While studying in France this past summer, I was determined to put my French skills to the test. Whether ordering a drink at a bar or saying hi to fellow classmates, I tried my best to avoid using English. Although I literally flew thousands of miles across the ocean to immerse myself in a culture with a different tongue, I found myself speaking and being spoken to in English much more than desired. For the most part, this was due to my strong accent, causing the bi/trilingual people of France to immediately respond in English out of politeness. However, there is a much more uncomfortable issue here than my level of embarrassment after trying and failing to speak French: the dominating presence of English as the lingua franca.
In their most recent issue, The New Yorker published an article titled “The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages.” While following a hyperpolyglot, an individual who speaks upwards of six languages fluently, the author, Judith Thurman, explores the mindsets of these people and the small international community in which they exist. One particular note in the article stood out to me — hyperpolyglots are often reluctant or unwilling to speak in English. Thurman explained that many of them “resent [English’s] status as a global bully language.”
These hyperpolyglots are right; the English language is a bully. It creeps up in times of weakness (possible miscommunication, lack of confidence in speaking skills, etc.) and forces itself upon communicators. Many of the American students I spent time with in France reverted to English because they weren’t confident in their French skills, and many of the French people I became friends with or spoke to felt pressured to speak in English to me (despite the fact that they knew I was there to learn).
The harm this creates goes farther than affecting me, a monolinguist, wanting to learn a new language — English’s über dominance over linguistics has already and will continue to erode cultures around the world.
In a previous piece for the opinion section, I wrote about how understanding multiple languages can change your worldview. Every language has words that cannot be translated directly into another, becoming a priceless gem within the realm of communication. Take the French word “chez,” for example. Translating to “at the home of” or “on someone’s home turf,” that one word functions simply and uniquely within that language. Or, look at Xhosa, a South African language in which tonal differences can completely change the meaning of a word. Xhosa is defined by a clicking noise, written as “c,” “x” or “q,” where each written letter holds place for five to six tonally distinct sounds. The nuances and particulate nature of the world’s languages, all 6,909 of them (according to the 2009 Ethnologue), are going to be slowly wiped out as English continues to become the hegemonic form of communication.
Of course, there is the obvious positive of having such a dominant lingua franca: the gift of communication. More than ever, people across the globe have been able to communicate thanks to the widespread presence of English. However, this positive can only be defined as such for so long. After time, English’s influence will begin to phase out less popular languages. Younger generations, for example, may be less apt to learn their native tongue with English being seen as more useful.
Unfortunately, we aren’t all hyperpolyglots who can dedicate their lives to the linguistic and cultural importance of different spoken forms of communication. Ultimately, the only thing we can really do to slow the erasure of languages is to learn and respect others. Don’t be mad at the fact that you have to complete a language requirement at Wake Forest, and don’t expect everyone to speak English.