Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In Praise Of English Speakers Everywhere

I speak 3 languages: English, Spanish, and Dutch. English and Dutch I learned as a child. They were free. Spanish I learned on my own. Spanish is an easy language, but I worked hard to learn it. I've spent several months in Spanish lessons and studied hundreds if not thousands of hours. I have a library of Spanish books to practice with, and a collection of Spanish Language CDs and DVDs. Learning a language is one of the most difficult things we can do.

Yet when I travel around, I barely need to know any other languages. All over the world millions of motivated people are learning English. Because of their hard work, I don't have to be able to speak their language. It's really incredibly unbalanced.

Like it or not, English has become the dominant language in the world. Part of it is due to accidents of history; the United States is the dominant military and economic power in the world. But much of it is due to the structure of the language itself. English is an incredibly flexible and powerful language which has an elegant writing system. Chinese has a 50,000 character alphabet. In French a comittee has to decide which words are allowed into the language. As English speakers we were born into one of the best technologies for expressing ourselves and recording our thoughts. English is the language of science, partially because many of the subtle concepts in Science are easier to express in English. That's also why French is good for poetry, but unfortunately for the French poets have less influence in todays world than scientists.

My study of Spanish (and a less successful attempt to grasp some Kyrgyz and Chinese) has given me a great appreciation of all those who speak English as a second language. When a Chinese person is able to talk to me in English I can only imagine how hard they must have studied. When a Kyrgyz tour guide translates for me, I realize that behind the translation are thousands of hours of study and practice, and that every discussion involves stunning mental gymnastics. All over the world there are millions of people who spend their spare time in language classes trying to learn our language. So that they can talk to us.

Think about this the next time somebody talks to you in broken English. Think of the hours they've spent with dictionaries and flash cards trying to get to the point where they could communicate with you at all. Thank them for all their hard work.


Bill Chapman said...

I'd be interested to read your view of Esperanto. Have you learned it?

UK Student said...

English certainly is a more accessible language to learn. And when you consider that globalisation is shrinking the world it is only natural that English becomes more dominant. After all, the very people who speak broken English when you're on holiday, heave learned what they have partly in response to your presence. Another top reason to learn English is because of the amount of entertainment and literature that comes out of English speaking countries - we all know how bad dubbing and subtitles are!

And when you think about the whole host of reasons why people would want to visit English speaking countries for holidays, it's no surprise that many combine their holidays with study, and learn English.