Saturday, April 17, 2010

Monotonously Monolingual

Living in a monolingual English-speaking country as a native speaker of 2 languages with fluency in several more, I am constantly amazed at people's perceptions of language. Whilst people who come from monolingual countries whose language is not English may have some misconceived ideas about language, the dominance of English creates its own linguistic paradigm.

Recently, there has been some legislation aimed at bilingualism in the US. Some of the discourse around the policy displays unease at the increase in Spanish speakers in the US, and there have been calls to recognise English as the official language of the US supported by the likes of these guys. In Canada, the acrimony between Québec and the "Rest of Canada" continues unabated. In Australia, the Northern Territory government, which covers a large percentage of Australia's indigenous languages, has publicly stated that it will roll back education in indigenous languages in favour of English. This in a country that has already killed off over half of its indigenous languages.

There's a view that if you speak English, there's no need to speak any other language or that speaking a second language compromises your ability to speak English. Then there is this assumption that the dominance of English is somehow due to it being superior than other languages so its success is akin to some kind of linguistic Darwinism. Darwinism it may be, but likely economic, political and cultural and not intrinsically linguistic.

I was reading an article from a few years ago in the Times Online that claimed that there was no point learning or supporting Gaelic because it was an inferior language. His main linguistic piece of evidence? The fact that Gaelic has no word for 'yes' or 'no'. I was gobsmacked. As a multilingual person, I'm acutely aware that all of the languages I speak have words, expressions and grammatical structures that don't exist in the other languages. Gaelic may not have a direct equivalent of 'yes', but English only has one word versus 2 in French and German ('oui/si', 'ja/doch'). Does that make French or German twice as good or useful than English? No, it's these differences that provide a rich diversity between languages.

The view amongst dominant monolinguals towards those who don't speak the dominant language or who wish to maintain their own linguistic traditions tends towards antipathy. When you suggest to those English-speakers that they learn another language, you're greeted with derision. I read a couple of blogs about language politics in Québec: AngryFrenchGuy and Chronicles of a Pure Laine. What gets to me in the pervasive attitude of English Canadians that the French should all speak English, but the English shouldn't learn to speak French. The hostility towards the French trying to protect their language against a tsunami of English is palpable, anglophones seem to take it as a personal affront.

Yet Canada has this incredible opportunity to become bilingual if it wanted to, instead it's drifting towards monolingualism and proudly so. Apparently there's nothing wrong with a francophone being forced to speak English in Québec despite French being the official language, but could you imagine the reaction of the English-speaking media if someone turned up to a hospital in Vancouver and the doctor said "Sorry, you'll have to speak in French because I don't speak English". There would be pitchforks and flaming torches in the streets baying for blood. Yet the English are confounded by francophone hostility. Four legs good, two legs bad.

This phenomenon isn't unique to English. The French are doing a good job at wiping the likes of Breton from the face of the planet, the Chinese are doing their best ethnic cleansing with the Tibetan language, South Africa has killed off the Bushman languages, Bo died just recently. However, due to its sheer population, China will soon replace the US as the dominant power in the world. Given the official Chinese attitude towards diversity, English might be a distant memory in 200 years at the hands of Mandarin, victim to the same phenomenon that caused its rise.

Language policy reminds me of the Borg from Star Trek. I fear for the day that the planet becomes just one monotonously monolingual monoculture.


  1. Well said! I get so tired of the attitude of English is the best language ever and will never be replaced.

    I only speak English myself, but I'm working to learn others. It's foolish to think that English's way of communicating is the best one.

    I keep mentioning that English might be the "lingua Franca" now, but where do you think that term came from? It won't always be the dominant language.

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