Losing Language

The University of Nottingham is described  as a “truly global university” and with campuses in both China and Malaysia alongside over 7,500 international students on our own campus, it is easy to feel part of a worldwide community. And with any global community, there is an array of native speakers of a number of foreign languages. There are roughly 6,900 different languages spoken in our world today, and a wealth of different tongues spoken by Nottingham students alone. But how does belonging to this community affect the way we approach the concept of language? That is, when everyone speaks English, does it affect us at all?

Stephen Fry’s new documentary ‘Fry’s Planet Word’ explores language and its permeation into our cultural and individual identities. In the second episode of the series, ‘Identity’, Fry explores the way in which our language is intrinsically linked with our characteristics, our personality and even our individuality. He examines the startling rate at which dialects and languages are dying out, as an increasing number of societies disregard them in favour of more widely spoken languages such as French and English. Indeed, linguists have predicted that by the end of this century alone, over half of the world’s languages will have become extinct.

It’s hard not to be saddened by this notion, in the same way we would mourn the loss of the last panda or rhino, or the last trees of the rainforest. We align the loss of language with the loss of diversity, and spice, of life. What’s more, if people lose their mother tongue, do they lose part of their culture, their ethnicity, or, as Stephen Fry argues, their identity? Yet, if we rejoice in the globalisation that we witness everyday at Nottingham, can we then be critical of the globalisation that inevitably plays a huge part in fewer languages being spoken worldwide?

The fact that people of all backgrounds and nationalities can communicate freely and without inhibition, in English, is an incredible thing. Friendships can forge between people from entirely disparate backgrounds, and allows people to learn about different customs and ways of life. Perhaps language is just one more wall or barrier between nations that we just don’t need. A world in which everyone spoke the same tongue might just be a less divided and more equal one, with each world citizen having the same terminology to present, or even defend themselves. Could easier and more effective communication lead to greater peace?

It might be that we feel remorse over the loss of language because we are accustomed to valuing the old. The old represents our history and our heritage, it is the roots and foundation of our modern world. Yet language is not, say, The Tower of London or St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is not a solid building to admire and celebrate but a fluid vehicle with which people will work and survive in an increasingly modern, and undeniably global, world.

Perhaps it is even harder for the native English speaker to accept the loss of vernaculars simply because they have never truly been in a position where they are concerned about the inability to advance their career, or even just ‘get by’ in a country outside their own. Is it just self-interested of us to hope and expect communities to hold on to their own languages because they have aesthetic value to us? We might think that we can have the best of both worlds if everyone learns English only as a second language, but not everybody is going to get that chance in life. In areas where a high minority language is spoken, it is understandable that the government insists on classes being taught in a more international language, so as to give these children the best start in life, and greater opportunities in the future.

English has thrived as a language, spreading from the British Isles across the continents, and this is because it has adapted and evolved for the modern climate. After the Norman conquest of 1066, around 10,000 French words infiltrated the English language, with many still in use today. A large proportion of our language derives from French and many English-speakers with no knowledge of French will be proud to know that they know at least 15,000 French words. Commonly used words such as competition, routine, and even table are all of French origin and new words are entering our dictionary ever year – mankini, retweet and jeggings being just a few examples of this. We simply wouldn’t understand the language spoken in England in the middle ages, and many would agree that comprehending Shakespeare is hard enough at the best of times. The evolution of communication appears to be natural and inevitable.

So is it OK that globalisation is leading to fewer languages worldwide? Globalisation and evolution are in many ways positive, but maybe it’s all about balance. Globalisation is about bringing people together, and greater equality between people, and that doesn’t necessarily mean only English being spoken. In fact, the greater awareness you have of other cultures and other languages, surely the more equal it is? Nottingham has a thriving language centre and an incredible number of opportunities for studying abroad, and it’s by taking advantage of these resources and prospects that makes us into world citizens, and surely that’s what being part of a ‘global university’ is all about.

Tanya Rosie

4 Comments on this post.
  • Tom Clements
    21 November 2011 at 10:06
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    Nice article – I’d like to have seen some examples of language loss and decay, but you’ve expressed your ideas and sentiments well. Good job.

  • Anonymous
    21 November 2011 at 20:55
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    What an excellent article! So relevant and many topical points covered so concisely. I still don’t really know what Jeggings are though…but i’m only a first year.

  • Dr. Robb Kvasnak
    23 November 2011 at 22:00
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    English did not “spread” around the world – it WAS spread by war and colonialism. Language and culturess are not neutral, benign entities. They are means to power and control. Native English speakers are at an advantage in a globalized world that uses English as its communication resource. Other peoples’ cultures are silenced. English language learners read mostly works by native English authors.

  • Ángel Carrión
    24 November 2011 at 01:31
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    I was a little disappointed that the article didn’t talk about language as a means of expanding empires. That’s really the reason why languages such as English, French, and Spanish are so widely spoken today, they were used as tools of imperialism. They’re still used that way today. Yes, English has been able to adapt well over time, but the reason it’s so widespread today is because the British Empire at its height spanned the globe. Later, the United States would be responsible for continuing the trend of English as the major language used for commerce, communications, and information. So imperialism has definitely got be addressed in any conversation involving disappearing languages.

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