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.