When campaigning in Puerto Rico in March, Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum told a local newspaper that, just “like any other state,” Puerto Rico must comply with federal law mandating English as the “principal language.” There is, however, no federal law in the U.S. mandating English as the official language.
Can Santorum’s statement be dismissed as a simple case of confusion, or does its inaccuracy indicate something more? Indeed, his comment reflects the sentiments of many monolingual Americans who defend the supremacy of English in the U.S. and question the use of learning other languages. Lawrence Summers, Economics Professor and former president of Harvard University, echoed these views in a New York Times editorial in January, “English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.” According to Summers, learning languages other than English is not only becoming obsolete, but also runs counter to the forces of globalization.
But what do we stand to lose if we abide by English-only standards and succumb to globalizing forces? Is the death and fragmentation of languages in the twenty-first century inevitable? Statements like those of Santorum and Summers have prompted a difficult discussion about which languages to cultivate and preserve in an increasingly globalized world.
What Globalization Is, and Isn’t
In an interview with the HPR, Linguist Dr. Salikoko Mufwene of the University of Chicago cautioned defining globalization in overly simplistic terms. Indeed, globalization must be understood on the local level and not simply as a universal phenomenon. Similarly, Mufwene argued that globalization does not mean the imposition of English-only. Instead, it can refer to the imposition of different languages in various contexts. Each impact of globalization must be considered in the context of the particular conditions and environment of the specific ecology.
In human terms, these ecological factors are largely economic. They allow populations to operate viably in some languages and not in others. For example, Portuguese dominates in Brazil because it is the language of commerce, and indigenous languages are not economically viable. On the other hand, Afrikaans is the primary language of economic transactions in South Africa.
Still, as Dr. Jan Blommaert, linguist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, told the HPR, small-scale studies are actually the key to understanding the impact of globalization. Studying the languages that people actually speak at home, rather than the languages that people use in transactions outside of their communities, can actually reveal the creative ways in which people preserve their native languages.
Globalization, likewise, has an effect on language much larger than just the imposition of English-only. In an interview with the HPR, Dr. John Sullivan, Director of the Zacatecas Institute of Teaching and Research in Ethnology in Mexico, recalled how globalization has existed since 1492 and emphasizes that language imposition is really a story of hierarchies. Today this means that English is overtaking Spanish and Spanish is in turn overtaking Nahuatl and other indigenous languages. Music, movies, and commercials, according to Sullivan, help drive this pattern.
Preserving and Maintaining Languages
When considering the challenge of preventing the extinction of underused languages, Mufwene makes a clear distinction between preserving and maintaining languages. Preserving languages, he says, is relatively easy. /it involves archiving, and writers are needed to simply record the language, which then becomes inert and prime for research. The process of maintaining a language by keeping it alive is more difficult as it entails empowering people with economic autonomy. If people can use their own language in an economically viable way, he argues, then they will maintain their language and adapt it to changes in society.
By contrast, Blommaert argues that the best way to preserve languages is to “leave them alone,” to not standardize them or enforce their use. He advocates that speech communities should reserve the right to regulate themselves.
The government of Paraguay, however, has tried a different approach to promoting the Guaraní language, with much success. In a recent article in The New York Times, Simon Romero noted that, for political reasons, the Guaraní language was written into the constitution and its teaching enforced in schools. Though this method differs strongly from self-regulation, it nevertheless helps keeps alive a language that might otherwise have died out or morphed into a variant of Spanish. Here, Mufwene’s idea of creating an economically viable space in which speakers can interact in their own language has, in fact, promoted the preservation of a language.
Dr. Sullivan also takes a more hands-on approach to maintaining indigenous languages. At his institute in Zacatecas, he runs many projects to get native-speaking professionals to “continue working in their native language and culture.” For indigenous people in Mexico, higher education in Spanish, he says, is the final step that strips them of their native language and culture. Sullivan argues that Nahuatl and other indigenous languages are, in fact, academic languages, and that they should be treated as such. The institute works toward language revitalization through projects such as the compilation of the first Nahuatl monolingual dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia.
Sullivan’s approach, too, is a far cry from Blommaert’s recipe of leaving languages alone. He emphasizes the importance of creating monolingual dictionaries in order to erase the hierarchies that are inevitably present in Spanish-Nahuatl or English-Nahuatl dictionaries. While some argue that this standardization is detrimental to the “organic” process that Blommaert favors, in today’s world, standardization is essential to not only academic discourse, but also to economic viability. Indeed, economic factors are no small matter in determining the evolution of a language.
Why Maintain These Languages?
But why erase a language hierarchy at all? Why resist the English-only thrust of the world and the other myriad examples of language imposition?
Sullivan offers a pragmatic reason to study multiple, and rare, languages: people who speak different languages offer unique creative problem-solving perspectives that are both productive and lucrative. A recent article in The New Yorker illuminates how M.I.T.’s Building 20, which housed researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, has spawned some of M.I.T.’s most creative ideas over the years, including several of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, largely because people of different backgrounds, speaking different languages, literally or metaphorically, came together to contribute a multiplicity of perspectives.
Ultimately, the reasons to promote the use of endangered languages go beyond pragmatic or sentimental appeals. It is, certainly, important keep in mind the dangers of language hierarchy. If we accept the rank of English over Spanish and of Spanish over Nahuatl, then we may implicitly accept the hierarchy of Western culture over indigenous culture, of capitalism over alternative economic structures. We limit ourselves to patterns of thought devoid of the rich diversity of humanity. Instead of embracing the possibilities for dialogue that globalization offers, hierarchies impose ideals and insulate humans from truly learning from one another.
Most importantly, this hierarchy affects languages and people. Language provides a vehicle for expressing not simply meaning but also culture and identity. If we rely on Google Translate and expect to interact with people on a global scale entirely in English, not only do we fail to properly convey or understand meaning, but we also lose sight of the human element that gives purpose to language. To say that a language is not worth learning is to say that its speakers are not worth bringing into the global conversation. As long as we expect people to interact globally in a common, dominant language and make no efforts to learn and maintain subaltern languages, we will continue to perpetuate misunderstanding.