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Is the English language privileged? It’s certainly popular

Opinion: English is not a ‘better’ language. But the reality is that, for a host of reasons, it is prevailing as perhaps the world’s second language of choice

By Vancouver Sun |

I recently travelled to the home of Ludwik Zamenhof, the Russian-Polish Jew who in 1873 invented Esperanto. It was intended to become the world’s first universal language.

Hoping it would end wars, Warsaw-based Zamenhof dreamed Esperanto would encourage people to come together under a common language. He thought that kind of connection would help overcome the distrust that can be exacerbated by the globe’s multi-language Tower of Babel.

Zamenhof’s vision of a common language caught on for hundreds of thousands. I have met people in Poland, South America and elsewhere who learned Esperanto as children. But, needless to say, the cause of Esperanto is now virtually lost.

Whether we like it or not, English is on the road to become the world’s lingua franca.

It is not the world’s most spoken language — that’s Mandarin. But English is arguably the language most commonly adopted as the medium of communication between speakers whose native languages are different.

I know I’m not the only Canadian who has travelled — in my case to Indonesia, Argentina, Denmark,Spain, Poland, Brazil, Turkey, Germany and elsewhere — and witnessed a collection of multilingual speakers suddenly revert to English, even if awkwardly, as they seek a shared way to talk.

It is a thing to behold. It is humbling.

As a native English speaker, I am not proud to say I only know about 1,500 words of French that I have trouble putting together in a meaningful way. I’m intimidated by new languages, whereas many friends and family are polyglots. So, for that matter, are most Europeans, where 97 per cent of 13-year-olds now study English.

It rarely ceases to amaze me when disparate multilingual people around the world show me and others their respect (and perhaps their pity) by speaking in English. Of course, most of them also like the chance to practise the language, since they know it is a key to new vistas.

English is one of many historical colonial languages; along with French, Spanish and, in modern times, Russian and Mandarin. But it’s also increasingly become the language of soft global power. For complex reasons, English continues to attract hundreds of millions of non-Anglo Saxons.

The English language is probably the prime reason the vast majority of Asian and other families make sure their offspring go to colleges and universities in Australia, Britain, the U.S. and Canada.

(Believe it or not, some amusing surveys also suggest Canadians are thought to have attractive accents.)

Maybe it’s not the way many would have wished it. But it’s the reality.

It’s important that thousands of other languages remain practised by tens of millions, whether Spanish, German, Hindi, French, Cantonese, Russian or Punjabi. The same goes for Celtic Welsh (the language of my grandmother), as well as Navajo, Ojibway and Inuktitut.

English is not necessarily a “better” language, whatever that means. But the reality is that, for a host of reasons, it is prevailing as perhaps the world’s second and third language of choice.

In some ways, that makes it a privilege to be a native English speaker.

That’s not the same, though, as “white privilege,” a term so broad as to be often meaningless, especially when it’s a form of finger-pointing. For starters, in regards to language, it shouldn’t be necessary to point out many white people don’t speak English.

Still, I have often felt the privilege, of sorts, of having non-native English speakers suddenly shift into my native language to communicate with me. I know I’m not alone: It’s elementary to argue it is random good luck to not really be forced to learn another language.

That said, I sometimes see it as a disadvantage that I was not pressed by the circumstances of my family of origin, birthplace or educational class to feel compelled to learn other languages at a young age, when it might have been easier.

Whatever the case, it’s wonderful at many levels for the world to have diverse languages, since it helps ethnocultural groups maintain their historical memory, traditions and distinctiveness.

 

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