In this video, David Bellos, Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, explains that English doesn’t have any intrinsic quality that makes it a good lingua franca. For him, the obvious negative consequence of English as a lingua franca of our world is that native English speakers will soon be unique in their monolinguilism, as everyone else in the world will speak at least their mother tongue and English. I must admit that I had not really thought about English speakers in that way.
The trouble with a lingua franca is not linguistic
Languages evolve, change and die in a natural process and will continue to do so regardless of the current lingua francas. But former lingua francas, such as Akkadian, Koine Greek, Latin or even French and Portuguese in the 18th century, used to fill this role at a time when media, if any, were local and travel was slow. Today’s world lives by the second. From the television to Twitter, the penetration of English in our daily lives cannot be compared to that of any language before. English has the potential to be everywhere, part of the lives of a billion people at once. The speed more than the spread itself is an issue, creating a social and economical pressure on communities to be (or become) “modern”. In some countries, speaking English is a marker of prestige and a sign of good education. In others it already is a condition to get any entry level job.
As a consequence, the pressure on local languages, many of which are minority languages that do not benefit from any official recognition, increases. Often, only the elders are left in peace to speak their native tongue, in a world view that considers them and their language as a relic of a past soon dead. According to the Ethnolog’s 2016 edition there are today 7,097 languages in the world. Linguists seem to agree that in the next century, at least 3,000 of these languages will disappear. More pessimistic predictions put 90% of the world languages at risk of extinction in the same period. Either way, this is truly a language hemorrhage. This is the reason why I cannot agree with D. Bellos’s optimism.
What is at risk?
We can talk at length about the loss of identity and history of the communities who abandoned their native language for English, Spanish, Portuguese, French or any other colonial language. Many texts have been written on the wrongfulness of imposing an identity. While I fully agree with this argument, I would rather list a few practical aspects to losing languages, some that may concern me and you although we do not and will never speak all these dying languages:
- Loss of imagination: In her TEDxDubai talk, Gulf-based English teacher Patricia Ryan explains, in a very sharp and funny way, how teaching English “has morphed from being a mutually beneficial practice to become a massive international business”, thus turning English into a barrier instead of a facilitator of communication and progress. She argues that thanks to different languages defining different concepts, we can see the world in different ways and solve problems more easily (or even, solve them at all!).
- Loss of specific knowledge: can we really know which concepts, ideas or objects will become important in the future? As a former academic researcher my own answer is a resounding “No”. We don’t know the future, which is why conservation and research are important. As Patricia Ryan puts it, when a language dies that had a specific vocabulary for, say, medicinal plants and their uses, chances are very high for that knowledge to disappear too. On an overcrowded planet at a constant high risk of world-wide epidemics, I would really prefer to know that no chances are taken with health-care!
- Living better together: local cultures will remain no matter which languages are spoken, habits are passed on in families often unaware of their specificities. Sure, we can drink a Coca-Cola almost everywhere on the globe. But the rules of politeness may change drastically between cultures (did you just use that left hand to catch your bread?). Is it really possible to get to know someone if we don’t accept to glimpse into his/her culture? What are we missing when we only interact in the lingua franca, especially with immigrant communities? Could acknowledgement of cultural differences help diffusing fears and prejudices? Tim Doner’s TEDxTeen viral video shows just that: that speaking another language is much more than being able to talk, it’s about learning about other cultures.
Stopping the language hemorrhage?
Maybe I painted a very strange linguistic landscape. On one hand, lingua francas exist, with English as the master lingua franca, and it’s ok and natural. On the other hand, thousands of languages across the world are in danger of extinction. Can both supranational and local languages co-exist? Of course they can, they have done so for centuries. Only in modern Western societies like mine does this question feel legitimate, but it also shows how accustomed we grew to speaking a dominant language (French and English in my case).
So should we stop learning English, Chinese, Spanish? Focus on Occitan or Parachi or Ngarinyin?
There is no point in fighting a lingua franca. One would die only for another one to rise, so that we can continue doing business and conducting negotiations and everything else it is that we humans do. Multilingualism is the key, a key that other continents already possess and should cherish.
Granted, we don’t all have a chance to learn several minority languages (or even one!). Even so, we can still learn about our local languages. In other words, we can help our languages by being interested in each other. As individuals, we can show respect to non-majority language speakers. English proficiency and intelligence or kindness are not correlated. We need to acknowledge the cultural wealth that speaking in a different way reveals: for once, this is a wealth that only grows when it is shared.
Governments should give their languages an official status; provide interpreters in hospitals, courts and administration; facilitate their learning and use them to fully integrate all citizens in the life of the country. Institutions could, for example, fund digital projects so that these communities can carve their own corner of the web with adequate keyboard layouts, websites, e-learning methods. In many parts of the world these projects exists and thrive: in Australia, Amazonia, Nigeria, Alaska…
Another way to find optimism in this picture is to explore the English world itself: despite the uniformisation arising from the domination of English, people don’t stop being themselves and local cultures have developed a talent in making English their own colourful version. The most obvious example to the Western world would be the American and British English, whose different spelling rules make non-native English speakers’ lives quite difficult sometimes (colourful, colorful?). There is much more to the English world that meet the eye: English, Hinglish, Singlish, Spanglish, Taglish, Manglish! Even one single community that assimilated English into its daily life can use it in different ways, as the poet Jamila Lyiscott vividly demonstrate in this incredible, articulate speech on being trilingual in English:
Speaking English does not make a person any more worthy of respect. Conversely, speaking a minority language should not make another less respected. Only when we can achieve this will the discomfort about lingua francas cease.
N.B.: the “original” lingua franca, that spoken around the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle Ages, was also called “sabir”, from the verb “to know”. Ironically, in modern French the expression “this is sabir” means that something is unintelligible. English would say “it’s all Greek”. Oh well.
Photograph: Junction of Pekin and China Street in Singapore, ca 1970, by NSBReynolds under license CC BY-SA 4.0.