Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is English a Killer Language?

Every time I visit Holland, the country where I grew up, it takes me a few days to adjust to speaking, hearing and reading in a language that is no longer natural for me. It feels like I have stepped into a pair of shoes that don't quite fit me any more. Lucky for me, it just takes a gentle nudge and most people I meet will switch to English, sparing me the effort to adjust to them. Let them do the work, my reasoning goes. After all, who doesn't speak English in our civilized world, right?

This must sound like nails scraping down a blackboard to you, and of course I don't mean a word of it, but it is true that English has become the lingua franca, the dominant 'inter' language of the world. You meet a nice French gentleman, but you don't speak Francais? Never fear, English is here. Russians communicate with Spaniards, Germans sprechen with Italians, all thanks to English.

There are at least a billion people in the world who speak and use English that way, and they far outnumber native speakers, who number around 400 million. So why is it that English has become so widely used? Is it simpler to learn than Italian? Easier to pronounce than Icelandic? Was English meant to become the global superstar because of some inherent quality of the language itself? Anybody in their right mind would agree that English is easier to learn than Nahuatl or Urdu. This is a typical line of reasoning for someone who already knows English.

But English has emerged as the dominant inter-cultural language as a result of history, not because it's easier to learn. Look at Latin, a language so difficult that nobody really spoke it, but it was the lingua franca for almost a thousand years, used in theology and science. Vulgar Latin was the spoken version, a kind of pidgin Latin.

As the Anglo-Saxon influence grew throughout the world, so did the use of its language and many native languages have had to make way for this expansion. 200 languages have died since I was born, and of the approximately 6000 languages that exist today, only 600 will remain by the end of the 21st century.

A language can cease to exist for several reasons: it can be murdered (when a language is forbidden to be spoken), it can commit suicide (when a language voluntarily is given up), or it can die of old age, like Latin and ancient Greek. It can also morph into a new language, as in the case of Old English into Middle English and Modern English.

When English is trying to push out other major languages, like French or German, there is a struggle, sometimes creating a sense of inferiority and resentment on the part of the weaker language, and there is an attempt at artificially keeping the onslaught of English at bay. French has its 'Academie Francaise', Spanish has the Real Academia Española and German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no Academy for English, probably because English doesn't feel threatened.

It is ironic that, although the use of English has expanded, the relatively small number of people who speak English as their native language soon will be the only monolingual group in the world. Since there is no need or much opportunity to learn another language, native English speakers will lack the double dimension that speaking another language gives you. That is why so many foreign born parents living in this country insist that their children be raised bilingually, even though there is no practical reason to do so.

Some believe that the loss of a language means the loss of ideas, of points of view and of culture in general. In this TED talk, Don’t Insist on English, Patricia Ryan argues that intelligence is now being equated with the knowledge of English. Academia and research is dominated by it and this creates a barrier for many who don’t know the language. What if Einstein had been forced to express his ideas in English when they popped in his head and not in German? He didn't speak English until much later in life.

There is a need for a global language, but it shouldn’t go at the cost of losing all the valuable ideas that are out there in people’s heads who don’t speak English. So, is the loss of all these languages bad for the planet, just like the loss of animal and plant species?

Since a human baby can learn any language it wants to, why don’t we all speak one language? Author David Bellos, in his book Is that a Fish in your Ear? says that ‘Linguistic diversity is in the nature of language itself because we use language to define who we are, as groups, as nations, as families.’

In order words, we don’t want to speak the same language because human speech is a form of self-identification. This counts on a personal level too: we don’t want to speak like our parents; we want to speak like our peers. When I first learnt how to speak Dutch as a child, I wanted to sound like my best friend Henriette; it wasn’t enough to just sound Dutch.

But languages don’t just die, they are also born. As English continues to spread, it spawns different dialects called 'Englishes'. Bob Marley's English sounds different from Singapore English. Here is a hilarious example of ‘Singlish’

The other question to ask: is English the language of power and authority or is it the language of ordinary people? Although English is used to communicate cross-culturally, you don't hear a sheepherder in Afghanistan speak it. Linguist Robert Phillipson calls it 'Linguistic Imperialism', a way to impose your will on another culture.
So, does English kill or make peace? The more people understand each other, communicate with each other, the less chance there is for misunderstandings, which are usually the basis of conflict. On the other hand, whether Jihadists communicate in English or Farsi, it doesn't change their terrorist aims.

Will English as an ‘inter’ language be replaced by machine translation? Soon, we’ll be able to push a button on our ipad when we arrive at a hotel in Paris and automatically be able to translate “Good evening, I have a reservation” to ‘Bonsoir, j’ai une réservation’. But try to use Google to translate the Dutch expressions:’Ben je met het verkeerde been uit bed gestapt?’ (did you wake up in a bad mood?), or‘Nu komt de aap uit de mouw’ (similar to the cat’s out of the bag) and you get ‘did you get out of bed on the wrong side? and ‘now the monkeys come sleeve’. We have a long way to go when it comes to machine translation.

Ultimately, it is not the loss of languages that we should worry about, but the loss of the underlying diversity of culture and ideas. I just returned from Hawaii, where there is a strong movement to revive the Hawaiian language, which is a good thing if it helps the Hawaiians’ self-identification. But will it bring back their way of life? The way they used to live and think before Captain Cooke discovered the islands?

Language is a complex thing. It is as complex as the people who use it, and it has multiple purposes. My Dutch friends are not less Dutch, just because they speak in English. They do this for my benefit, and it comes in handy when they have to conduct business, but amongst themselves they are as Dutch as they have always been. The Germans will always be Germans and the French… well, need you ask? It’s like trying to ask a cat to be a dog. leave comment here