2. English, the lingua franca

For the moment, I’m lucky. My native language is the new lingua franca. English is, without a doubt, the most common language around the world. However, we shouldn’t count our dictionaries before their printed, since it’s not the first language to garner such a title and it probably won’t be the last. English, like Latin or Greek or French, will probably not reign supreme forever. Word on the street is Chinese could step up to the plate when English strikes out. Not sure how many strikes its got left, but lets just say it shouldn’t be too cocky at bat. It won’t be the first widespread language to overextend its stay on the plate and wind up back in the bullpen.

To learn English is an all but necessary part of education in most countries, and the teachers in those classrooms aren’t always native speakers from the inner circle (as defined by Kachru), which means the new priority isn’t to find teachers with English as their mother tongue, but to find anyone fluent enough to spread the language to the new generations. Hence, the creation of new Englishes, meaning that non-native speakers are teaching non-native speakers, and these ESL (English as a Second Language) users inevitably create their own breed of nativized English. Look at India. Look at China. Look at parts of Africa. They absorbed English like bread soaks up blood stains, then turned those stains into something useful. English is part of their culture now, if still removed from the lower class, used in government, in trade, in communication and business. But it doesn’t always sound like “inner circle” English because it has been adapted to their culture, stripped apart and rebuilt like an open-source program. It is a tool, like a walking stick on a rough mountain trail or a hammer when you’ve got something to nail, and there are countries out there who have more speakers of nativized English than there are native speakers of English.

Let’s not forget that English is already a mutated hybrid of a half-dozen languages before it. English was once despised and looked down upon. Now, you can take your native English accent and make bank overseas if you play your contract right.

If English continues to spread, and there’s no reason it won’t, then we’ll be as close to a universal language that we’ve ever been. Of the 7 billion on this planet, we’ll still be out of touch with a majority, but less because of the language and more because of physical distance (and the internet has already made that less daunting). We will have the potential to speak with cultures around the world, not without a fair share of code-switching and miscommunication, but we’ll at least be able to communicate. Think of the misunderstandings we could clear up. The compromises we could come to. The beautiful things we could discover once we know how to speak to each other.

I can’t deny that I’m lucky to be a native speaker. It makes my transition into the new world a little easier, since I’m not obligated to learn a new language. That’s not to say I don’t want to learn a new one, and I’ve already got a good amount of Spanish and some Turkish in my repertoire, but my mother tongue is the tongue that this world is craving these days. And this isn’t a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with learning a new language. I wish I could learn them all, collect them up like Pokemon. The brain loves it. The soul grows from it. Your mind expands, your understanding of other cultures increases, and soon you’ll have the option to travel to these new places and speak directly to the locals. How cool is that? Not everyone can do that. I think it’s good to get kids around the world to learn English. They can use it every single day if they’re motivated, and they’ll be happy they learned it when they grow up and recognize the benefits.

When I studied abroad in Istanbul, it blew my mind to make so many international friends who spoke basically perfect English. We communicated with nary a mistake and it rarely crossed my mind that these students were speaking a second (or third) language to me. At the flick of a switch they’d resort to their native tongue to gossip. It was a really inspiring discovery to see how amazing it would be if we all had this potential to share and laugh with each other, but most importantly, learn from each other. Language is how we connect. Language among different cultures is how we battle ignorance and fear, but only if that language crosses borders.

Anyway, I think it’s okay that English is spreading so rapidly. People worry that it will destroy the cultural variety of the world, but I disagree. English isn’t asking people to forget their country and their mother tongue. English says, “Use me. I’m a tool. I’m here to make the world make more sense.” It’s not barging into your house uninvited. It’s not secretly removing your French and Spanish and German vocabulary while you sleep. It’s on your side. It’s aiming to unite the world.

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3 thoughts on “2. English, the lingua franca

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