11/20/2008

The Globalization of Language

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BY AMIN GHADIMI
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 29, 2008 on the columbiaspectator.com

In case anyone had any doubt, the contagiousness of our current economic crisis has made it painfully clear how integrated our global neighborhood is. It doesn’t make much sense, though, that we can’t all speak about this world-embracing problem in the same language—literally. It is time that all nations swallow their pride and agree to adopt a common language, one that every person on Earth would speak, read, and write.
Visceral reactions to such a call for language commonality are understandably indignant. What about national sovereignty, cultural identity, or tradition and history? On the surface, demanding that everyone speak the same language seems bigoted and culturally imperialistic—who can say that one language is better than all others?
A universal language does not, however, mean the extermination of linguistic diversity.
It is possible to maintain bilingualism or even multilingualism in a society. Everyone at Columbia, for instance, speaks English, but we are all required to learn a foreign language as well. Rather than linguistically and culturally homogenizing the world, speaking a common language would increase opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue and intercultural understanding, as it would allow direct dialogue between people of different origins.
Furthermore, times of economic suffering remind us that being rational and pragmatic is sometimes more important than clinging to tradition. It is inevitable that some feeling of national sovereignty and distinction will be lost if everyone speaks the same language, but it is naive to believe that the conception of cultures as discrete entities has not already been significantly eroded. The fact of the matter is that adopting a universal language is not too large of a step from where we already find ourselves in our globalized world—English has already infiltrated societies across the globe.
Evidence for the proliferation of English abounds. France has found itself so inundated by English that one of the branches of its Ministry of Culture, the Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie, has devoted itself to preventing the contamination of the French language by English words. Although it maintains Web sites intended to encourage French speakers to use native alternatives for words such as “podcasting” and for phrases like “beach volleyball,” it is difficult to be optimistic about its chances for success when words such as “Internet” have become so universally ingrained.
Indeed, if the French backlash against English only hints at the extent of the globalization of English, the Japanese obsession with English offers unequivocal evidence. It is not only words for things that are un-Japanese, such as “pizza” or “necktie,” that the Japanese borrow from English. Using English in Japan has become so trendy that English words regularly replace Japanese ones in pop culture: for example, “getto,” Japan’s adaptation of the word “get,” is so frequently used that it has become part of the vocabulary of the average Japanese youth. With English so prevalent in societies across the globe, it isn’t as huge a leap as one would expect to call for a more formalized, codified role of a global language. The obstacles are largely ideological and psychological—the will rather than the way seems to be the largest barrier to linguistic unity.
Yet the fact that English has become increasingly globalized does not in itself justify a more formal role for universal language. The reasons for a global language are more fundamental and more pressing. A common language would be a significant step towards the elimination, or at least the diminution, of racial and cultural prejudices that have no place in our contemporary world. When people are technologically capable of communicating with essentially anyone in the world with Internet access, why should they be linguistically deprived of this opportunity?
More importantly, a single global language makes economic sense. According to an article in July 2006 in British newspaper the Independent, the European Union budgeted one billion euros for translation of documents into each of what was then its 20 official languages. One billion euros is only the budget for one year in the EU—the cumulative cost of translation for small and large businesses and organizations across the globe must be staggering. With world economies slipping into recession, it is the right time to reconsider the wisdom of allocating resources to the culturally symbolic but highly impractical and difficult service of translation.
Of course, some may rightly argue that adopting a universal language would also incur costs. Would the staggering one-time cost of translating already-existing documents in all countries to a single global language really be less than the cumulative daily costs of translation? What would happen to translators and interpreters whose jobs would be demoded? How feasible would such a shift to a common language be? How many generations would it take? All these questions are profound and challenging, but they are nonetheless—or therefore—ones that multinational organizations should consider carefully.
Our global economic recession reminds us that we are all interconnected on this planet, and it is detrimental to seek to sustain anachronistic and artificial linguistic barriers merely for the sake of the antiquated concept of cultural autonomy. Each nation, of course, should value its own culture highly and seek to preserve it, but not at the cost of the welfare and progress of our world. Perhaps the United Nations could put the question of language on its agenda. To avoid having English or any other language inadvertently or arbitrarily imposed upon them, nations must proactively and cooperatively decide their own linguistic destiny.


The author is a Columbia College first-year.

6 comments:

Bill Chapman said...

English is a powerful language, it's true, but there's a danger of exaggerating here. I live in north Wales, and the daily language of many people around me is Welsh, rather than English.

Furthermore, we should ask ourselves whether we should be exploiting the unfair advantage of being a native speaker of English. I quietly advocate the wider use of the planned international language Esperanto. Have you ever considered the role of Esperanto? Take a look at www.esperanto.net

Brian Barker said...

Bill Chapman is right about the need of a language like Esperanto.

It is unfortunate that only a few people know how widely this comparatively new global language is both used and accepted.

Esperanto is in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros,World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

Further information can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670 A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

Unfrench Frenchman said...

"Furthermore, we should ask ourselves whether we should be exploiting the unfair advantage of being a native speaker of English."

Bill, I beg to differ. The real gap is not between native and non-native speakers of English, but between people who are proficient in English and those who aren't. Non-native speakers of English can acquire a high level of proficiency in English provided that they put the time and effort into it. It is like any other skill. Is it unfair that people with skills have more opportunities in life than people who cannot be bothered to learn anything they can make money of? I don't think so.
The way you are approaching the issue is wrong anyway. For what we are witnessing is not the native speakers of English forcing their language on the rest of the world, but non-native speakers of English adopting it as their global lingua franca of business, science and tourism, and adopting it out of their own free will. They haven't picked Esperanto. Not yet. Will they? Doesn't look like it.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

It is unfortunate that only a few people know how widely this comparatively new global language is both used and accepted.

Esperanto is not as globally widespread a language as English and never will be. It's possible that another language will follow English as a global lingua franca, but that will more likely be a language already established, like Castillian (Spanish), Mandarin (Chinese), or Arabic.

But there is a double-edge sword to the spread of English. In both the United States and Great Britain, the vast majority of the population is fluent only in their native language---English. They will be at a competitive disadvantage in non-English countries (even if most of the population knows English) to others who actually bother to learn the native language.

Mohamed Idris said...

"Non-native speakers of English can acquire a high level of proficiency in English provided that they put the time and effort into it. It is like any other skill."

To Unfrench Frenchman:

You have to understand the nativeness is also a social construct. Even those whose English is extremely good are described as speaking bookish English.

Another problem is that as English is an international language, it is a national language too. This creates unavoidable hierarchies.

There have to be better alternatives to English as a global language, one of which may be not to have a global language at all.

Ronduck said...

A common language would be a significant step towards the elimination, or at least the diminution, of racial and cultural prejudices that have no place in our contemporary world.

Racial and cultural prejudices do have a place in our world. English normally promotes understanding, but in a few cases better understanding may actually promote more hatred. Some groups engage in practices that are despicable, and being able to talk to them and confirm that they are doing such things can actually make things worse.

Here is a good example of how better understanding can lead to bigger problems.