Skip to comments.The global spread of English is a seismic event in Man's history
Posted on 01/14/2005 9:39:58 PM PST by saquin
WHAT WOULD you think was the biggest thing to hit human culture, worldwide, in the past quarter century? To the anthropologist of modern Man, what change would head the list? The explosion of air travel? No, most of those alive today will never fly. HIV-Aids? No, just one of many terrible scourges our species has faced: diarrhoea and malaria still kill more. The collapse of communism and rise of the global free market? The internet? These point the way, but still reach only a minority.
The answer stares us in the face. Like much that does so, it is widely overlooked. But it struck me forcibly in Africa this week (and I bet it will have struck Gordon Brown) as I sat in the back row of the Grade 1 class at Digum Complete Elementary School, by the side of a dirt road nearly 1,000 kilometres north of Addis Ababa in the Tigra region of Ethiopia.
This country, you will recall, was for many centuries a remote and independent African kingdom whose only colonial experience was as an Italian possession for a short period before the Second World War. The British never came here much. Ethiopia is in nobodys sphere of influence.
My class at Digum school were aged between five and seven: 44 boys and girls, some barefoot, some decently dressed, many in rags; some fit and healthy, some with sores or burns, or eye problems. Few would ever have been to Addis Ababa. None had seen another country and few ever will. None will ever have been in a lift or seen an escalator. Some will not have entered a two-storey building. Most will never have made a telephone call and some will never have seen one taking place: a fascinated crowd gathered as I made a satellite call from our campsite to The Times. None will ever have had a television, though some of their parents will have owned a radio and all of them will have listened to one.
The children were divided into a morning shift and an afternoon shift. Thus did their impressive headmaster, Mr Getachew, and his 30 staff, manage to run a school of 1,644 children housed in six long single-storey cabins scattered over an acre of dust.
I had arranged my visit quite by chance. Our guide thought we would be welcome, and we were. Every child stood as we entered a class. George Bush and Mr Tony Blair will never visit our school, said the Grade 8 teacher, Mr Hailay, so you are our most important foreign visitors. He should invite Mr Brown.
The Grade 1 classroom where I sat had no teaching aids at all, save tiny wooden benches and single-plank desks, dog-eared newspaper-covered exercise books, a blackboard, and a keen and patient young teacher, Mr Hadush. Discipline was absolute.
Let us sing, children said Mr Hadush. Come to the front Abraham. A tiny boy marched confidently up, all the others rapt. This is the way I wash my face, wash my face, wash my face, shrieked Abraham, making face-washing motions with his hand. This is the way we wash our face, shrieked all 44 tots, in an ear-splitting chant, Early in the morning!
There is no piped water in Digum just a well with a hand-pump, down by the dried up river.
This is the way I put on my clothes, put on my clothes, put on my clothes, shrieked Abraham delightedly, doing the motions. This is the way we put on our clothes. Yelled the class, full of excitement at learning and at showing off their learning, Early in the morning. Some of them barely had any clothes.
Mr Hadush called a little girl, who looked about five, to the blackboard and handed her a stump of chalk. She wrote out the English alphabet perfectly on the blackboard. Ethiopias native script, which she also knew, is composed of the bewildering symbols of Amharic.
The spread of English across the globe is a seismic event in our species history. It is one of the biggest things to happen to mankind since the dawn of language. Speech is fundamental not just to communication but to the process of thought itself. No single language has ever before approached universality. English is now doing so. No other language has ever advanced as far, as fast, as ours. This is the first time in history that it has been possible to denote one language as predominant.
Within the lifetimes of Times readers, every other serious contender for that status has been eliminated. French is dying outside France. Francophone Africa is turning to English. Portuguese Africa is abandoning Portuguese. German made a small, temporary advance across emergent Eastern Europe but elsewhere outside Germany it is dead. Russian, which we once thought we would all have to learn, is finished. The Japanese are learning English, and developing their own pet variant. China will resist, but Mandarin and Cantonese are not advancing beyond their native speakers. More of the worlds new Muslims are learning English than Arabic. Spanish alone is raising its status and reach but among Americans, who have English already. India is making an industry out of English speaking, as call-centres daily remind us. A quarter century ago, as the dismemberment of our Empire neared completion, we might have thought that the predominance of our language had passed its zenith. It was only dawn.
It is imponderable what may be the consequences of the advance of this linguistic tide. Within a few generations and for the first time in the story of Homo sapiens, most of our species may be able to communicate in a single language.
The advantage lent to us British by our fluency (and that of the Americans) in this world language should not be exaggerated. The number of native English speakers may not grow much; our relative influence may decline. They know little of us in Ethiopia. Yet all over that country street signs and business billboards are appearing in English, beneath the Amharic. English is cool. The very lettering confers status.
At Digum school I also sat through a Grade 8 class of 56 students. Here in the top form boys and girls aged between 10 and 20 were being coached by the excellent Mr Hailay. He was teaching the uses of just, already , up to now, yet, ever and never, and, astonishingly, most of them had a pretty good grasp. Over the shoulder of the boy in front I read his battered computer-printout English textbook, instructing the reader in the correct tenses to use in reported speech. I asked Mr Hailay if I might ask his pupils a few questions.
Did they want to learn English? Yes, replied everyone. Why? It is the language of the world, and I want to know the world, replied one boy.
I asked what other languages they would acquire if they could. Spanish, Chinese and Arabic were cited in reply, but none had any plans to learn these. To my surprise, one of the boys asked me afterwards what language I spoke was I Italian, he wondered? I saw that knowledge of English was not regarded as an indication of nationality, but as a possession, a philosophers stone: one which anyone could get. At Digum they were struggling to get it.
English, I realised, as I left the school while the children chanted I was a pilot, a pilot was I, isnt really ours any more. We are losing ownership of international English. Internet English is already looking unfamiliar. Africans rely heavily on the present continuous, and manage perfectly well. Different parts of the globe will develop their own pidgins.
There will be no point in fighting this or regretting it. We should just take pride in what we have started. It gives us no mastery and nor should it, but it gives us a link. All the world will have an open gate into our story, our culture, our ideas, our literature, our poetry and our song. And we into theirs.
I wish somebody would inform some of our own recent immigrants how english is in.
Except in the USA where the Libs want to be a bilingual country so they can "feel" continental.
So move to Canaduh, already!
English is in? Yes, because America rules the World. OOH YEAH. But, in 20 years, Chinese will be in, and all of us here, will be telling our children, eat your rice with chop sticks, kid, don't you wanna fit in? Hell, by that time, we'll probably all know how to operate our remote control with chop sticks.
The President of the Senate killed the nomination without stating his reasons. But the real cause was that this man realized that bilingual education is a failure -- and the Democrats in the legislature are still bought and paid for by the "edukashun" unions, who still support bilingual education as a job preservation device. To hell, of course, with the real needs of the children.
Reminds me of that TV show where the guy is in the restaruant, he gets done talking to waiter and then says something like he should learn english to be in this nation, and some liberal douche says, "I don't think so." or "No, he shouldn't."
Universal language is one of those critical parts of human geopolitical growth. For well over 25 centuries, LATIN was that language. English has grown in the last 300 years to rival Latin.
How do you plan to turn the tide?
Lucky for us.
Turn the tide? That's impossible--cultural dominance trumps language elegance every time. As long as America produces the world's movies, TV shows, and books, English will be the predominant language.
Mandarin, which is a tonal language will be in ? No way :)
BUT, the great joy of English is that the nouns are genderless, and declension of verbs is minimal. Plus, English sentences normally start with the subject noun first, the verb second, and the details follow.
The Russian language, for instance, is very highly declined and every noun has a gender (all European languages are gender-concious). The subject noun can occur at the end of a very long sentence because you're supposed to take the gender and subsequent declension into account. It is laborious but relatively easy to translate Russian into English, but trying to fit English into Russian is hell (I took two years of Russian science translation in college).
Then there is the fact that English has outgrown the familiar and formal "thee" and "thou". German, for instance, has it's "du" und "Sie", as do so many other languages. English is highly functional - except for the wretched spelling defects - and borrows words freely from other languages. English can use nouns as verbs, as in "We're having a party" compared to "We're partying!" English is an evolving language, the most vibrant and word-filled on earth. And it's 26 letter alphabet is an infinite advantage over all the oriental pictograms.
That's actually something influenced by the Romance languages, particularly the French language influence brought over by the Norman invasion of 1066. If we don't have the Norman invasion English would probably have evolved akin to other Germanic languages, especially in the use of noun cases.
English teachers everywhere are rejoicing at this development.
I speak both Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, but let me tell you, they are both a BEAR to learn!
All my former students in China caught on to English far more efficiently than I caught on to Chinese.
Cantonese is particularly awful. A language with seven tones, in which the slightest change of inflection changes "go fishing" to "f--k fishes" or "My shoes are all wet" to "My vagina is all wet," along with no alphabet to use, makes me thankful for English's relative efficiency.
We have a lot to be thankful for.
I actually made those mistakes, BTW, to my eternal chagrin.
>"We're having a party" compared to "We're partying!"
I hope you've corrected that problem.
Note to self: never go fishing with a Cantonese.:)
Well, as long as it works.
I learned strict spelling from the beginning, and I seem to have a pretty good ability to translate sound to letters, so I can't really understand how so many people can trip up over things like "your" versus "you're."
I took a year of Mandarin back in the days when Nixon was opening China and I thought I might want a career in the State Department. I didn't have a big problem w/the tones (I've studied several languages and seem to get the sound ok), but writing characters was my bane.
I'm in higher ed now, and what surprises me is to find that graduate programs in other countries are now being offered in English. These aren't programs geared toward admiting international students who all need to speak one language, but regular programs for natives who'll have to be fluent in English to be admitted.
Plus, nowadays, a lot of the research literature they're reading isn't in German, Russian or French anymore, it's in English, so they're all reading English anyway, even when they aren't speaking it in the classroom. Interesting.
Maybe so, but it is efficient. Next time you look at any document printed in several languages, take a look at the lengths of each translation. English is always the shortest.
Reminds me of Back to School night when my daughter was in 2nd grade. Each child had made a poster about themselves and these were displayed about the room for parents to view. My daughter listed her favorite subject as, "Spealling". Folks were kind enough to stifle their laughter to snickering as they read it.
Yor right about that!
Uh, remind me never try to speak Cantonese.
Great article. Thanks
George Soros' father Tivador Soros was one of the prominent Esperanto writers. According to wikipedia, George Soros was taught to speak Esperanto from birth.
Figures, doesn't it?
My company's worldwide official language is English, including in our headquarters in Germany. It simply isn't practical to be a global company and have any other language that English as the means of communication.
That's hard to argue. But the author didn't address the consequences of this phenomenon, which are?
This phenomenon will certainly benefit commerce, but more importantly, with the simultaneous rise of the internet, a universal language could also aid in our understanding of each other. A freewheeling international dialogue can serve the promotion of truth and also, unfortunately, an international market for pornography and vice.
Mr Waugh is a great writer from England. He will tell you how to be great writers.
Well, I said, well. I have spent fifty-four years trying to learn English and I still find I have recourse to the dictionary almost every day. English, I said, warming a little to my subject, is incomparably the richest language in the world. There are two or three quite distinct words to express every concept and each has a subtle difference of nuance.
This was clearly not quite what was required. Consternation was plainly written on all the faces of the aspiring clerks who had greeted me with so broad a welcome.
What Mr Waugh means, said the teacher, is that English is very simple really. You will not learn all the words. You can make your meaning clear if you know a few of them.
The students brightened a little. I left it at that.
-- Evelyn Waugh, A Tourist in Africa.
Although to a lesser extent than the Romance languages, a great deal of modern English is also Latin based as a result of the Norman invasion.
In the above quote, look at all the words that have a Latin origin.
I used to come. I used to see. I used to conquer........English
Venia. Veia. Vencia................Spanish
I had 2 years of required Latin and 3 of Spanish in prep school. Still serves me well.
Even though I placed out of the foreign language requirement at Michigan, I liked languages and ended up taking German, Chinese, had a term of Old English at the University of London so I could read Beowulf in the original. (nerd alert) I'm teaching myself Danish now, kinda for fun, kinda for work. Glad I never took French!
This must really upset the FRogs.
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