On English

On the prominence of the English language, and how to cope with it as a foreign language

Reading some articles made me reflect on the prominence of the English language everywhere in the world. There seems to be concern that relatively minor languages are at the risk of extinction, or that bilingualism is becoming inevitable, and because identity and language are so intimately tied-together, that poses even an existential question, if not threat. One of those articles was on Icelandic, a language spoken by some 300 000 people. Quoting the article:

“But the concern is that it becomes obsolete in more and more domains, its use restricted, so it’s second best in whole areas of people’s lives. Then you worry about Icelanders understanding much less, for example, of their cultural heritage.”

In the meantime, Naylor said, literacy rates among Icelandic children are falling as their vocabulary shrinks. “You could soon have a situation where Icelanders will be native in neither Icelandic or English,” he said. “When identity is so tied up with language … it’s hard to know what that will mean.”

So, if we assume that identity is an indispensable thing to each person, what does this situation mean for the cultural and/or national identities of these smaller communities? If they are facing an existential trouble with regards to their identities, what should they do?

It’s obvious and a fact that English is the lingua franca globally. Almost wherever one goes, they can get away with speaking it only. Many higher education institutions worldwide offer courses in English. In many scientific fields, and in many on-line communities, the language is English. What does this mean? What to do?

This means that people prefer using the lingua franca when necessary or convenient. Maybe, after all, being able to call a computer tölva or ordinateur or bilgisayar does not make one’s identity any stonger, or in the opposite case, any less so. But even if it does, then people seemingly do find it an acceptable compromise, or just couldn’t care less. The practical necessities and the conveniences that one can’t turn a blind eye to, at the end of the day, in one way or another, weigh more.

We’ve fought for centuries for linguistic purism, we’ve founded institutions whose mission is to dictate us how to spell and invent vocabulary for things that were Not Invented There™. But the fact is, necessities and convenience wins.

In research produced in my mother tongue, Turkish, it’s quite easy and mundane to come across weird words that sound quite Turkish, seem meaningful, but not ring any bells. That’s because somebody has gone out of their way to invent them, instead of using the term common worldwide. Reading an article refer to some idea in the discipline of toplumdilbilim, one needs some creativity to reverse engineer that word in order to deduce that it is talking about sociolinguistics. This pattern causes confusion, and adds at least one intermediary step in trying to reach knowledge, that of trying to reconstruct from randomly invented translations actual terms that can lead one on to more knowledge, for most of the time the most correct and original info available is in English. In many texts one can encounter quite a bit of such translations, making reading them an even more arduous task.

Thing is, until the rise of nationalism, multilingualism was the norm. People used different languages for different tasks. The nation and its bizarre impositions and ideas lead us to try adopt inconvenient practices, like monolingualism and monoculturalism, and conservatism. But the fact is that we have always survived multiculturalism and multilinguism, and the mere nature of things moves us towards returning to that. English now is the language of certain kinds of online discourse, and certain kinds of research and education. Our mother tongues are useful and used in other areas. Some of us learn other tongues for a variety of purposes (research, commerce, heritage, personal interest or otherwise).

I write this blog post in English, because, aside from the fact that the thought process that brought me to writing it was in English, that way it can be read by any of the billions of people worldwide who knows some English, and there’s no reason that this article is specific in any way to a phænomenon in Turkey. That is something one can not turn a blind eye to indeed.

Globalisation is happening, and has good aspects and bad ones. A good aspect is that as a species we’re moving towards a more inviting and egalitarian society no matter the setbacks, and a global inventory of mores and ideals are forming. Backlash against many kinds of discrimination is winning more ground every day. Absolute dogma, like religion, is losing power. The current state of affairs worldwide is nowhere near a utopia, but it’s way better undeniably than a century, or a half, ago.

In the global community that we’re forming as a species, things like «cultural heritage» and monolingualism are less and less relevant. A community needs common values (as in an intersection of many value systems), and it needs to communicate (notice the common roots of all three words); and constant, inevitably lossy and redundant translation is not an efficient medium for providing a means for that. Using multiple languages with respect to topic, community and context instead, is quite efficient, and is what people tend strongly to do. This does not mean that smaller languages have to die, but with respect to their sizes and their past, they may have to leave way for other languages to coexist with them in the speech of individuals native in those smaller languages, so that we don’t spend unnecessary energy for maintaining a romantic illusion.

And if that undermines identity, that’s quite usefully and gladly so: we need better, more inclusive and practical forms of identity anyways. The cultural heritage is nice and lovely, but quite a bit of us do not compromise the goods of modern life for an alternative life that’s stuck in illusory, half-invented, half-true, impractical, and often scientifically incorrect tradition. The cultural heritage is a nice thing to remember, and partially to live, but it’s undeniable that many aspects of modern life are indebatable improvements to the human life. In a world where both the global and the local manifest itself in the person of an individual, certainly the line between the two will blur, and cultures and languages will evolve, where many times we’ll quite naturally eliminate unnecessary burdens. And trying in vane to make a language of some thousands or some millions cater to every area of the global modern lifestyle is one such unnecessary burden. Even if many will not want to do it, the humanity will do it anyways. Cultures, languages, and linguistic habits will evolve, to facilitate global communication, coöperation and cohabitation, because those are the goals we’re inevitably (and thankfully) driven towards.