Monday 11 December 2006

On languages uniting people

An MA student of international journalism, writing an article on the English-Speaking Union, asks me why language is such an important force in uniting people of different backgrounds or beliefs.

Well, I suppose it's because language is the only way in which we can really explore what those beliefs are. We can, of course, experience a country without saying a word in the local language, and have a great time, but if we want to begin to interpret what we have seen, and understand for ourselves the true uniqueness of the people and how they think, then we need to know (at least a little of) the language - or languages - in which their vision of the world is expressed. If we have no lingua franca in common, we have to rely on an interpreter or translator to make communication possible - something which works at a functional level well enough, but which distances us from the emotional realities that motivate the people. Only direct, face-to-face, one-to-one communication can make us feel we have really made contact with the way someone thinks.

This was brought home to me a few years ago. In 1999 I visited Mtemwa, a leprosy settlement in ZImbabwe, to find out more about the setting in which the missionary poet John Bradburne wrote, and because it was a hasty arrangement I was unable to get any Shona under my belt in advance. I couldn't even express a simple hello in the language or ask 'how are you?'. Gestures helped - especially the beautiful convention of gently clapping the hands as a sign of greeting, which I picked up straight away - but one can stay smiling at someone else only for so long. The people spoke no English at all, nor any other language I knew. I encountered them, therefore, but I did not feel I had really met them. Even a short and stilted conversation of my own would have helped me to feel more at one. My hosts spoke Shona, of course, so that helped by way of explanation of who I was and what I was doing there. But during the whole visit I felt on the edge of their world, when I wanted to understand more about it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to mind. In his 1833 Journal he said: 'No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, - so helpless and so ridiculous.' That's so true. Languages give us access to understanding, and the more languages we acquire the better.

A lingua franca adds a fresh dimension. And if the common language is one which is embedded in the culture of both communities of speakers, then it will have adapted to express their individuality, and it is then possible for the speakers on one side to make considerable progress in understanding the mindset of those on the other. Any lingua franca has this role, but a global one most of all. This is the position that English has found itself in. As a global lingua franca, it provides a medium of expression to anyone who cares to learn it, and at an official or semi-official level that means some 70 or so territories around the world. However, it is important to note what happens when a language travels in this way.

As soon as a territory adopts it, they adapt it - and the chief evidence is in the thousands of words that are used in each territory that are not known outside of it. Many of them have been collected into dictionaries now, such as the Dictionary of South African English, with its thousands of words borrowed into English from Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, and the other local languages there. Note that, because these words have emerged to express local interests and preoccupations (eg local politics, religion, fauna and flora), they will be opaque to first-time visitors to the territory. A lingua franca does not guarantee immediate cultural understanding. But at least the process is hugely facilitated by having the explanation of local words and expressions couched in a discourse that is for the most part intelligible to the outsider.

Notice that the process of understanding is different from the question of 'uniting'. The word 'understanding' is ambiguous: it can mean both 'comprehension' and 'sympathetic or empathetic comprehension'. Just because I understand your point of view does not mean to say I will like it. Some people hold the naive belief that a global language will result in a world of peace. However, just because people speak the same language does not stop them hating each other, as the history of civil wars has shown. Indeed, there is something to be learned from Iatiku, the mother goddess of the Acoma in New Mexico, who is said to have caused people to speak different languages so that it would make it difficult for them to quarrel! Certainly, there is a lot of evidence to support the view that the more a country espouses a sound multilingual policy the less likely it is to have ethnic conflict.

People learn a lingua franca not for idealistic reasons but for practical ones - to have access to sources of (economic, political, technological, military, religious, cultural...) knowledge and power. The danger, of course, is that, once that access has been achieved, a community will be sucked into the milieu of the dominant culture and lose its identity. This is something that the dominant culture needs to be aware of and do something about. Very important, therefore, in the strategy of organizations such as the English-Speaking Union, is the need to respect and support the other languages that are spoken within the English-speaking nations.

Even if one of the primary aims of the organization is improvement in English-using skills - as in the case of the ESU, with its excellent international debating competitions - there is clear evidence that these skills are facilitated by fostering the use of other languages. I recently read a report from CILT (the National Centre for Languages) which illustrated this kind of thing. For instance, there was a study of Portuguese children in London secondary schools which showed that those encouraged to continue studying their native language were five times as likely to achieve five top-graded A-to-C grades at GCSE. Or another, of 11-year-olds in Hackney: those who spoke more than one language at home were outperforming pupils who spoke only English, even in reading, in their national curriculum tests. I'm not at all surprised by this. We have just one brain, and the language centres in the brain have to handle every tongue we encounter. We don't know exactly how multilingualism is neurally represented, but it's only common-sense to think that fostering one element in our 'language organ' will have knock-on effects for others.

I remember once spending a few days in France, and was quite pleased with the way I managed to get my French up to a reasonable speed - enough to be able to give a lecture in it. By contrast, I hadn't used my much more limited Spanish for years. I would certainly not have been able to carry on even a basic conversation in Spanish at the beginning of my French visit, without a great deal of brushing up. But, towards the end of that visit, I happened to meet up with a group of Spanish speakers in a bar and found that my Spanish had somehow regenerated itself to a level where I was doing quite well. It was as if the continued exercise on the French-speaking part of my brain had opened up a channel to the Spanish-speaking part. Or maybe it was the g&t. Anyway, a few weeks later and I was back to square 1 in Spanish, with no amount of g&t helping. So there must be something in it.

There is more to the notion of 'uniting' than language, but without language I doubt whether there would ever be much unity.


Anonymous said...

Is there a danger of fragmentation of English in the growing emergence of distinct national varieties of English around the world?

DC said...

Some degree of fragmentation there is bound to be; whether you call it a 'danger' depends on your point of view. Think about Latin over a thousand years ago: as it spread, it (or, at least, a streetwise version of it) evolved different varieties, and the result is French, Spanish, Portuguese, and so on today - the Romance family of languages, with its associated characters and literatures. Classical Latin, of course, remained alongside these other developments.

There is every likelihood that an analogous development will take place in English. Indeed, the prpocess has already begun, so much so that some writers (such as Tom McArthur) have talked about 'the English languages' and ''an English family of languages'. Already we have seen such developments as Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea and 'Singlish' in Singapore, which derive from English but are now so different in form that they would be largely unintelligible to a monolingual English speaker. At the same time, standard English is used in these countries, alongside the local variant.

My view is that English will become increasingly diglossic, as time goes by - that is, where two variants of the same language are used within a society (as we see in Arabic, for example, with Classical and Colloquial variants co-existing). Standard English (albeit with some regional variants, such as we already see between British and American English) will continue to act as a unifying force, permitting international communication. Local varieties will evolve and become increasingly differentiated, permitting the expression of national or regional identities. How far those local varieties will come to differ from the standard varieties is difficult to predict. The situation is unprecedented, for there has never been a genuinely global language before and we have yet to determine the influence of the Internet on such developments.

Languages change as they spread. That is what they do. The consequences have to be managed, by individual countries. A widespread reaction has been to oppose the changes and to insist on the standard only; but if a country wishes to keep its identity strong, it needs to foster its local variety as it does the standard. People can easily cope with both. Indeed, in some parts of the world they handle three or more regional varieties with unselfconscious ease. At this point, of course, the notion of 'varieties of a language' begins to overlap with the notion of multilingualism.