Languages – deconstructing the Tower of Babel?
As you might have suspected from my name, I am not Irish by birth. In fact, I was born in Germany. I lived there for the first seven years of my life, until we moved to Ireland. When we arrived here I spoke no English at all, but with the help of my father (who had been learning the language, with mixed results) I acquired what I thought was a perfectly idiomatic phrase, ‘I can’t English’. Only six months or so later, I ‘could English’, and from about a year later English became (and has remained) my primary language. But I still speak German reasonably fluently, and can get by in French. But because of the odd sequence of languages that accompanied my childhood, I learnt most of them in a very grammatical way, so that I speak with greater precision (or pedantry, depending on your outlook) than most would. To my regret today, I was never really given the opportunity to learn Irish as a child, but I am intending to fill that gap shortly.
A year or two ago, while on a visit to China, it occurred to me that the time was right to consider learning Mandarin Chinese. All our hosts in Beijing were able to speak to us in English, in some cases with extraordinary ease and elegance of expression. On our side, absolutely nobody had a single word of Chinese (except the one member of my team who actually came from China). It seemed to me to be both ineffective and somehow discourteous that we would expect them to speak English, while we made no effort at all to acquire Chinese.
But this is part of a wider problem. Those of us who speak English have got used to expecting everyone else all over the world to do likewise. We no longer even think about it. And sometimes it seems as if they don’t think about it, either. The great cultural expansion of English continues, threatening all other languages in its wake.
A decade or two ago it was suggested that English might actually be eclipsed by Spanish, courtesy of the growth of Latin America and the migration of Spanish-speaking people into the US. That is all forgotten now. Perhaps one of the major causes of this about-turn was the growth of the internet, with the total hegemony of English there.
But if English does become the world’s lingua franca, what will that mean? Will it be possible to maintain the distinctive cultures of nations and regions, or will everything become standardised along with the language? Well, for a start I doubt that distinctive cultural characteristics will go, regardless of the linguistic issue. After all, Ireland – even with the dominance of English here – has retained and further developed a culture which, in many important respects, is quite different from that of other English-speaking countries, and even our English is full of expressions, words and colloquialisms that separate us from others, including the bigger island across the water. But also, I cannot see other countries just letting their languages go.
Instead, what seems to me to be obvious is that we should pay more (rather than less) attention to the capacity of different languages to give expression to national attributes and aspirations. Even if, say, every German were to be fluent in English by 2020, I still believe that their language of personal and domestic expression will be German. And therefore, to connect fully with someone from Germany will require an understanding of and familiarity with their language. A person wanting to be successful in trading with Germany will need to speak some German, both in order to communicate better and in order to understand the local business culture.
Most universities have found it much harder to attract language students in recent years. But it is still true that languages provide us with important tools of international communication and business. We need to persuade more of our young people that studying languages (and the cultures of the countries from which they come) is a very smart career move. A world that has become smaller and more immediately accessible to everyone is not about to become uniform. As a trading nation, we need to take very seriously the need to speak to the world, not just in one language, but in its many languages.
In many ways, the growth of English across the world is a benefit. But it is not the answer to all questions of communication.