We are what we speak

Today I had occasion to visit both a post office and a Garda (police) station. I should maybe add that there was no connection between these two, and that I was at liberty to enter and leave the Garda station by my own free will (in case you were worried). But they did have one thing in common: notices in the Polish language. Well, of course they also had notices in English, and some in Irish; but what struck me was that there were several in Polish.

We don’t yet know whether the influx of Polish (and other central and Eastern European) nationals in the course of the current decade is a temporary demgraphic phenomenon or whether these immigrants will stay for the long term; and if they do, we cannot yet tell how integrated they will become, and therefore to what extent their language needs will be reflected in public notices. But for now there are Polish newspapers, Polish masses in some catholic churches, and Polish notices in my local post office and Garda station.

In fact, how far do we expect languages to go beyond being a tool of communication, to become a cultural anchor for their speakers? In fact, which is more important, communication or culture? And where language is a tool of cultural identity, what does it tell us? My own first language was German, and indeed it was the only language I spoke until I was 7 years old and my family moved to Ireland. I then had to learn English fast, and indeed I became quite fluent in it after about six months. And since then I have, more or less at least, been fully bilingual, though I am more comfortable in English. But those people who have known me for a while and who understand both languages sometimes tell me that I am ‘different’ depending on which language I am speaking; they say I am more precise and less humorous in German. I don’t actually believe this, and I tend to think that people absorb the national stereotypes and simply expect to hear them in the language; but the stereotype may not be objectively true of any particular speaker.

But my point is this: to what extent do we need to identify with a language as a personal point of reference, an indicator of who we are and what we stand for? In my own case, the language I speak most fluently is definitely English, but does it define me? And if it doesn’t, does this open up a gap in my life? In Ireland of course this topic raises the question of whether the decline of Irish as a commonly spoken language has created cultural problems, or whether the localised version of English is able to provide the anchor needed.

Over a year ago I wrote a post for this blog about the spread of English as the global lingua franca.  It seems to me to be clear that whatever may be the shifts in geopolitical power over the coming century, linguistically English will sweep all before it – it is already making inroads even in China. So do we still need to learn anything else? The answer is yes, because we need to understand the culture and personality of those nations with whom we are in contact, even where we can adequately communicate with them in English. And as a country, we need to have the capacity for that understanding beyond the three or four most widely spoken languages in the world. That is why I am alarmed when I hear occasionally that we cannot afford to have university departments in Ireland that specialise in certain minority languages. That is a dangerous approach – the linguistic arrogance in the world of English speakers can be a source of tension and conflict. While we should certainly present ourselves as an English-speaking country (because of the advantages this brings in global trade), we should also make every effort to have centres of excellence, particularly in our universities, that provide us with some knowledge of other cultures and traditions.

For my own part, I think I am going to learn Polish, which is in any case the language of my ancestors.

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14 Comments on “We are what we speak”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    What I find interesting about global migration is that two things are happening with language, both of which you identify here. Yes, English is spreading, as much of the global migration which is occurring is to English-speaking countries: the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland. But second, we’re seeing significant diversity in languages. The US has an unofficial second language: Spanish. In Canada, while English and French are the official languages, in many parts of the country ‘bilingual’ on job postings is starting to mean Spanish, or Arabic, or Mandarin, or one of many other languages. In many community-service and public-service occupations, the ability to speak languages other than English and French is a huge advantage. I suspect that soon – if it’s not already happening – Polish speakers will be in demand in Irish schools, hospitals, and indeed in post offices and Garda stations.

    There will also be an increase in the number of children brought up speaking two languages; in my experience of working with immigrants, which I suspect mirrors your own, the family speaks English outside the home and the original language in the home – with the children frequently interpreting for the parents and correcting their grammar when they try to speak English.

    Those of us whose first language is English have a terrible track record with other languages, and I’m no exception; 14 years of Irish and 7 years of French in school, and it’s still all I can do to pull together a sentence or two in each. Our multicultural neighbours’ kids will put their monolingual counterparts to shame – and, with any luck, will actually promote the need for school and university departments dedicated to their language and culture.

    • Scott Says:

      Good luck with your Polish learning! I’d like to learn Polish because of my similar ancestry to yours and because it’s Chicago’s third language, I believe. Ballot papers here are printed in English, Spanish, Polish, and Chinese, for instance, and Polish is widely spoken in our part of the city. But I’m finding Polish difficult to learn using something like Pimsleur, one of the listen-and-repeat courses on CD. I need a taught course; Polish is so unlike German or English!

  2. Brian Barker Says:

    As a native English speaker I would prefer Esperanto as the future global language 🙂

    Communciation should be for everyone, not just for an educational or political elite; that is how English is used at the moment.

    Your readers may be interested in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2LPVcsL2k0 Dr Kvasnak teaches English at Florida Atlantic University.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  3. Vincent Says:

    I was under the impression that I spoke English until that is I moved back to the place of my birth in the late 80’s. Where I was quickly disabused of that notion. So as it stands at the moment I speak the two languages fluently. But on your point about culture being directed at least in part by a language with certain aspects like lack of humour viz. the Germans. Humour or at least the ability to write good Comedy/Satire, to give the devil his due, is something you can level at the English. They do not do Tragedy nor Poetry, and when they did, it was more or less a blatant rip-off of the Classics. Something in that ponderous march of monotonously pitched words lends itself to the punch-line or the rye turn. Excitement just isn’t available, it has that same feel of concordance of a walking race. Well, they just jabber when excited. And they know this so they try their damnedest to keep to an even keel.
    Oh, for evidence of the difference just watch any Race meeting. But the Gold Cup meet at Cheltenham nails it best of all.

  4. Big Bad John Says:

    We have a daughter, a teacher, who lives in Denmark. She decided during her training to become a teacher that one of her specialisations (hope this is a word!) would be the Danish language. She and I talked about it at the time and agreed that this would give her a greater insight into the “soul” of Denmark.

  5. Vincent Says:

    Your parents came to Ireland, so there must be something in your genetic makeup which finds the Irish spin on things conducive and for some reason the Irish don’t find the German as annoying as do others, my Belgian friends have their issues. As to the transformative nature of language, I would hold it to be self evident. And a damn sight more self evident than the ‘All men… equality’. Further I think that the way we use the term language is both too wide and too narrow.
    Take for instance the Farrier, his trade language is instantly transferable to German French Spanish or Mongol. His expression for calming a flighty Filly with a thump with heel end of a rasp would be universal. But surely here it is the training to shoe a horse that changes the person. The same is valid today for english terms in computing for the Chinese. It matters little where from the parent term came.
    Basically anywhere language is used to explain process. Law, Accounting, Barbers & Bakers, those involved at a level have more in common across linguistic and national borders than they have with neighbours.
    Then, can one speak about Opera without becoming at least part Italian, or Laws without being Roman.
    Mostly, is it not the context. When you are listening to something new, surely your filters are both Irish And German regardless of the source of the sounds. And when you generate content surely your traditions come through.
    Oh, an addendum to my earlier comment. Satire and Comedy cannot survive in Ireland, We haven’t enough people.

  6. Aidan Says:

    I speak English, Dutch and Polish daily. I read French, Spanish and Irish almost every day and speak them all well enough. I also speak German, Japanese, Swedish and Italian to varying levels. I listen to Japanese and Italian podcasts almost every day.
    My young children (5,4,18mt) speak Dutch, Polish and English (as does my wife in our trilingual home).
    Based on so much contact with other languages I would say the following:
    1) Each language I speak gives a different dimension to my personality. In fact, my favourite quote is “The more languages I speak the more people I can become.” (from “Paris, Trance” by Geoff Dyer).
    I feel happy speaking Spanish and Italian because the sounds and structures of the languages lend themselves to exuberance. Polish sounds like people are complaining (and quite often they are) so I rarely feel inspired speaking it. Dutch is quite an exact language which has a limited range of vocabulary compared to French and English. Therefore Dutch is not a language you are going to get overly flowery in.
    My point is that language is not universal. Each language provides a person with new material to work with.

    2) I don’t believe for a second that English can be a cultural anchor for Irish people. The Irish language is our connection with what we were. When we lose the ability to use it we lose ourselves. There is no colonization so successful as the colonization of the mind. As Israel and Catalonia have demonstrated it is more than possible to use language as a tool to link with the past and create a new future identity.

    I think that you are overstating the march of English. Even in Holland I see that Spanish is growing as a foreign language and the local secondary school here teaches Mandarin. At the same time there is more and more interest in regional languages and dialects.
    It is great that Irish people speak English but Luxemburgers speak their own language and do school in German and French and generally speak English well too. Really I can’t see why so many Irish people so proud of being English speakers. It’s a source shame for me.

    • Vincent Says:

      But Aidan, are you managing (5,4,18mt in Irish.

    • Wendymr Says:

      Yes, that’s the point I made above also: we’re seeing much more diversity of languages. Yes, more people will speak English, but they will increasingly speak more than one language, both at home and in communities, and knowledge of more than one language will increasingly be not only an asset but a requirement, and those of us who speak only one language may – perhaps even should – start to feel less adequately prepared for the world we live in.

  7. Aidan Says:

    No, I speak to them in English because we live in Holland. It would be extremely difficult to bring up Irish speaking children abroad when you are not a native speaker. If were were in Ireland of course I would send them to a Gaelscoil. In Holland with zero Irish speakers around them there is almost no chance that the children would speak it. As it is English is the trhird language which they only speak with me and other English speaking foreigners but at least we can put on TV in English, buy loads of books, DVDs etc.
    I know many minority language speakers in Holland (including very many Polish) whose children only speak Dutch. Raising multilingual children is difficult. Rearing children in a language you are not perfectly fluent in in a country where there is no support for that language is a pointless effort.

  8. Hello friends,
    Great post, very well written.
    You should blog more about this.
    I’ll definitely be subscribing.
    Have a good day..

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