De-Babeling the tower?

About five years ago I was on a university trip to China. In the course of the visit I had dinner with an elderly retired Chinese sociology professor, and in the course of the dinner he suggested to me that, within the lifetime of one generation, the main urban spoken language of China would be English. He pointed out that young people were emailing and texting and saying stuff on social networking sites in English, partly driven by the greater ease of writing in English on mobile phones. As it happens on the same trip I was a guest at a Chinese university student show performed entirely in English, with one of the students (who had never been outside China) telling me he had now read every one of the novels of Charles Dickens in the original language. How many UK students would be able to say that?

The fate of languages in an era in which international and intercultural communication is so easy is a subject of potentially interesting debate. As English strengthens its grip on speech and language everywhere, the effects are felt in the academy. In Scotland right now the number of students taking French in secondary schools for their Highers (equivalent of ‘A’ levels or the Leaving Certificate or SATS in the US) is dropping by nearly 10 per cent year on year, and German has become an endangered subject in UK universities. Minority languages are finding it particularly hard to retain a foothold anywhere.

Does this matter? Is it in fact the emergence of much greater international linguistic fellowship in which communication is becoming easier? Or are we losing cultural anchors that could disrupt and impoverish society? Or will languages actually stage a come-back?

The onward march of English is probably unstoppable, and perhaps the vehicle for linguistic cultural expression will in future be a rich regional variety of accents and dialects – which has long been a feature of English in the Celtic nations on these islands. But in the end it would be a pity of the indigenous languages that are often the source of these local enrichments were to be lost as living means of communication, and indeed not least as a means of communicating tradition and culture. How all this should be handled is something universities should address; and to that extent they should not lightly abandon the study of languages, or of any particular languages.

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4 Comments on “De-Babeling the tower?”


  1. Can someone explain to me precisely the cultural impoverishment that results from a language disappearing? They have been disappearing and changing for thousands of years. Is human experience different in different languages? Listen, if it has to be Esperanto, I’m fine with that!

  2. rsheffer Says:

    Very unlikely.Where I teach in China (Xiamen) very few people on the street speak English and the University students speak a very limited English except the English Majors.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    You might like to revisit the comments to a previous post on a similar topic. Good to see that your skepticism is unchanged..

    http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/the-continuing-decline-of-languages-in-education/#comments

  4. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    An interesting article- thanks. However, I feel that one of the dangers in extrapolating from personal experiences, especially in such privileged circumstances, is that one can draw blinkered conclusions.

    In truth, language teaching and learning in the UK/Ireland at school and uni level has always been rotten, even before globalisation and when Russian and French had equal clout. We can’t ignore this. So to remedy the situation, best to close all the departments down at unis and school and start from scratch I’d say.

    As for the entire Chinese nation speaking English at any time- magari, as they say in Italian.

    The trend to learn English will pass as there are not enough native speakers around and the Anglo-American empire is in economic decline. Also, more machine translation, the rise of Spanish, Arabic etc but most importantly the realisation amongst members of the global elite including VCs that functional knowledge of English in some specific purposes is and will be mainly restricted to them for business purposes only and those who are truly proficient like our Chinese friend are few and far between.

    One ployglot British Vice-Chancellor (now an ex-Vice Chancellor who was enmeshed in a corruption scandal) is Howard Davies who has appeared regularly on Radio France Inter and now resides in exile in France. Apparently the new Aussie at UCD speaks conversational mandarin. Ferdinand- do you use your linguistic skills in international contexts?


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