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Popular anthropology for everyone.

The future of language

What will global lingua franca English look like?

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If people's creativity with language in places like Montreal is anything to go by, are some of the fears that English will destroy all other languages overstated?

Maybe inventing a new language in the likes of Zamenhof's Esperanto isn't the answer, but can we broaden our perspective of what the future of lingua franca English (LFE) would really look like without turning too readily to an apocalyptic vision of a sterile one-language, one-culture world ruled by omnipotent Wall Street CEOs and London bankers?

Some would say that the spread of English worldwide serves to connect and to facilitate economic and cultural interaction in a diverse global community. Given that no other language would be any less politicized or culturally invasive, denial or resistance to educate people in some form of lingua franca English (LFE) would then decrease the average citizens' ability to be aware of and to participate in the global economy. This could increase the chance of cultural and political subordination.

That being said, it's important to consider that the spread of English worldwide could irreversibly dilute cultural diversity (and arguably, already has). The encouragement of such a widely encompassing common language could impose a cultural and political hegemony of native English-speaking nations. This is an especially lethal dose when combined with the unsurpassed allure and preponderance of American soft power in the form of brands, technology, and entertainment worldwide.

Furthermore, some perspectives, such as that of political economist Philippe van Parijs, suggest that the necessity of English proficiency in the skilled labour market can be burdensome on struggling economies. They are often forced to divert funds from important social infrastructure projects in order to support expensive LFE learning programs and to offer enough money to local high skilled workers that match the tempting and comparatively luxurious salaries they could find if they migrated to wealthier English-speaking countries.

These cultural threats and the undesirable consequence of tipping the scales in favour of Anglophone nations, which van Parijs refers to as "brain drain," could lead us to conclude that LFE should be resisted and instead enforcement of linguistic territoriality should be favoured along with encouragement of multilingual communication that would force Anglophone nations to assume more responsibility for learning foreign languages, allowing cultures to interact on an equal footing.

Addressing the cultural side of this question, linguist Suresh Canagarajah's research on what he calls LFE's hybrid community identities proposes that there are many communities that use LFE in the most utilitarian way possible, without much risk of importing the aesthetics and morals of American sitcom reruns.

His research works off the reality that LFE speakers already greatly outnumber native speakers who use English as their primary means of communication. One of the greatest risks that comes with LFE is that most of the world would automatically be forced into the passenger seat of the power structure that arises when a native speaker converses with a non-native speaker.

The uninhibited freedom of expression of the native speaker can put them in a more comfortable position than the non-native speaker, who may focus too much on trying to use correct grammar and a diverse vocabulary to match the status of their native counterpart.

Canagarajah proposes that this is, in a large part, a problem because of the perceived goals of LFE learners and users. He suggests that LFE acquisition and use in the real world is not, and should not be, perceived as following a set structure or prescribed pedagogic progression towards a "mastery" or ultimate achievement such as the perfect emulation of native speakers.

It's therefore of little use to evaluate LFE proficiency against that of Anglo-American speakers because LFE has no relevance to those varieties of English. Instead, LFE speakers establish their own grammatical and syntactic norms to communicate freely and successfully.

For Canagarajah, it's not so much English itself that can impose the negative consequence of linguistic and cultural hegemony, but instead the way it is taught. If the goal of learning English is to emulate native speakers' accents and adhere to exact grammar norms in order to achieve "mastery" status, than the power structure is already set. The non-native speakers will always start low and be "working up" to match native speakers.

Maybe then one of the keys to moving forward with LFE in an egalitarian way is to teach it more as set of tools to be personalized by the user for his or her own purposes. People will still have to learn the culture of those from afar with whom they wish to interact, but both will in the least be able to meet with a common, shared system for expressing their desires and emotions.

Canagarajah even proposes that, as the global community of LFE speakers continues to grow, native speakers will more often find themselves the outsider in their own language as native grammar rules and lexicon become less important and their position of comfort less of an imposition on non-native colleagues and business partners.

Such a revaluation of language goals could have positive effects in regards to LFE speakers communicating with each other, but it still does not adequately address the issue of native speaker domination. The question is not just how to avoid hegemony by Anglophone country, but how to even out an already heavily biased set of scales that tip in their favour today. Nonetheless, this revaluation could help serve as a barrier to the sort of cultural imperialism feared with respect to the spread of English.

As I discussed in Part I of this article, Montréal is in an extremely vulnerable position, and bilingual communities like it will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future. The city's finances are hampered greatly by the expensive enforcement of Bill 101. The city, and whole province as a result, suffered greatly from the economic blow dealt by the panic-induced westward migration of major companies as they fled the implementation of the language restrictions. Even the Bank of Montreal now has its headquarters in Toronto.

And still, even with Bill 101 firmly in place, the number of unilingual Anglophone company executives creates an uneasy atmosphere and feeling that control is still slipping through the fingers of the Francophone majority. This insecurity often seeps into public debate about issues that outsiders may find trivial.

Controversies such as public outrage over the 2012 hiring of a unilingual Anglophone interim head coach of Montreal's NHL hockey team Les Canadiens plaster the city newspapers and nightly news hours. The city definitely stands as an example of a community feeling the fiscal and cultural weight of the Anglosphere sitting on its shoulders.

Although French language predominance remains strong outside of the city, Québec is still a province in a mostly English-speaking country, has an incredibly influential English-speaking southern neighbour, and inhabits a global community whose international politics and economics are dominated by English. The laws that uphold linguistic territoriality in favour of French do protect the language, and the debate to keep the city predominantly francophone is supported by intense emotion and passion from its inhabitants.

This is a complicated identity question that can maybe only be solved by Montrealers themselves, as they decide how comfortable they are with which balance of French and English in their daily lives.

So the question remains open. Qu'est-ce que fuck! should we do about LFE? Is our only choice to construct staunch legislative fortifications to protect our linguistic territories? Is the redefinition of LFE's role in the lives of language learners a worthwhile objective?

Would combining strong linguistic borders with a revaluation of how LFE curriculums choose their goals allow minority language communities to enter the global stage without the fear of losing their identities?

It is important that we don't get bogged down looking for strategies that only call on action by minority language communities. The Anglophone world must assume equal responsibility for the preservation of linguistic diversity and not be duped into believing English possess some sort of innate superiority.

As Van Parijs boldly asserts:

"it [English] is not the language with the most native speakers and, providing the linguistic territoriality principle is allowed to stick, will never become that. It is not the language for which the average knowledge is highest, though it may become that soon. It is a language which has no intrinsic value, no phonetic or syntactic advantages, no aesthetic superiority that might have predestined it for such an exceptional fate. It is the sloppily pronounced mixture of a Germanic Normandy. It is a hybrid that gradually solidified and slowly spread throughout Europe's largest island, before invading some surprisingly unpopulated areas much further afield and starting there and impressively effective job of linguistic cleansing through conversion."

Finding a balance between linguistic identity and convenience in global communication will be an issue we will all have to deal with as the world's language map evolves in the twenty-first century.

This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I was "Lingua Franca English, qu'est-ce que fuck?"

The Anglophone world must assume equal responsibility for the preservation of linguistic diversity

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English textbook. Photo by Penarc via Wikipedia.
English textbook. Photo by Penarc via Wikipedia.