As a native speaker of English, I revel in a fantastic luxury when I travel. Wherever I go, I can assume that the language of business is English. No matter where I am or what I need, if I don’t speak the local language, I can always use English. In fact, if the exchange goes poorly, the person I am speaking with will often apologize for his or her lack of ability in my language rather than scold me for my poor knowledge of the local tongue. I have met many people who berate themselves for their inability to progress in English. These people often lament the pressure they feel to learn it.
“Why should I have to learn their language? This is Italy; they should learn Italian,” my Italian friend might say (if I had any friends).
People like my non-existent Italian friend are living representatives of the mixed feelings many people feel when they think about the role of English in their lives. There are many reasons for embracing English as a global language. Likewise, there are many reasons for rejecting it. Today we ask the question: can the influence of a foreign language on a culture degrade that culture’s linguistic traditions?
We know that living languages are constantly evolving. Speakers of English are rampant thieves; we’ve “borrowed” heaps of words from other languages. We say “borrowed” as though we intend to give them back, but if we’re honest with ourselves we can admit we’re not giving them back. While we know that living languages are always changing into something new, we also know that languages are dying out completely. As cultures come in contact with one another, sometimes one language becomes dominant, and eventually the “weaker” language can die out.
However, it might be possible for a culture to retain its language while simply picking up the new one instead of replacing it. If this is possible, it might mean that the influence of a second language could develop independently from the original language of the culture. Therefore, the original language would not be very much affected and the culture’s linguistic traditions would not be threatened.
Generally, as language groups come into contact with one another, there is some exchange. Does this mean that one or both of the languages is being sullied or damaged in some way? Not necessarily; the richness of English comes from the fact that it has so very many borrowed words in the first place. Without exchange, we would not have this depth and richness.
From time to time in the United States, a debate arises surrounding whether or not help should be provided to residents in languages other than English. Usually, it is a question of whether or not important documents should be provided in Spanish. There are many people who are against this. “This is America; speak American!” has been part of the debate. Why should we not make things easier for people who are learning English? Opponents of this idea say that it would be too expensive to provide translations. Is that the real reason, or is it rooted in xenophobia?
Throughout history, languages have been suppressed in one way or another. In the United States, Native American children were sometimes put into schools where they were punished for speaking their mother tongues and forced to assimilate to the cultures of their oppressors. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans were encouraged to take Japanese surnames and Korean-language newspapers were forced to quit publishing. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the Taiwanese were forbidden from learning Taiwanese Chinese in school. Today, radio stations throughout the world have quotas related to language. In both France and South Korea, 40% of all content must be broadcast in the official languages of those countries.
In order to decide whether or not suppressing language means that cultural traditions are threatened, it’s important to think about the motivation for this suppression. Why have people decided to place a limit on how much content can be broadcasted in English or other languages? Maybe this means that other languages are a threat. If so, how? Why are populations often forced to learn the languages of their oppressors? Is it because stripping them of their language removes a part of their identity?
Is language so strongly linked to culture that one cannot survive without the other? What do you think?
If you’re reading this, I’m flattered! I’m an American expat with a strong interest in eating things without knowing what they are, learning tongue-twisters in new languages, and I feel most at home when I’m not at home.
Currently residing in France, I often think of returning to South Korea, where I lived for just over two years.
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