Thursday, 22 December 2011

Language and Culture - English Only Supremacists Unlikely to Declare Absolute Victory in 2012






Hey brother, you don't look like you're gonna last too long in that job - got your TOEFL certificate?

If you don't know English, you must be an ignorant, stupid, backwater,
worthless individual

...Or so goes the official line from certain North American media outlets.

As a native English speaker, I must say the above perspective has
fascinated me for some time and I've been wanting to write a piece on
language and culture because of it. The Wall Street Journal declared
some years ago that English was the world's official language, the
National Post engaged in its favourite sport of deriding francophone
Quebecers for continuing to use and insist on French in its "Learn
English, Get Ahead" editorial and Neil Reynolds declared in the Globe
the other day (his headline) "The Anglosphere Reigns Yet Supreme".
These are articles that overtly address the issue; it does not take
much investigation to detect the same strain of impatient elitism and
barely concealed disdain toward foreign languages under the
faux-politesse veneer in Macleans, the Economist, the New York Times,
and just about any respectable periodical in the Washington, D.C.
think tank community.

Nobody with eyes and ears can contest the dominance and prominence of
English on the world stage, in popular culture, in business, and as a
tool for making non-speakers from different cultures feel elite and
sophisticated. That I am not ready to dispute with the unilingual,
middle aged, grey haired white men who wrote these articles. Yet if
it so, why do they feel the need to be so aggressive? In response to
what threat does their belligerence emerge? If they really are, as
North American English speakers, the crème de la crème of the world's
linguistic tapestry, shouldn't they be consecrating their time to the
civilized pursuits that are the bedrock of their linguistic supremacy,
like theatre, literature and film? Or even just making money. Why do
smarter, wittier, craftier, economically productive people, if that is
indeed what they are, feel the need to kick dirt in the faces of
speakers of "lesser languages", then smush those faces in the mud?

It is because the world is not ready to declare itself unilingual yet,
and these men who were born speaking English yet engage in the
ultimate hubris of believing that fact over which they had no control
makes them superior individuals cannot fathom how anyone can be
displeased with their imperious demands that all hail the supremacy of
the English language.

It is tempting to believe that a lingua franca - at international
political and banking summits, English is spoken, and every country
has an English language media outlet to broadcast news internationally
- is the death knell for all other languages. It is also a facile
inference that a world that has gone from 6000 to 2500 languages in a
century is on the fast track of paring the language of communication
among the speaking species that populates it - homo sapiens sapiens -
down to one. But this is hardly the case. Because if it was, we
would have collectively just said "fuck it", and everyone on earth
would have already seen the futility of speaking other languages and
abandoned them for English.

Consider exhibit A - the current coach of the Montreal Canadiens,
Randy Cunneyworth. For five days this man has been roasted in
Canada's French and English media for not being able to speak French.
Never mind that there are more francophone players on the Pittsburgh
Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Vancouver Canucks than on the Habs;
8 million Québécois know that team as Les Glorieux for a reason. It
is an institution.

English Canadians will weigh in with their usual responses - the
totally ignorant perception that they don't speak real French in
Quebec, it doesn't matter in 2011, what does it matter if 66% of
Quebecers and 100% of Quebec French media sports columnists can speak
English? It matters because this man is unable to do his job of
coaching a hockey team with this distraction! And if the fans wanted
the team to win and didn't care about being spoken to only in English
even though they can understand it, than maybe they wouldn't have
caused this distraction. The English-only supremacists cannot
understand that we are not playing a board game, some people have as
much attachment to their languages as the supremacists have to English
and English's current status does not mean "game over" for everyone
else. Look at how French Quebec still is today despite four centuries
of assault on its language and culture.

Exhibit B - English is not as easy as you think it is.

If these English-only people cared as much about English as they say
they do, they might complain about the generally poor level of the
language around the world which could be increased by improving its
own speakers skills, rather than demanding people who don't speak it
to learn it. A conversation can be carried on in English with a
vocabulary as low as 300 words. You can go to any country in the
world and find someone who speaks English, and while they may not be
at this extremely low baseline, there is a good chance they have not
passed the next level - 3,000 words. Taxi driver English.

The supremacists go to bed at night thinking the stats they use mean
the whole world is chucking at the jokes in Shrek and Woody Allen
movies, singing along passionately to a few Bob Dylan albums, then
reading a few thick Jane Austen novels and Shakespeare plays before
they go to bed. Never mind that the extremely limited version of
English that the vast majority of the world outside the anglosphere
speaks, if it speaks any at all, makes it impossible to have a
pleasant conversation, nevermind tell stories or jokes or have a
debate. The amount of people willing to take the pain of becoming perfectly bilingual on earth is small; much smaller than the
supremacist columnists would have you believe. If these guys ever travelled they might have experienced that first hand.

Exhibit C - Anglophilia

Some countries have leaders who are impressed by the vigour of the
supremacist columnists and think they are real decision makers who
mean business. And they studied abroad at English institutions
themselves. Now they aim to improve their shitty, third-rate
countries by making them English speaking paradises.

It is understandable that Georgia and Rwanda have had troubled
histories and discarding the languages from the colonial past that was
a main factor in troubling the histories (Russian and French) is a
logical step toward healing and catharsis. But these countries have
perfectly good languages of their own (Georgian and Kinyarwanda) that
they could revert to, and the unilateral decision to abandon these in
favour of English made by these tin-pot autocratic pro-American
leaders is truly pathetic. It will be praised by Time Magazine, of
course. Hopefully people in these nations will become angry about
their rich cultural heritages and ways of communicating being thrown
in the garbage by a couple of padded elite Harvard wannabes like Mikhail Saakashvili and Paul Kagame before its too late.

Other countries like France and Italy manifest their anglophilia by
peppering their vocabularies with a mishmash of Anglicisms lifted
from advertisements and business school textbooks that just make them
sound like idiots because they don't know how to use them properly.
It also probably doesn't help that they are being used on
advertisements that don't make any sense (in France - "Go for the
benchmarking". What the hell is that supposed to mean?). At least
when English ads use French it is usually in context (for areas in
which the French have an edge, fashion, cuisine, etc).

Some knowledge of English never hurt anybody, and I would encourage
people to explore the depths of this rich language I of course have a
deep emotional and practical attachment to. But knowledge of another
language never hurt an English speaker either. If English has
universal second language status, that second language level, if it
does not work to cheapen and degrade real English, will probably never
live up to it either. Anglophones, meanwhile, should remember that
learning Mandarin, Russian, German, or even French will open enormous
doors to them. Besides the exposure to rich literary and film
traditions and different perspectives and cultures, something else
that you could (not that you couldn't as an English only speaker) is
go to the countries where these languages are spoken and do business. these places still operate in their own languages. Yes, the language of "international business" is English and business people in those countries may try to make you feel comfortable by speaking English (or they may not), but learning someone else's language would allow you to hear what they are saying to each other and what jokes they are telling about you (which stop once they know you get it) and not feel
like an excluded douche bag. Or like Randy Cunneyworth (sorry man, but as a
Leafs fan I want your team in as much disarray as possible). Merry
Christmas

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