide over the next two decades is a figure approaching an unbelievable 800,000. All pilots will have to have a very good command of English to speak with air traffic controllers all over the world and to avoid catastrophic mistakes such as the one which happened in Teneriffe in 1977.

In this air crash over 500 people were killed and later one reason for the crash was given as use of non-standard English phrases by pilots and air traffic control which were ambiguous and misunderstood. One of the recommendations afterwards was that there should be a greater emphasis on English as a common working language in aviation.  

The need will be similarly great in the field of marine navigation; ship’s crews need English to be able to communicate with their land-based counterparts in ports throughout the world, including harbour pilots and the emergency services.

I feel, at this point, I should mention a counter-argument which suggests that aircraft will not need pilots in the future and that computers will make their need redundant; pilotless planes just like driverless cars. An interesting idea but realistically unimaginable, at least in the period that has been identified. The same response is justified in other areas where automation and computerisation are believed to be on the brink of making human involvement redundant. I wonder!

Imagine a modern day cruise ship carrying over 3000 passengers and crew with a diverse range of nationalities where communication is essential. As travel and tourism increase and the love of cruises continues, English will be again be a necessary skill.

This is just one example of why people, whose first language is not English, need to learn not only basic English but also technical and specialised linguistic skills that are unique to their professional needs. There are many others. Examples include virtually every aspect of tourism, financial services, international trade, including insurance and the professions. Law and medicine being of particular note, when one remembers the important roles and contribution that historically both English Law and Medical research have made in the past. The opportunities to share medical and scientific research, to develop discoveries where all those involved understand English are limitless.

Space Travel Needs English

Traveling beyond our planet, English will continue to be a common thread in the realms of space travel. What was once referred to as the ‘Space Race’ is now perceived to be a more equitable sharing of knowledge. The China National Space Administration is an active participant, having recently successfully landed their Rover Space Probe on ‘the other side of the Moon’. There are planned exploratory flights to Mars and of course, the continuing success of the International Space Station will depend on collaboration. Working together using a common language offers the benefit of individual contributions being shared and developed.

While these technological advances will require English as a common language, it is perhaps also worthwhile to repeat the traditional reasons why learning English has been encouraged. Often the language of one country is only spoken by a relatively small number of people as is evidenced when one considers countries such as Norway and Sweden.   In these, and other countries there has been what was perhaps, at first, a recognition of the need to speak English, or otherwise become remote and isolated. However, this has also sadly lead to the decline of some languages which have been swallowed up by English as for example the Cornish language in England, which is virtually extinct.

Old English

It is also noteworthy to re-confirm that the foundations for this dependence on English have been laid and are well established. After all, it is in the ‘Arts’ that the recognition of  English as a beautiful language can be best illustrated. Literature abounds with examples and Shakespeare is but one of them. 

Modern English

Fast forward to the late 20th Century, and we see that the media has embraced the use of English on a global basis. Films, documentaries, magazines and newspapers are mainstream examples where the language chosen to convey what is being shown or reported is English, a knowledge of which dispenses with the need for sub-titles and translations.

Look also at the most obvious and rapidly expanding example. The language of the Internet is English. Most websites either use English as the main language or provide English translations. Both offer vast opportunities for worldwide employment. It is obvious that many, predominantly younger people including the millennial generation, have recognised this and seized the chance to design websites that contain a significant English Language content. There is no reason to suppose that this trend will not continue and every reason to believe it will increase.  Another phenomenon is the fascination and enthusiasm there is for ‘Gaming’, a pastime and a business that is dominated by younger players and inventive entrepreneurs whose medium of communication is English.

Whilst the media has in many ways become a teacher for many, these few examples are intended to demonstrate that there is no reason to suppose that the need for teachers of EFL will decline.  In the foreseeable future, here will still be a need for basic elementary teaching using traditional methods. Many including children and students will be taught during the course of everyday curriculum teaching. What it does mean, however, is that TEFL is now moving through a new phase, one that is not identifiable as being revolutionary but is evolutionary in its character and requiring a commitment that is endlessly changing.  As technology develops so will teaching too. 

There is and will be no rest for the dedicated and enthusiastic TEFL teacher….!

You are a very valued member of the international community and much appreciated and most definitely needed. You could almost call yourself indispensable, at least for the moment.

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