Getting to know Globish

globish
We native speakers are lucky: although it’s not the most-spoken mother tongue in the world, English has become the international lingua franca.

There are various reasons why. For one thing, you can rant and rave all you want to against the kids today and their pop music, but if you don’t want to have to learn another language, you should actually be grateful: because of the predominance of American pop culture (and commercial influence), people around the world have become exposed to – and often interested in or motivated to learn – English.

Another reason for our language’s international popularity is that many people consider it relatively easy to learn. Although it’s not as complicated, as, say Mandarin or Hungarian, that doesn’t mean learning English is an effortless thing, of course. Many of my French friends and students have told me they think English is hard, and when you think about it, things like phrasal verbs, deliberately archaic spellings, and vowel sounds that don’t always have equivalents in other languages do make it tricky, to say the least.

This was something that Frenchman and former Vice President of Marketing for IBM Jean-Paul Nerrière realized. According to this article in Forbes, he was stricken by how people from different linguistic backgrounds were able to communicate amongst themselves in an English that wasn’t perfect, but was perfectly understandable. But he also saw that as soon as a native speaker came onto the scene, these people were usually unable to follow the now fast-paced, slang- and idiomatic expression -filled conversation.

Nerrière decided to make a list of only the essential words you’d need to communicate about basic things in English. In the process, he invented a new language of sorts – or, rather, a form of it: Globish (pronounced “globe-ish”). With a vocabulary of 1500 words and simplified grammar, Globish (a trademarked term not to be confused with the portmanteau word for “global English”) lets speakers express themselves clearly and efficiently.

When you think about it, Nerrière’s a pretty smart guy – not because he came up with the idea of “Globish”, but because he knows how to market it. On the language’s official website, he sells learning guides and other resources. And while these may be helpful, especially for someone who wants to learn quickly and has very little or no knowledge of English, what strikes me is that, as Nerrière himself observed, non-native speakers tend to create their own “Globish”, regardless.

Intriguingly, the Forbes piece points out a paradox: Globish’s limited vocabulary responds not to just one, but two needs. The first is, of course, a simple, clear form of English that can be used for business, travel, and getting basic information. But the other is more subtle: While English has been steadily on the rise, many other languages, like Nerrière’s French, are losing ground. Nerrière sees Globish’s limitations as a way to make people realize the value of their native languages, which let them express themselves far more eloquently and on a much wider range of topics.

Since it’s so limited, is Globish worth learning? I think it depends on why a person wants to learn English in the first place. If it’s to be able to communicate on a basic level, Globish might be the better choice, especially if time is an issue. But of course, if they want to delve into our language and culture(s), nothing beats the real thing.

Interestingly, if a person wants to learn a version of English, these aren’t the only two choices out there. A number of systems similar to Globish exist, including Basic English, with an impressively small 850 words of vocabulary, and a very different philosophy. Is it better or more efficient than Globish? Whatever the answer, these simplified forms of our language show how important being fluent in some version of it has become.

by Alysa Salzberg

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