Posts Tagged ‘Lingua Franca

Knowledge is Power. English is Not.

with 73 comments

In English-speaking societies the polite, or the correct, thing to say is that learning more than one language is a good thing. Learning languages is an enriching experience, it opens cultural horizons, facilitates travel and generally separates the good Anglos from the stereotypical Ugly Americans.

Multilingual Anglophones realize the personal benefits of languages such as career opportunities and the satisfaction of traveling without the constant impression that someone is talking behind your back, but the conventional wisdom in the English-speaking world is still very much that even though speaking many languages is nice, the only language you actually need, pretty much any where in the world, is English.

Learning foreign languages is perceived as a good thing in Anglodia in the same way charity, peacekeeping and volunteering are considered good things. A graceful gesture towards the less fortunate. A reasonable accommodation.

There is one fact, however, that hasn’t yet reached consciousness in societies where English is the first language:

In an English-speaking world, uniligual English-speakers are fucked.

Today, the world speaks English. That is a fact. But the world hasn’t stopped speaking other languages. That is also a fact.

You see, English as an international language is like a two way mirror. The whole world can see/read/understand English, but unilingual Anglos are stuck on the other side, unable to look out. They understand what we chose to say in English, but as soon as we switch to our other languages, they are locked out.

They, on the other hand, have nowhere to hide…

This is a serious disadvantage. Take the example of radical Islam. Radical clerics have made some very real inroads in the West, notably in poor urban areas and American jails because they can proselytize in English. On the other hand the CIA, Scotland Yard and the other Western agencies fighting terrorism candidly admit they don’t have enough translators to go through the Internet discussion groups where terrorists plan their attacks, in Arabic, Farsi, or other languages.

Or take scholarship. All the research and science coming out of the world’s universities and corporations is published in English. That means that nearly all the scientists and administrators in the world can access, understand and use that information directly, without any help from anyone.

On the other hand if an Indian scientist makes an important discovery – say, the nuclear energy field – that could be strategically important for India, it is much easier for him to control the circulation of that information by discussing it with his colleagues only in Hindi, or if his findings are really hot, he can write all his papers in the regional dialect of his youth in Arunachal Pradesh.

Sure, translation is possible. It is also costly, time-consuming and totally dependent on other people. And you also have too know there is information you are looking for in the first place.

The near universality of English in universities and science has often been accused of being a vicious circle that unfairly advantages native English-speakers, but the the exact opposite is probably closer to the truth.

In his book English as a Global Language, linguist David Crystal points out that the British are by far the least competent in languages of all Europeans with only 29% of executives able to conduct negotiations in a language other than English. He cites studies that show that one in three British company has reported losing business because of poor language skills.

Business executives in France and Germany have also read those studies and you can bet they have taken note of this advantage they have over the British.

Anglo culture -American, British and the rest- was enriched beyond reason by letting so many cultural influences into it’s own world, usually through the English language. This great advantage, however, is slowly turning into a disadvantage as we, the entire planet, can now access the whole of English Language culture, from Seinfeld to Radiohead to lectures by Noam Chomsky to Alan Greenspan’s autobiography as if it were our own, while monoglot English-speakers can only access what we decide to share with them.

Knowledge is power. Who’s got the power now?

And if you are still not convinced that speaking only English will make you the laughing-stock of the globalized world, just click HERE. Ne cliquez pas sur le lien si vous parlez français, c’est seulement pour rire des Anglais.

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Written by angryfrenchguy

June 8, 2008 at 5:01 pm

I’m just a typical English-speaker

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Chinese English

I’m an average English-speaker, typical of English-speakers worldwide.

I use English everyday. I use it for work, I use it for fun. I use it to look for stuff on the internet, to read books, to watch films and television. I use it to read my ipod’s instruction manual. I use it on the street with German tourists looking for “the underground city”.

I use English all the time, yet, English is not my language. I’ve never been to school in English. I never ever use it when I’m a consumer with money to spend in Montreal. I never use it to communicate with my government. My newspaper is not in English. The music I prefer is not in English. I’ve never used it with my father or my mother.

English-speaking is not what I am, it’s something I do. I’m more a speaker of English than an English-speaker. A user of English, really.

Today, we, the users of English, are much more numerous than native English-speakers. Estimates vary, but native English-speakers number between 329 million and 500 million. There are at least three times as many of us who use English as a second (or third, or fourth) language.

Native speakers haven’t realized this yet, but we are no longer speaking their English, they are speaking ours.

Awed by the fantastic success of English as the global Lingua Franca of business, diplomacy and scholarship, many did not notice that English was simultaneously losing ground in absolute numbers. While a generation ago English was the second most widely spoken first language after Chinese, it is now tied with Spanish and Hindi-Urdu. Arabic, the fastest growing language in the world today, is catching up fast.

This does not mean that English will eventually lose it’s Lingua Franca status. It means that it is us, the users of English, speakers of English AND other languages who will make that call.

Globalization is not colonization. It is no longer the benevolent British and Americans who are teaching us the white man’s language, but ourselves, teaching ourselves. China made English mandatory in primary schools in 2001. China produces 20 million English-speakers a year. That’s the equivalent of one Australia or one English-Canada every year!

China invested massively in English but it is not converting to English. Chinese schoolchildren are still learning Mandarin. Mandarin AND English. The Chinese government is also encouraging foreigners to learn Mandarin trough the Confucius Institutes, the Chinese version of the British Council or the Alliance Française.

Global English is bigger than any one country or organization, but if any political entity in the world can influence significantly the future of the language today it is not London, Washington or the UN. It is Beijing.

And the new Chinese users of English, like the rest of us, don’t have any strong emotional attachment to the language or the Anglo-Saxon culture.

It’s been a while since Rupert Murdoch was the only man able to uses his satellites to carpet bomb the planet with Baywatch reruns and Rambo movies. Today Al-Jazeera has a 24 hour English language news network broadcasting out of Qatar. So do China, Russia, Iran, France, Germany, Singapore and Egypt. Christ, even Kim-Jong Il has an English-language website. Now, with the exception of Singapore, there is no significant trend toward the adoption of English as a first language in any of these countries. English is just the language these countries use to speak to the rest of the world

We record pop albums in English, make action movies in English and video games in English. What we do in English is not an American product, though. Actually it’s not even for the Anglo market. Disney makes most of it’s profit outside the USA and so do we.

According to the World Tourism Organization three quarters of international travel is now between non-English-speaking countries. We users of English use the language to get on planes, find hotel rooms and negotiate cab fares, but also to learn about our hosts culture and to express our own. Cultures that are not American, British or Anglo-Saxon

Today the world speaks English. But it is not English-speaking. The vast majority of English-speakers speak more than one language. It’s just one part of our communication toolbox. We use English for instantaneous real-time communication with people around the world who’s language we don’t speak.

Some say it’s a whole new language. A lightweight high performance version of English stripped of its unnecessary cultural baggage. A grammatical frame on which engineers, financiers and bobble head collectors hang the vocabulary of their trade. Not a simplistic or partial English. Just the English we need. Some of us will use English all our lives and yet will never read Norman Mailer or get The Office. Less than perfect fluency is not a handicap.

In fact the truly disadvantaged in this new global code-switching world are those insular unilingual native English-speakers with their hard to understand olde Englishe of yore…

Written by angryfrenchguy

June 1, 2008 at 9:47 pm