Language and soft power

by Terence MacNamee

Today language is a matter of “soft power”. This useful notion was, it appears, invented by an American academic, Joseph Nye. Yet the British seem to understand soft power and the fact that theirs rests to a great extent in the English language, whereas the Americans seem not to. Beginning with “Basic English” in the 1930s, the British have turned teaching and promoting the language into a worldwide industry.

Today, that industry focuses realistically on the practical use of the English language for business and technical communication. Who cares about Shakespeare? the adroit salesmen of ESL reason. The language is a world bestseller independent of the culture that produced it. Indeed, part of the myth that makes English sell is the notion that it has no cultural baggage.

People from the Commonwealth have jumped on the bandwagon launched long ago by the British Council and similar organizations. ESL in Australia and New Zealand, for example, makes a lot of money for those nations, even though they have an eccentric accent only imperfectly understood by the rest of the English-speaking world. Their advantage is, of course, their geographical position, conveniently to the south of the huge Asian market.

The growth of world English in the postwar period coincided with the British losing their colonial empire and the Americans becoming the main superpower. The British can console themselves that they are on their way to acquiring a new empire, a “soft” empire (one might say) based on the English language. Of course, the desirability of English is due not to them, really, but to the power and profile of the USA. Yet Americans have not been nearly as active on the language front. Perhaps they think English will advance by itself; or perhaps they think Hollywood and popular music are doing the job for them without any need for government intervention.

European governments have been active in trying to parlay the soft power represented by their languages, though they pale in comparison with the British. The Alliance Française has done a good job for France over the years. The Italians and the Spaniards have their cultural institutes on the same model.

The Goethe Institute has served Germany well too, but there has been a certain reluctance to put the money into it that it deserves. The Germans feel the need to keep a low profile on the world stage due to their bellicose past. However, in recent years it did not seem like that as the EU grappled with the Euro crisis. The perception was that the powerful German economy was calling all the shots. At the height of the war of words between Berlin and Athens, Greek journalist Alexis Papachelas noted that the Germans now focus on using their “hard power” (economic muscle), whereas they have little notion of “soft power”. All they have to offer Europe, he said, is a business plan – which does not go down well in places like Greece which are attached to their independence. I might add that economic power is indeed “hard power”, but it seems to be just realistic, down-to-earth stuff and neutral as regards ideology. Germans may be wary of soft power, because their history reminds them how close to ideology it can be.

The Chinese, for their part, show every sign of seeing the importance of language for soft power. They are promoting their Confucius Institutes with considerable flair. As to how “soft power” relates to ideology, they will no doubt have their own answers.