It was Theodore Roosevelt who proclaimed that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.” He could not have been more wrong.
In the global context, it is English that poses a danger to other languages, and not vice versa. Thanks to the English language, the curse of Babel is no longer a threat, as the world becomes unified under a common tongue, but the implications are disastrous.
While the globalization of a single language has the potential to connect diverse communities and individuals from different ends of the world, the cost outweighs the benefit.
The Guardian reported that among the 6,000 languages, one dies every two weeks, and that 50 to 90 percent of languages will become extinct by the end of the century. In California alone, 30 indigenous languages have become extinct post-European arrival. English has spread to at least 59 countries where it is an official language, is spoken by almost 400 million people and is the second language for a billion more.
When most of the academic world’s research is published in English, and more than half of web content is the same, it is hard to have one’s voice heard in any other language. It is the ladder for remaining relevant in the modern world at the expense of alienating all those who continue to use what are seen as “irrelevant” or “lesser than” languages.
It has also become increasingly difficult for non-English writers to gain readership, when many of the people in their own countries view English books as more important to read.
Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o explained this as a result of colonialism, in which students were punished for decades when reading, writing or speaking their native languages in school.
In Korea, for example, learning English has become a must. It is required for even the most basic jobs, even ones that have no practical use for it. Parents have stopped passing down native languages to their kids, and some have even resorted to oral surgery (in hopes of allowing them to speak better English, despite limited scientific proof).
The ancient question remains: Does language shape thought and reality?
German explorer Alexander von Humboldt theorizes that “every language draws a circle around its speakers, creating a distinct worldview through its grammar as well as in its vocabulary.”
Therefore, if language can structure thought, then with the death of many languages, comes the death of thought. Poetry, literature and speech become restricted and finite. Not only limiting thought, but emotions and the way humans craft reality.
If von Humboldt is correct, we would be drawing one giant circle around the world and creating only one world view and experience for all global citizens.
Today, it may seem normal to be monolingual, but in a historical context, it is irregular. Royals, political leaders, businessmen, traders and many more were all multilingual. It is wrong to assume that the only way to connect is through one language, when in fact multilingual global citizens can do the same, but with more ideas, thoughts and philosophies shared. In places like Cameroon where this is present, a 10-year-old can easily juggle among five languages commonly.
As Charlemagne said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
It is faulty to ignore the cost of which we traded to have the English language spread worldwide, possibly costing us our second souls.
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