Black History Month

Who Put The ‘I’ In International: Is English Really The Global Language?

The barrier of language has proved globally to be an ongoing endeavour, with the ability to speak multiple languages fluently – especially for Brits – often being a ‘foreign’ concept. This is due to English being the world’s lingua franca, with 4 nations speaking English as their primary language and 15 countries (almost 1 in every 3 people) speaking or getting taught English as a second language.

There are very few native British speakers who have experienced genuine hardship from not being able to speak another language; this makes sense, as our westernised values teach us that the world should act as our mirror. This is a line of thought that can be traced back to colonialist mindsets, providing a rather unjustified explanation for our presumptions that non- English speakers should speak in our tongue rather than us in theirs.

“Many immigrants or second language English speakers have a complicated relationship with the language”

Aside from European settlers bringing English to places such as America and New Zealand, the beginnings of English globally can be traced through to countries such as Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados, who natively speak Creole: a combination of two language communities, one generally being European. This is due to their colonial roots – Patois, for example, is Jamaica’s English-based dialect, which emerged when the British brought African slaves to Jamaica and prevented them speaking their native language, in an attempt to erase memories of their homeland.

Similarly, many immigrants or second language English speakers have a complicated relationship with the language – friends and family often mention how they fill out forms, sort paperwork and act as the primary translator for their first-generation parents.

“In reality, the rise of technology is taking over”

Aria Aber, a writer raised in Germany and born to Afghan refugees says in an interview about her English poetry, “I know it is the colonizer’s language, but now it has opened the barriers between so many of us. I can speak to you because we both speak English.”

It is this generation of immigrants and non-English speakers that has caused English as we know it to evolve. The change in language can be seen especially in ethnically diverse areas such as London, where there has been a shift from Cockney rhyming slang to Multicultural London English (MLE). What’s more, this dialect is now shared across the country, predominantly through music and social media.

While there are many variants of English reflective of culture and area, the way we interact globally is also changing. Although there are predictions of Mandarin being the next global language as China thrives as a superpower, in reality, the rise of technology is taking over.

“The realisation of where we are headed towards as a society is sobering”

With devices and apps such as google translate providing instant two-way translation in hundreds of languages and, even converting whole pages of text instantly, the need to learn another language is quickly diminishing.

Although translation is a vital method of communication for vocational purposes, the marketing of these apps and devices strikingly targets backpackers and travellers who would use them for ‘daily human interaction’. While the practicality is evident, the realisation of where we are headed towards as a society is sobering.

We are therefore left with the unanswered question of what we value more – understanding language in a transactional way, or creating meaningful human connection – unanswered.

Roma Coombe

Featured image courtesy of Karen Roe via Flickr. Image licence found here. No changes were made to the image. 

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