A correspondent from the Czech Republic asks a powerful question: 'How would you encourage English language learners at secondary and postsecondary schools; what do they have to be careful about and what joys can they expect when dealing with a language of some 2 billion speakers worldwide?'
I would say to them...
In a way, the question answers itself. English enables you to communicate with a third of the world's population, and that has to be a plus on the agenda of anyone with an international outlook. That third, moreover, is hugely diverse. English is present, as a first, second, or foreign language, in every country in the world. So, in using it as a tool, you have an unparallelled opportunity to explore the individuality of nations and peoples.
The metaphor of the tool is important. English is not a prism, through which you see others. It is a tool which enables you to have a close encounter with others. Culture is not wholly dependent on language, but it does need language to explain its uniqueness - an experience all travellers have had, as they watch, say, a local folkdance and wonder what it is all about.
However, the metaphor of the tool only goes so far, because you can change the character of the tool to suit your purposes. If you have adopted English as one of your languages, then you are able to adapt it - to take personal ownership of it. One of the great joys of making headway in a new language is that you can use it to talk about what you want to talk about - and if that means inventing new words, to express your local experience, then do not hesitate to invent them. Just translating the culture of your school and town into English - such as the names of localities and personalities - will immediately add dozens of new expressions. Don't restrict yourself to the words that are already in the dictionaries. English is yours now. The words and expressions you and your fellows invent today might be in the dictionaries of tomorrow, if they catch on.
You're doing nothing that hasn't already been done thousands of times before. New words were added to English within days of the first settlers arriving in America from Britain, and the same pattern has been observed in all countries where a community of users has evolved. What you find yourselves doing you will see being done elsewhere. So - to adopt the motto of the scouting movement - be prepared. Be prepared for linguistic diversity, change, playfulness, and creativity wherever you listen and look - on radio and television, in the press, literature, film, pop music, the internet... Develop a sense of the kind of English that is appropriate to particular circumstances - American, British, Australian..., informal, formal, literary..., scientific, religious, journalistic..., emails, chatrooms, blogs.... And make it your major aim to be so in control of your own English that you can vary it to suit the circumstances in which you find yourself. Your goal is not to learn English, but Englishes. The same principle applies to any language, of course, but it is particularly important in the case of English because of its global reach.
And use English in another way - as a means of appreciating the uniqueness and richness of your own language(s). The critic George Steiner once said, 'Is it not the duty of the critic to avail himself, in some imperfect measure at least, of another language - if only to experience the defining contours of his own?' I think that is exactly right. Each new language-learning experience tells us something about our own linguistic identity.
You ask if there is anything to be careful about. There is one big thing: to remember that a language spoken by 2 people is just as wonderful a creation as a language spoken by 2 billion. Never let your love-affair with English make you dismissive of your own language, lessen your concern for minority and endangered languages, or forget the extraordinary richness of the human linguistic tool-cupboard.