An ode to bad English

If you do not understand the urgency of a common language and the damaging effects that unmediated  language barriers can have on social cohesion, equality, and well-being, I suggest you spend some time in South Africa. 

I did not choose my mother tongue.

At best, I could argue that my parents chose it for me, based on the instruments they had at their disposal. They chose it for me over and over again, not only by speaking to me in a certain language, but by sending me to a specific school, in a specific country, at a specific time. How much of this was really a choice is up for debate – realistically, not much, although my parents probably had more agency than most people on this planet.

At worst, I can see my language as something transmitted through my family from one generation to another, like our genes. Something we did not choose and that we are doomed to perpetuate. The difference is that, while we cannot choose to transmit only certain genes to our children (unless we decide not to have children or adopt children that do not carry out genes), we can choose not to transmit our language to our children. People who decide to do exactly that are often condemned by a left-leaning, polyglot intelligentsia, who feels that multilingualism is the prerequisite for cultural autonomy and should therefore be preserved at all cost. In reaction to earlier ideas about superior and inferior cultures, about civilized and uncivilized peoples and advanced vs. primitive languages, post-modernist thinking popularized the idea that multilingualism is an inherent advantage and something to be celebrated.

And yet, humanity has long felt that the fact that not all human beings speak the same language is a rather unfortunate state of affairs that requires explanation. Myths about the origin of multilingualism abound in different cultures. The Tower of Babel is the culprit most familiar to Europeans, while the Aztecs held that multilingualism resulted from a Great Flood:

“[Only] a man, Coxcox, and a woman, Xochiquetzal, survive, having floated on a piece of bark. They found themselves on land and begot many children who were at first born unable to speak, but subsequently, upon the arrival of a dove were endowed with language, although each one was given a different speech such that they could not understand one another.”
(Source: Wikipedia: Mythical Origins of Language)

All these myths view multilingualism at best as something inconvenient and at worst as a punishment. I would argue that, while academia is out celebrating our diversity and inability to understand each other as a source of great wealth, the reality for many people is much more closely aligned with the myths of old. There is a disturbing discrepancy between theory and practice as far as multilingualism is concerned, and it intersects with considerations about power, access and equality.

Don’t get me wrong: I am happy that I speak several languages. I am glad that I have learned different ways of describing things that allow me to talk to many people. I understand that knowing more languages allows me to speak to more people, therefore, learning languages is something that I believe should be encouraged at least unless we find a better solution to achieve the same outcome, i.e. communication and mutual comprehension.

Whenever I have been faced with a situation where I was unable to communicate with another person because we lacked a common language, this has been a source of frustration. It gave rise to this nagging feeling that I was missing out on something, unable to explore my common humanity with the person in front of me. Never once have I been unable to communicate with a person and thought that this was reason for celebration, that it was a wonderful thing that we were separated by language. Never once have I heard anyone say, whether directly, in a language that I understand, or through a language mediator, “Wow, I am so glad I don’t speak your language”. The fact is, we enjoy communicating. We like understanding one another. Speaking the same language helps us do that. There is a reason why refer to the opposite scenario as there being a language ‘barrier’.

Languages are furthermore unequal in terms of power. While the effort that goes into learning a language is enormous for any language, the returns on this investment vary greatly. Indeed, some languages allow us to access mountains of information and communicate with hundreds of millions of people, while others might only give us access to a very small community. Some languages help us find jobs, others do not. Some languages allow us to go through higher education, others do not. I am not arguing that this is a good thing. I am simply arguing that this is a thing. Denying it will not get us anywhere.

I am convinced that there is nothing inherently wrong with Sesotho, Kikamba, and Tamil – the argument that some languages are inherently superior to others and therefore more suitable to be global languages or languages of scientific discovery is simplistic, outdated and lacking in empirical evidence. It is also an argument often made from an overtly or covertly racist perspective.

English is not better than Sipedi but it is bigger. The reality is that certain languages have emerged as dominant in the world today, while others have remained marginal, through absolutely no fault of their own. The reality is that I am glad that a lot of academic production happens in languages that I have access to, that I am glad that I was lucky to be born speaking languages that made it fairly easy for me to learn English later in life. The reality is that an insufficient mastery of English is detrimental to the advancement of otherwise highly competent academics, and prevents millions of people from accessing higher education and taking part in scientific debates, and that this is deeply unfair. So how could I condemn a mother for wanting their children to have the same advantages? How could I argue that people should preserve their language at all cost, even if it is detrimental to their own economic and social status?

We have to acknowledge that, for any individual, it is easier to gain access to education, information, markets and international travel by learning one of the dominant languages, rather than by engaging in a fight to raise the status of their own language until it becomes equal to those dominant languages. That fight, besides being unlikely to succeed, could last several generations, would require a sustained and concerted effort, and might not benefit any individual participant in their lifetime. Language learning is comparatively shorter, easier and more likely to result in immediate gains for a given individual. Once an individual has gone through this process of mastering a dominant language, the incentives for them are high to allow their children to take a shortcut: although the next generation might still speak the parents’ mother tongue at home, they might go to school in English or another more dominant language, so as to ensure that they pick it up while they are still small. When political incentives point in the other direction, for instance by encouraging public education to be organized exclusively in the national/local language, this cements exclusion even further, in particular in developing countries: the rich send their children to English-only private schools, while the poor must accept that their offspring learns biology from outdated textbooks in their mother tongue, sometimes donated by generous missionaries who, incidentally, inserted a few of their own ideas about the origins of humanity into the chapters on evolution.

“She is saying we should all speak English, right? She is saying we should all be Americanized, part of the global empire, right?”

No, I am not.

I am saying that humanity would benefit from having a shared medium of communication, and that English is currently the language that is most likely to become this globally shared medium. From where we currently stand, we might end up embracing different scenarios. Below, I briefly explore three possible scenarios: rejection, assimilation and appropriation. Saying these exist is, however, not the same as saying that they are good. Indeed, this whole article is merely a thought experiment.

Option 1: Rejection

I write in English because I want to reach as many people as I can and because most of my friends are able to at least partly understand what I am writing here. The others might be able to figure most of it out by relying on – rudimentary yet constantly improving – tools like Google Translate. So I am clearly not an Option 1 practitioner.

But what would option 1 look like? Option 1 is the resistance. Everyone promoting their own language over English, through political pressure and personal activism. If you are an academic and want to be part of Option 1 it will involve publishing your papers in non-English journals and accepting the loss this entails in terms of impact factor and related measurements. It will involve systematically reading the available literature on your topics of interest in all available languages, not only English and not only the languages you have access to. Sitting down with a translator to help you figure out what a fellow scientist of the Option 1 persuasion working in Goa and publishing in his mother tongue has to say about transcultural communication, milk production or climate change.

Option 1 might become feasible if we manage to hack automatic translation to the point where it is seamless accross all languages. If we develop a technology that resembles the Babel Fish in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Option 1 is a multlingual utopia – sign me up, I’m all for it. It would allow me to immediately communicate with people who are radically different from me and understand them better. I love it.

The problem with option 1 is feasibility.

Option 2: Assimilation

English is the future, English is the world language, let’s all embrace English by reading Mark Twain, watching Baseball and celebrating Thanksgiving with stuffed Turkey. When was Boxing Day again? Are we getting discounts, too?

Option 2 is total assimilation into the currently dominant culture associated with the English language. Option 2 entails polishing your accent until you sound like a Texan, consuming American pop culture until you only laugh about their jokes, abandoning your own cultural practices until we are all the same.

Assimilation has two main disadvantages. The first one is obviously that we might not consider the American way to be the best way for humanity. The second is that history teaches us that human beings have an innate tendency to distinguish between an ingroup and an outgroup. When people speak different languages, these become a “natural” barrier between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. When people speak the same language, they will still find a way to create groups, often along even more sinister lines: skin colour, religion, gender, wealth, sexual orientation. Speaking one language is not a solution for identity politics, it will not abolish differences, it will simply change the criteria we apply. Also, the expectation of native-level competency creates a hierarchy between individuals and excludes those who cannot make it. The idea that all people on the planet will reach native-level competency in American English is entirely unrealistic – let’s remember that many Americans, some of them in positions of power, have to date not mastered this feat.

The problem with option 2 is desirability and feasibility. Option 2 is not very lucky I guess.

Option 3: Appropriation

This option combines elements of the first two, but does not present the same problems with regards to feasibility. It boils down to owning the English language, relating to it in a more utilitarian way. Making it a tool for communication that no single culture, country, or group of individuals can own. You can call it ‘Globish’, ‘Global English’, ‘English as a Lingua Franca’ (ELF), or Simple English. It does not really matter. I call it ‘L2-English’ but you will see below why this term has serious limitations.

As more and more people with different native languages and experiences enter the global communication space, this transactional form of L2-English can evolve into a pidgin, incorporating elements of other languages, ideas from a variety of cultures, concepts relating to opposing worldviews, accents that reveal multiple layers of personal identity and linguistic biography. Option 3 activism involves owning English and changing it. It involves reading multiple Englishes, never laughing at someone because of their accent, assessing academic papers based on content rather than style. It involves, to a certain extent, developing the ability to dissociate what people say from how they say it. Abandoning ideas about linguistic purity, norms, rights and wrongs. Using language as a purely pragmatic, utilitarian instrument for communication.

You might argue that this will invariably be followed by another Tower of Babel event, the emergence of several varieties of L2-English that gradually become mutually incomprehensible. Not really. We now have technology that allows us to communicate globally, in real-time. Information flows faster than ever before. Intercomprehension is lost when contact is lost. We are no longer condemned to lose contact from those who are geographically far from us.

However, the real problem with L2-English is that it will quickly become a mother tongue, i.e. only language, for a new generation. This might mean that our relationship to language might change, that certain ways of expressing ideas are lost even though the ideas themselves are not (whether one can really separate the two is a debate for another day, for the sake of argument let’s say that yes, we can express the same idea in different ways and therefore ideas and style are to some extent separable from one another…). It might entail a phase of linguistic impoverishment that would, however, invariably be followed by a new phase of enrichment: We are still the same people, capable of the same genius, so why should L2-English not produce its own poets and language virtuosos? Every language has evolved from a simpler ancestor.

The problem with option 3 is that we do not really know where it will take us.

Where next?

The might be many other options that I have not explored in this post. However, from where I currently stand, the world looks like it will move towards Option 3. This does not mean that this is necessarily the best option, merely that it seems to be the most likely.

Option 2, on the other hand, looks increasingly unlikely, especially since America is not exactly gaining ground in terms of social and cultural leadership. We might want to remain vigilant, but we might not have to become paranoid.

Option 1 might all of a sudden pop into existence if we make a scientific and technological breakthrough. A little universal language decoder that we can install in the brain. Chomsky would be delighted, the creators of Star Trek vindicated.

I guess that, even though multilingualism is my source of income, I quite like the idea of humanity speaking a common language. And maybe ‘torturing’ the English language until it adapts to the multi-faceted identities of otherwise very different people is the easiest way to get there…

My tailor is rich… but my English is poor

The little kid is sitting on the ground, staring at his knees. He is shy, I am told. Does not like to speak to strangers. Cannot really speak French.

Since the parents separated, the mother moved back to the German speaking part of Switzerland. “The school counselor told me I have to stop confusing him by speaking my dialect. So now I have to speak only French when he visits and then he goes to school in German.” He looks sad but eager to do the right thing for his child.

His ‘dialect’? Bambara. An actual language, spoken by up to 15 million people in Mali and several neighbouring countries. A language with a rich literary tradition, maintained over centuries through griots. The language of a an ancient kingdom. The reason he should refrain to speak it in order not to confuse the child? Swiss German.

“Actually, I thought Swiss German is a dialect, while Bambara is a language…” He laughs at my observation. He laughs because he understands the implications. He laughs because he had not looked at things that way. He laughs because he realises that how we value languages is essentially a matter of perspective. And from my perspective, my tailor is rich.

Just like my tailor, thousands of parents whose mother tongue does not have the required economic, cultural or political capital refrain from communicating with their own children in the language that is closest to their heart and encapsulates their being. I have observed this in practice among diasporic communities in Europe (whether Congolese, Cameroonian, or Vietnamese) and among elites in capitals of the “Global South”.

The issue is far from straightforward. Western linguists are often eager to promote the use of African languages (in Africa), for example in primary education. There is of course a case to be made for educating children in a language they actually understand (duh…). I can imagine the uphill battle primary school teachers are facing in countries that try to enforce English or French as official language of instruction from grade one. The puzzled faces of first graders who understand nothing the lady in front of the blackboard is telling them. Who are told off when asking a question in the language they can speak and that they know their teacher understands. Hopefully by week two they get the basics and by month three they can repeat sentences. Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o describes this eloquently in his Decolonising the Mind. The language of the home, the language of school, the language of the self and of otherness.

I can furthermore imagine the plight of primary school teachers who, sometimes from one day to the next, are told that the language of instruction is now “mother tongue”. How to translate the teaching materials from English into Dholuo or Maasai? Hey lady, we never said teaching was an easy job. You just take care of it. Acha kulalamika.

Mother tongue education is one of these things where we as Europeans tend to make quick judgements, based on our own intuition of linguistic rights and wrongs. Of course children should be instructed in their mother tongue. Of course one needs to promote minority languages. How can this even be controversial? And yet, in today’s Sub-Saharan Africa, the intuitive answer is not always the right one. In today’s economy, native speakers of German and native speakers of Kikamba do not have the same opportunities. Not all mother tongues are created equal. A good mastery of English or French will open doors that remain shut to those who “only” master endogenous African languages. Sometimes the difference between those in managerial positions and those in long-term unemployment boils down to what they speak and how they pronounce it. Where English is a source of considerable symbolic capital, Received Pronunciation is the cherry on top. While this is not a good thing, it is a reality for millions of people.

In order to gradually change this state of affairs, the promotion of language diversity and mother tongue instruction makes sense. Not surprisingly, many governments have been promoting exactly this. At individual level, however, those parents who have the possibility (i. e. the money) to choose will decide to send their child to the kind of school that they think offers her or him the best opportunities. Individuals want to survive in the society they live in, not in a Utopian future that might materialize but probably never will. More often than not, the very same ministers who promote mother tongue education in rural areas send their children to expensive private schools where English (or French) is the only language of instruction. Mother tongue education and minority languages for the poor, international curricula with instruction in large languages for the rich. The language game obeys the same rules than many phenomena, well understood by any scholar who studies society: the interests of the individual and those of the group often run counter to each other.

In the West, we read statistics such as “One language dies every two weeks” and we are convinced that something should really be done about this. We read that people are losing their traditions, and we feel concerned. And yet, human beings everywhere in the world strive for happiness and a better life for their children. While we are wedded to our respective culture and tradition, we are often willing to embrace new languages, new religions and new ideologies in order to enjoy better living conditions. In the age of cultural relativism, we sometimes tend to forget that, while all cultures are fundamentally valuable in their own right, structural inequalities mean that, from a very pragmatic point of view, different cultures have different market values.

In today’s world, my tailor will be rich if his English is not poor.

Nevertheless, language mastery is a not a binary, it is not 1 or 0. As has been argued for instance by Borchgrevink (2003), a limited mastery of a language can already make a great difference in helping us to establish trust, build relationships, become part of a group. While perfect mastery of all languages present in a family or city is not a realistic goal in most contexts, artificially limiting a child’s exposure to a language that would normally be present in their environment strikes me as equally impractical.

The question of mother tongue vs. official language might best be answered with a question: “Why not both?

*If you do not understand the title of this post, click here: Arte Carambolage – My Tailor is Rich

Cited References:

Borchgrevink, A. (2003), ‘Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters’, Ethnography 4(1), 95-121.