“It is everywhere. Some 380m people speak it as their first language and perhaps two-thirds as many again as their second. A billion are learning it, about a third of the world’s population are in some sense exposed to it and by 2050, it is predicted, half the world will be more or less proficient in it. You’ll see it on posters in Côte d’Ivoire, you’ll hear it in pop songs in Tokyo, and you’ll read it in official documents in Phnom Penh. It is now the global language.”
Whether a native speaker or someone picking it up as a second or third language, we are all familiar to some extent with the modern educational system’s emphasis on English as the world’s most important language: Learn English. It’s the global language and you’ll never get anywhere without it. And yet Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language with over 955 million native speakers, or about 14.4% of the world’s population. Following that is Spanish with around 405 million speakers. Despite having less speakers, English is spoken in a more diverse range of countries. 115 countries use English compared to 35 in French, 20 Spanish and just 5 for Mandarin. No other language in history has ever been spoken as widely as English.
Why is this? Well, colonialism certainly played a role in spreading English. The foundation for the current use of English as part of a globalizing drive in our world is in many ways built on the foundation of a chorus of ‘yes suhs’ and ‘okay sahibs’. As a result, today English is an unquestioned fact in much of the world. But should it be? Today, ideas about globalization, integration and cross cultural understanding fuel the drive to learn and speak English. Do the demands of our globalizing world truly require a common language through which to universally communicate? I’m not so convinced. I think that while having a globally recognized language has its positive sides, there are also many negatives that we idealistically ignore. The world sees English as a tool for global economic success, but it also works as a force for creating new inequalities within societies. English is spoken widely, though often only by the societal elite.
The Guarantor of Economic Success or the Creator of new Inequalities?
Two of the most popular arguments for encouraging the global usage of English today are functional arguments and ideological arguments. Functional arguments point out the economic utility of learning English. Studies show that knowledge of the language can increase an individual’s earning power by 25% and researchers found a link between even a moderate competency and higher levels of investment from countries such as the US and UK. Ideological arguments on the other hand, point out how English is often linked to contemporary ideas about modernity. Most likely thanks to American pop culture, many advertising companies capitalize on linguistic imagery, using English when they want to communicate globalism, modernism, and progressivism. Want an example? Just think about how many times you’ve seen t-shirts in China with random, nonsensical English phrases on them. English is more than a language, it’s a lifestyle.
While it is clear that English serves as a force for people to improve both their economic and social status in society, we have to ask ourselves, who is left behind? The success or failure of a language has everything to do with the power of the people who speak it. In an article entitled “How English Ruined Indian Literature”, Aatish Taseer writes, “English is not a language in India. It is a class. It is the language of the elite.” He recounts the tales of students and workers in India, who feel the pressure to learn English yet feel themselves to be “a prisoner of language.” According to Taseer more and more jobs in India are placing the utmost importance on English proficiency and often at the expense of knowledge of native languages such as Hindi or Urdu. English is creating a widening gap between the urbanites who have the resources to learn and speak it and those who do not. In China too the pressure to learn English is enormous, however, the recent news that English will not be a required portion of the Gaokao should ease these tensions.
A Force for Cultural Communication or Cultural Imperialism?
Academia, too, seems to be flooded with English. French scholars have modified the classic scholarly mandate “publish or perish” to instead quip, “publish in English or perish in French.” Naomi Buck notes, “There is no reason to think that cultural production and intellectual activity in the non-Anglo world is any less lively, creative, or relevant than what’s going on in English, but every reason to believe that it’s reaching a smaller audience.” Researchers have noted that publications written in languages other than English have a considerably lower “impact” (measured by frequency of citation) than English-language works, and command lower compensation than works published in English.
This kind of system, which rewards English-speakers and leaves the rest outside, should undoubtedly be questioned. Languages are not merely tools for communication. They are also the carriers of entire worldviews, the “repositories of culture and identity.” This means that decreasing lingual diversity can lead to the loss of irreplaceable bodies of knowledge and tradition. Although more exact estimates are impossible to come by, between 50 and 90 percent of the world’s languages are expected to become extinct by the end of the century. Such statistics are quite disturbing, since, as stated in The Economist, “whenever a language dies, a bit of the world’s culture, history and diversity dies with it. In past history, languages died out because of forceful encouragement. Take for example the way in which Native Americans were forced into residential schools and taught English at the expense of their own languages. Today, however, they seem to be dying out because of economic opportunism and the soft power that English speaking countries wield.
And what does this mean for cross cultural communication? Language carries culture and cultures are made up of stories. What happens when these stories cannot be told? Simply put they are ignored if they are not in English and writers hoping to achieve a global audience are discouraged from writing in their native language in which they might be better able to express their ideas. In “How English Ruined Indian Literature” Taseer notes the trend for Indian writers who write in English to achieve global fame and yet writers who chose not to do so, instead writing in Tamil or Hindi or Urdu, achieve only domestic popularity and even then only among certain circles. It seems that English language might be killing Indian creativity in that it is only allowing for one type of Indian voice to be heard: the English speaking one. Whatever happened to translation? The dominating use of English stifles discourse and suppresses the voices and experiences of the millions who do not speak the language.
Nelson Mandela once famously remarked, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his [native] language, that goes to his heart.” Translation hits the hearts of both. For example, Haruki Murakami writes in Japanese. Though his work has been translated all across the world, it still carries with it the essence of his voice in each translation. His voice is not barred from the world just because it doesn’t speak the “right” language. One criticism of translation however, is that the translation can never capture the full meaning of the original. While this might be true, I wouldn’t say that something is being “lost” in translation; rather, it is being changed. His Japanese readers and his English readers may have different understandings of his work and that’s okay. Reading Murakami in Japanese or Rumi in Urdu, for example, is a different experience from reading them in English and yet there are valuable knowledge and understanding that can be gleaned from both. The point of stories and poems isn’t just to communicate an idea like it is in the language of business or economics, but to communicate that idea in a way that hits as close to home as possible. Writing in your native language and being able to translate that language to the native language of others is part of that process.
Killing Creativity or Changing it?
While I definitely think that we should be pushing for more translation and encouraging people to write in their native languages (which is why I love that OCA is encouraging bilingual articles), it’s important to recognize the ways in which bilingual writers are adapting the English language to suit their needs. One trend that has emerged amongst writers of different cultures is to use English peppered with words in different languages to give the reader a sense the essence of the place and time and culture about which they’re writing. Khaled Hosseini is a great example of this type of writing. He uses English to communicate what life is like in Afghanistan but uses many untranslated Pashto and Dari phrases and words to communicate a certain untranslatable essence of the culture. Some things, this type of writing says, just can’t be said any other way.
Here’s a TED talk on the subject:
This article was written by Rae Dehal. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
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