I’ve been musing about English today, inspired by a friend’s grad school work on language as a framer of the mind, and my own doctoral work on discursive democracy, so this post is outside my blogging norm, apologies to those looking for highlights from Dhaka….
There are two grocery stores here which are right across the street from each other. Sometimes, I’ll give directions to one of them by referring to the other. Why? Because one operates under the name Agora, written in the letters English speakers are used to, but the other, Nandan, with its different selection of goods, is signed only in Bangla letters, and are therefore completely unintelligible to most people whose first language is English, or anyone who uses other non-Bangla alphabets. So, if I want to tell someone how to get to Nandan, I say it’s across from Agora.
One of the most convenient aspects of life in Dhaka, as compared to the life of an American in many other countries that do not natively use a Latin alphabet, is that English is so common. It advertises, it explains, it reports. To the ear, the English used can be unintelligible at times, particularly when the speaker is a street vendor or is speaking the Bangla-fied English hybrid that is popular among the younger set in Dhaka. However, the written version alone is enough to make shopping and navigating relatively easy (barring the insanity of traffic and other chaos).
English is, of course, the Lingua Franca of the day. Some day that honor may go to Mandarin, and on to another language, but English’s flexibility gives is a bit of an edge over some other candidates for the position. Of course, English is also notoriously difficult, because of its flexibility and its enormous lexicon viz. the other languages of the world.
Some jobs with the State Department (in embassies abroad) require what is known as a “5” in English (5 being the highest score possible on a DoS written or spoken language test for any language). It’s the running joke among language students that it’s impossible to get a 5, even in your native language. There is, unfortunately, no official DoS language test for English (that I know of), so we’ll never know if it’s really possible or not to get a 5 in English.
Where is this all taking me? First to that common complaint that Americans never know the language of the country they are visiting and expect everyone to speak English. Now, I agree, it is silly to expect everyone will speak English, and that shouting loudly will help non-English speakers understand you. But, in a way, the assumption is true. Many people around the world do speak English, or at least understand it enough to help you find the bathroom or buy a souvenir. English is the language which Germans and Spaniards use to travel in distant countries. We (the happy travellers) have been trained to expect that someone will understand English, if we look hard enough. More complicated words, and more modern words, are English, even if they’ve been adopted by the local language (e.g. Internet, which some non-English speakers don’t think of as an English word).
Second, philosophically, language is also the tool which defines the way we think internally. Language learning is encouraged because it gives us insight into other cultures, which may be limited in their ability to conceive of certain ideas because there are no words or, especially, grammatical forms that describe the concept in their language, or which may have a deeper and richer conception of something than we do, because we lack the words or grammar. Some languages, for instance, have no poetry. Others are all poetry. In some, the fight for gender equality, or democracy, will be nearly impossible because the language has no ability to describe and account for such things.
But, English does, more or less. English language training to non-English speakers is a tool of spreading these ideals of the Anglophone world. Few learners will achieve the linguistic heights necessary to understand philosophy or critical theory written in English, but they do learn alternative patterns of thought, alternative pictures of how ideas are put together, along with the content material of the lesson. It is possible that English grammar trains the brain to think in ways that are more democratic, or more something, than some other language might.
Of course, I cannot claim that English alone would spread these ideas, but it might. There are many reasons we fund English education as a tool of diplomacy. But, questions of imperialism, colonialism, and outsourcing aside… If everyone spoke English, or some other common language, would we have a modern world Pax?
I think not. Like the tower of Babel, the attempt to achieve this global peace is impossible because of its hubris. Homogeneity is not the key to peace. Diversity and disagreement done in a civil (though not necessarily a quiet or orderly) discourse is a real, dynamic peace. Even among English speakers, we all speak a different, personal dialect of the wider language. Yet, how can we speak to each other if we all have different languages, words, and grammatical (mental) frameworks? Each time we speak, we develop a new language together; we share meanings and words, even if we disagree on the content, effects and ideas related to them. Then, we go out, discussing with others, creating new words and new meanings, changing the language we each speak, subtly refining our understandings of the words and meanings.
This only happens, of course, if we are allowed the opportunity to speak with others. As I alluded to before, in some cultural-linguistic groups, dialogue is restricted by having dialect or grammar particular to a social class, gender, or region. That, I suppose, might be the best argument in favor of English (and it’s relatively democratic grammar) education.