World | March 27, 2015 at 10:43 pm

Towards a Linguistic Singularity

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Anglospeaking_population_2013

A map showing the percentage of English speakers in populations around the world. Light green means less than 20 percent of the population speaks English.

“Speak English! You want to make money, have an education, right?”

Too often today, children and adults alike are discouraged from speaking their native languages in favor of English, because speaking English will supposedly bring economic productivity. But has the world become so materialistic that prosperity is the only thing that matters? It seems that culture has taken a back seat. In the interest of prosperity, languages around the world are beginning to slowly disappear and lose salience in cultures that once revered them.

This shift in attitude is a result of cultural assimilation, something history is all too familiar with. Powerful countries commandeer, through various indirect channels, the use of their own language to influence weaker states. The prevalence of English in world affairs today has, in a sense, forced non-English speaking countries to learn it in order to function in the world economy. This change in linguistic preferences has led cultures to debase the value of their own languages to the extent that they increasingly resemble those of English speaking economic powers, most notably the United Kingdom and United States. It becomes more difficult to conceive of any positive implications of increased English usage, other than assimilation into a more globalized world.

Linguicide

The age of cultural assimilation has yet to be eclipsed by a new global power dynamic. However, language is more complex compared to conventional tools of influence, such as the use of natural resources and military conflict. People around the world have, in a sense, become their own dictators; they are actively debasing their native languages in favor of English. Former colonies, in addition to non-colonized countries, have chosen the language of their former colonizers (most evidently English and French) over their own languages as the “superior” form of communication.

For example, in the former British colonies of India and Pakistan there is growing sentiment against the use of native languages such as Hindi/Urdu, Tamil, and Punjabi. English generally has a higher status, and is considered the language of the educated. Punjabi, especially in Pakistan, has become the target of many semiotic indictments: speakers of Punjabi are considered indecent, uneducated, poor, etc. In Malaysia, also a former British colony, parents are increasingly sending their children across the border to Singapore, where English is commonplace and used in schools, regardless of the financial burdens doing so may have.

In recent years, countries such as Tanzania and Malaysia have been pushing back against the use of English in schools: the primary languages of instruction have reverted to Swahili and Malay, respectively. This can be seen as an effort to preserve national identity and cultural autonomy and push back against complete international assimilation. But even this comes with a caveat: people still want to learn English, because it allows them to become more global. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to do so, but it means that people are gradually departing from their origins and adding to the cornucopia of English discourse with little intention of looking back.

Politics and Economics

As with other aspects of culture, modernization has led to prioritizing English as “the” language. Modernization theory postulates that in order for a country to modernize, it needs to move away from its religious values and cultural customs. However native English speakers largely do not see a reason to learn another language: the Internet, business, and education all use English as their primary medium of discourse.

In many parts of the world, one is considered educated if one speaks English. In a time where the world is trying to embrace cultural differences, certain cultures are being given disproportionately more attention and value than others. This is evident with the classic case of the “language of the time.” Such a language gains popularity based on the economic and political salience of the countries in which it is spoken. In the 1950s, after the Soviets launched the Sputnik, learning Russian became immensely popular in American schools. In the 1980s, the Japanese economy was widely thought to eclipse the U.S. economy, and Japanese become a popular foreign language to learn. Today, the languages of the time are Chinese and Arabic.

Indeed there is some mendacity as to why these languages have risen in popularity: most people do not learn these languages because they appreciate or want to learn about the cultures they represent, but because they see a material gain in learning them. This is truer of Arabic, for example, than almost any other language today. The number of American college students learning Arabic has increased greatly in recent years, not because the world has suddenly developed an interest in Arab culture, but largely because it sees a material benefit (whether through an occupation as a diplomat, translator, or academic) in learning it. Again, there is not anything wrong in doing so, but it does demonstrate how people today choose to do something based upon the material benefits it gives them.

In some of his empirical work, Walt Wolfram, a professor of Sociolinguistics at North Carolina State University, found that more socially progressive university departments, such as English and Sociology, make active efforts to try to change the English of non-Standard English speakers, and justify it by saying that they are trying to help them fit into modern society. That different dialects or forms of English have their own cultural values and richness does not cross the minds of these progressive mavericks.

Power

Ideologically, understanding power and its effects on language is somewhat more difficult to understand because one language’s effects on other languages are subtle and gradual. French thinker Michel Foucault described this phenomenon of power as a “regime of truth,” a realm within which truth is produced and becomes a strategic part of a working set of power relations. He described the government as a mechanism that controls the conduct of human relations, of which language is one very important tool.

If this is taken to mean that the government controls tools of influence such as language to create power imbalances, then there remains little doubt as to why English is the dominant world language today. “Its never about language per se, it’s always about political power. Language becomes symbolic of that power hierarchy. Language is never really about language, it’s about the politics, authority, and oppression behind it,” said Professor Wolfram, in an interview with the HPR. A few decades ago, English was not as necessary to know to be a globalized citizen. It is not to say that English is inherently a superior language and thus has become the dominant language of international discourse. However it is to say, as seen through a Foucaultian lens, that English has gained currency as a result of governmental actions and global politics.

More remarkably, people often do not see that adapting to a language other than their own actually serves a political purpose that works against them. “When things seem natural to us, we do not attempt to resist. But we want conflict. If we don’t have conflict, we are accepting status quo hierarchal positions,” Professor Wolfram added. Assimilation will continue to influence developing countries for decades if they do not make an active effort against the use of English as either the sole or the socially preferred language of discourse.

Dethroning the King

The question is not whether English is going to eclipse other languages as the dominant medium of discourse—because it already has—but rather if it will be eclipsed by another language. Considering future forecasts, as well as tools of progression, such as the Internet and business, it seems exceedingly difficult to imagine another language usurping English as the dominant language. Some make the argument that Mandarin will make a stand, but, Mandarin has not rooted itself in global affairs the way English has.

English is globalization; it is modernization. But it threatens the existence of other languages; Columbia linguist John McWhorter estimates the world’s 6000 spoken languages will dwindle to 600 by 2150. Regardless, McWhorter believes, “A future dominated by English won’t be a linguistic paradise, in short, but it won’t be a linguistic Armageddon either.” It is not to say that English will lead to linguistic singularity, but it will create a less linguistically pluralistic world. Whether that benefits humanity depends on how much people value their languages, and whether they see their language as a means to make an impact on the world, just as English has.

If people’s definition of “good,” of “progress,” or of “better” is capitalism, modernization, or conformity, then embracing English is the right thing to do. But if their definition is truth, pride, or distinction then embracing their languages is the right thing to do.

Image Credits: U.S.-U.K. Flag, Wikimedia Commons, User Hellerick,  Map of English Use, Wikimedia Commons, User Naacevedo

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