Inferiority complex: why the special status of English does not guarantee prosperity

Concerns about the restriction of the Ukrainian language

The Ukrainian language had barely recovered from centuries of bans, persecution, and suppression when a new threat loomed over it. On Constitution Day, on June 28, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy submitted an urgent draft law to the Verkhovna Rada titled On the Use of the English Language in Ukraine. Formally, this law is intended to improve the learning of the English language. However, it contains a number of provisions that significantly restrict the functioning of the Ukrainian language. Furthermore, it creates discriminatory advantages in the recruitment for civil service positions, linking the right to hold certain positions with knowledge of English, and kills the Ukrainian dubbing industry.

The officially declared goal of the law is commendable: to promote the use of the English language as one of the languages of international communication throughout Ukraine in the public spheres of social life. In reality, if the law is adopted in its current form, it will undoubtedly harm the processes of Ukrainization and Derussification of Ukraine. It carries echoes of treating the Ukrainian language as something secondary, unprestigious, and optional. It used to be the Russian language that occupied the top of the language pyramid in Ukraine, and now there are attempts to partially replace it with English.

No one questions the importance and necessity of speaking English. But why do it at the expense of the Ukrainian language, artificially lowering its status and leveling previous conquests? Have Ukrainians managed to overcome the consequences of several hundred years of Russification? Or have the lessons of the past been so poorly learned that the importance of comprehensive support and development of the Ukrainian language is once again being sacrificed to the doctrine of the “language of interethnic communication”?

The first thing that surprises in the proposed law is the high requirements for mandatory proficiency in the English language for individuals aspiring to hold public positions in central and local government authorities, as well as in the police, prosecution service, Armed Forces, tax, and customs authorities. According to the new law, the state authorities and local self-government bodies of Ukraine will be obligated to consider official documents from foreign states written in English. Additionally, official responses to foreigners and stateless persons must, upon their request, be provided in the English language. Emergency services must also accept calls in English if certain individuals do not speak Ukrainian.

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It is hard to imagine that officials, police officers, or prosecutors applying for positions in Poland, France, Italy, or Spain would be required to have mandatory knowledge of the English language. In all European countries, the importance of English is acknowledged. However, when establishing requirements for their public officials and employees of law enforcement and tax systems, the primary emphasis is on knowing the native national language. If a prefect of a department in France were denied a position due to poor knowledge of English, it would cause a major scandal. Mandatory knowledge of the English language may only be required by certain transnational private corporations within the EU. However, it is not demanded by states where English does not have official status.

A significant wave of public outrage was caused by a provision in the law that abolishes Ukrainian dubbing of films in the English language. If this provision remains, the Ukrainian dubbing industry will experience a complete collapse. Some citizens of Ukraine will simply opt to watch movies with Russian voiceovers instead of learning English. The process of Derussification will once again be suspended. Furthermore, cinemas will cease to fulfill their role of “gentle Ukrainization” because watching English-language films with Ukrainian subtitles is a dubious pleasure for the majority of the population.

The limitations of the English language status in economic development

The government is painting a wonderful future that awaits Ukraine after granting English a special status. According to the proponents of the bill, knowledge of the English language will expand Ukrainians’ access to higher-paying jobs and improve direct communication with foreigners. It is also expected to promote the integration of Ukrainian businesses into the global economy and attract foreign investments. All of this is ultimately supposed to increase the competitiveness of Ukrainian businesses along with improving the quality of life for Ukrainians. The prospects of an economic boom envisioned by the authorities are impressive. However, in this world, things work a bit differently. Mere knowledge of the English language and its official or special status are not enough to gain entry into the elite club of highly developed countries. One only needs to look at the political map of the world to understand this simple truth.

On planet Earth, there are many countries where the English language has an official or special status. The reason for this lies in the colonial history and the significant influence of the British Empire on world politics in past centuries. English is an official language or holds a designated status in 54 countries across the globe. Some of these countries include Belize, Botswana, Cameroon (official alongside French), Eswatini, Fiji, Ghana, India, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Federated States of Micronesia, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Rwanda, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Sudan, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, The Gambia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and several others. For example, approximately 265 million people in India, over 100 million in Pakistan, and around 60 million in Nigeria speak English.

There are also 15 countries in the world where English serves as a de facto working language in government or education, but it is not officially or primarily recognized as an official language. The list of these countries is quite diverse and includes Bangladesh, Bahrain, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Israel, Jordan, UAE, Malaysia, Maldives, Kuwait, and Sri Lanka, among others.

If we were to follow the logic of Ukraine’s government’s actions, the special status of the English language should have long ensured accelerated economic development, an influx of investments, and significant improvement in the well-being of the population for all these countries. After all, English has held official status in these countries for decades. However, the actual picture is mostly contrary to this. The use of the English language has not automatically made these countries and societies successful, wealthy, and prosperous.

The majority of countries where the legislative status of the English language is officially recognized (excluding European and American countries) do not belong to the list of prosperous and attractive destinations for investors. Many of them rank at the bottom in terms of economic development and suffer from rampant corruption, inefficiency of state institutions, high crime rates, and extreme poverty. It is disheartening to acknowledge that the English language does not guarantee entry into the “golden billion” or overall prosperity. It is merely a tool that can be utilized, but it is by no means a panacea or a magical solution. One can speak English in Nigeria, Pakistan, or Liberia, and it won’t change anything. On the other hand, one can live in a modern, affluent country without any official or special status for the English language.

The peculiarity of the Ukrainian government is that it often tends to avoid making difficult decisions and replaces real work with empty rhetoric. To achieve an economic miracle in the country, it is necessary to follow the example of “Asian tigers” or other successful nations. Implementing the best global anti-corruption practices rather than searching for a special path that leads to a dead end is crucial. Knowledge of English can contribute to Ukraine’s success, but only when combined with a nationally-centric policy, a responsible political elite, and effective reforms.

Originally posted by Petro Herasymenko on Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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