The Funny Thing About the English Language

The funny thing about the English language almost the whole world is learning it. But it may not be quite a good thing.

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The Funny Thing About the English Language

I went to Morocco with my mother in the summer of 2014, and one of the things that still sticks in my mind from that trip is a particular conversation we had with a Moroccan woman in Taroudant. She was managing the guesthouse where we stayed while the owner was away. She was very friendly, conversant, and kind – we spent our days roaming around the town, but some of the memories I cherish most from that place are sitting down with her for breakfast and for tea and sweet fruits in the evenings before we all went to sleep.

One evening, she brought her youngest daughter (around 3 years old) that evening. We were all talking back and forth in a peculiar mixture of English, Arabic, and French (none of us were fluent in the same languages apart from my mother and I), when our host made a comment about my choice to learn Arabic at university.

“It’s a language with no future,” she said, then voiced her desire to get her daughters to learn more French in school, saying it was more useful than Arabic, but the public schools stopped French instruction after primary school.

To be clear, Arabic is the language used by the majority of the population in Morocco, in fact one of the official languages. The Moroccan Arabic dialect is a beautiful mixture of Amazigh (Berber), formal Arabic, and French. The second official language is Berber, with French coming in as one of the more commonly spoken foreign languages in the country.

This horrified me. It illustrated, in a way that I hadn’t quite seen as clearly before, the skewed power relationships that accompany almost everything we take for granted in our world.

English

The English language is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world. The current numbers state that there are 339 million English speakers worldwide, making English the third most commonly spoken-language in the world. English is also widely touted as the dominating language of international business and education, something which a whole host of blog posts will tell you is one of the main reasons to learn English. Wherever you look, you will find resources telling you that knowing English will make you more attractive to potential employers, or provide you with “more opportunity.”

While this is undoubtedly doing wonders for the TEFL/TESOL industry, why English? Why not Spanish, Mandarin, or German? This is a history lesson that we may not have time for, and in fact may require a solid amount of research, but one main reason could be the remnants of imperialism. When the British Empire stretched across the planet, the English language was used chiefly business in each of the trade-based British colonies. Despite the fact that these countries are now independent, in many of them English remains an official or widely-used language for the same purposes.

Linguistic Imperialism Anyone?

Some interpret this as a form of linguistic imperialism, e.g.  the imposition of one language over others. An opinion piece from The Guardian argues that this phenomenon, manifested in the prevalence of TESOL programs in foreign countries, undercuts true multilingualism all over the world. Instead of the local language and English existing side-by-side, structural forces prioritize knowledge of the English language over other options.

And this is unfair, to say the least. Set aside from the hundreds of years’ worth of history attached to brutal colonial practices and imperialist conquest, it sends the subconscious message to people all over the world whose first language is not English (or French, or Spanish, or what-have-you) that their native tongue is not enough to allow them success. That, by proxy, the culture and history attached to their native language are “lesser” compared to those of the countries who speak English and decided that speaking English was best. At most abstract, it’s telling people in this interconnected age that where they come from and what language they speak do not matter. Which patently isn’t true.

Take, for example, the story of the translation and retranslation of the Greek philosophical classics into Arabic and then back out again – a different language adopted and interpreted these works, then retransmitted them to a region of the world where they became a cultural cornerstone for centuries.

 

Isn’t Having one International Language Easier Though?

Right! But this doesn’t necessarily mean that one language should be prioritized over another. An interesting linguistic counterpoint I encountered while doing research for this article was the existence of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). According to Hulmbauer, the majority of English Speakers are non-native language users, who use English more as a tool to communicate with less regard for grammatical correctness. For example, a Spanish man and a French woman, neither of whom know the other’s language, can use English as a tool to communicate. However, neither party will be concerned with absolute English correctness, and will instead focus on words and phrases that will communicate the ideas that need to get across.

Because unlike TESOL or TEFL, ELF does not require fluency (grammatical & idiomatical) knowledge of English – it treats the language as one among many communicative tools that two people of different native languages and cultures can use to carry on a conversation. Much in the same way that Chinese Pidgin has been used to communicate between Chinese and English speakers.

I personally like this concept. Because it allows and encourages an individual trying to communicate in English – for whatever reasons—to bring their own cultural and lingual knowledge to their understanding and use of English. Though it might, indeed, be more useful and expedient in our interconnected world to have a handful of languages through which the world can communicate. However, I think unintentionally forcing fluency isn’t necessarily the way to go.

Can I Do Anything? Is there Anything to Be Done?

Well, perhaps. Though it isn’t efficient, learning another language as a native English speaker is a good idea. At the very least, it will help you to understand how language works – and at most, you will get a little peek at how people who speak different languages look at the world (I can bet you it’s different from how you do). If you like to travel, try and master at leaset enough to get by in the language of the country you are visiting. Even if you know they will speak English to you there – it’s important to reach back, and not just rest on the privilege that you have as a native English speaker.

There are excellent resources out there to learn languages on the cheap (or even for free). Many of them make it easy to learn vocab or simple grammar on your mobile devices, so you don’t even have to register for a course or sit down at your computer to do it.

There are so many beautiful languages out there, each ripe to bursting with its cultural knowledge and traditions. There’s no reason to not explore them.

TBS

When I was writing a thesis (once upon a time), there’s a specific section that I always called the “TBS” or “to be sure” paragraph, where you own up to a valid opposing argument and then come up with a rebuttal. This is similar, but not quite.

This is the section where I admit that this topic deserves a great deal more research and time than I have been able to give it here. It makes me both sad and incredibly angry, but it’s very true. However, because this is a blog, the end goal is not really to write out a short, dense academic brief and then fire it out into the world like some freewheeling cannonball. Rather, it’s to set out an idea and start a conversation.

Interested more in this topic? Hunt up some reading on it!

Already know a lot about it? Perhaps you’re a linguistics scholar, a specialist in linguistic imperialism with some feelings on the subject? I’d love to talk to you!! Please reach out in the comments or through email!

 

Xo

-R

English as Lingua Franca Bibliography 

“‘You moved, aren’t?’ – The relationship between lexicogrammatical correctness and communicative effectiveness in English as a lingua franca” by Cornelia Hulmbauer, Viewz Vol. 16 No. 2 (December 2007)

“‘Mind you, sometimes you have to mix’ – The role of code-switching in English as a lingua franca…” by Theresa Klimpfinger, Viewz Vol. 16 No. 2 (December 2007)

“Efficiency in ELF Communication: From Pragmatic Motives to Lexico-grammatical Innovation” by Alessia Cogo and Martin Dewey

Author: Rachel S

writer, wanderer, constantly confused

1 thought on “The Funny Thing About the English Language”

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