Why you should care

Because the routes to power, no matter how unexpected, matter.

On the Nepali side of the border, the roads are full of potholes, the men begging me to marry them for a visa to go to America, the electricity flickering three times a day. On the Indian side, the roads the drivers complain about are, comparatively, smooth. The men at the checkpoint don’t blink an eye at my blue USA passport. Everyone speaks to me in English.

English is the lingua franca. And from India to Nigeria to Tanzania to Singapore, it empowers people from the emerging world to access a globalized economy. It’s the language people just across the border from India, in Nepal, lack. It’s the language that Kenya has but Ethiopia lacks. And it’s the language that was, amid the damage done through centuries of colonialism, the darkly ironic gift provided to the territories once rapaciously dominated by the British Empire, where, at its peak, the sun never set.

The same countries that once colonized the world still run it, mostly.

Which is why we are making the strange sounding argument that colonialism, for all the bad rep it gets in history classes and in literature, had a silver lining that often goes unnoticed. For the billions of people in the so-called Commonwealth, English has become “a vehicle of power,” says Vaidehi Ramanathan, the department chair in linguistics at the University of California, Davis. “The very instrument that once colonized them is the instrument that is leading them to greater freedom and opportunity.”

Indeed, according to Ramanathan, one of those opportunities has been education, first and foremost — speaking English early and often prepares young people for more jobs later; then there’s the advantage of being able to take on outsourced jobs from abroad (namaste, call centers!). Plus, multinational corporations would sometimes rather make footprints in those markets where their execs already speak the language — take Twitter, for instance, which, like many companies, is more willing to get down to biz in India than China, because ads can run in English. Then there’s the advantage of high-skilled migration — should someone wish to head to the U.S. or U.K. for opportunity, well, their tongue is ready to go.

Of course, before we start suggesting that the U.S. start a series of invasions, let’s be clear: Colonialism meant pillage, rape and, even at its best, a destruction of dignity. Some colonizers were especially sadistic — we’re looking at you, France — not so much governing their subjects as enslaving them, and stripping their territories of wealth and resources. What’s more, the more English spreads, the more it steamrolls local languages, as students cease studying regional literature and business gets conducted in English. Besides, the teaching of English sometimes has little relevance to non-Americans, says Suresh Canagarajah, a Penn State professor who directs the university’s migration studies project.

Yet, sadly enough, the same countries that once colonized the world still run it, mostly. And is it better to be able to participate in that world or to be sidelined? For now, at least, we’ll take English, with two sugars.

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