At a Loss for Words

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The English language is a word magnet and vocabulary generator. English speakers pick up terms from other languages and even create new words almost effortlessly, and before we know it, a new word or phrase is considered fully English! The best part is that every new word adds power to the English language, multiplying its potential for clarity of communication. Additionally, the impact of this English speaking culture makes it in high demand around the world, despite its being only the third most frequently spoken language on earth.Commonly studied languages

By virtue of the brutal military colonizations that occurred hundreds of years ago, two-thirds of the world’s population speak one of only 12, mostly European languages. The other third speaks nearly 7,000 languages!

Another gentler, but no less damaging, kind of colonization is now at work—cultural and linguistic colonization.

While every language and culture seeks to maintain its primacy for its people, more powerful and globally common languages, associated with a range of technological and economic advances, are slowly elbowing other languages out of existence.

Two thirds speak one of theseIn my work I recruit and support individuals who are fluent in both English and in another language. I lead them to translate and narrate children’s picture books from English into another language. This provides stepping stones from home language to literacy, as well as offers material for the huge and growing numbers of individuals interested in learning English.

Thus, quite unintentionally, I am participating in the English language colonization of the world. This is inevitable because of the way languages differ in the cultures from which they sprang and that they are now pretty much failing to serve.

Several years ago I wrote the sentence, “The whale jumped out of the water.” I then invited an international colleague to write that sentence in his family’s regional language so we could discuss the differences. He looked at me for a long moment before he began to write. He had used the phrase “big fish” to represent what I had written as “whale.” Confused that he didn’t know that a whale wasn’t a fish, I asked, “What’s your language’s word for whale?” To which he replied that his mother-tongue, which was spoken in a totally land-locked part of Africa, had no word for whale. As we would naturally do in English, I naively interjected, “Well, you could just use whale, couldn’t you?”

It became immediately evident that what felt like a natural move on my part (borrowing a word from another language) could have been utterly confusing and possibly even insulting to his language that developed over centuries to serve a culture where no whales existed. That’s where his language belonged and whales didn’t.

Such events serve to showcase a language’s role in creating isolation from the rest of the world. His language grew from the need to define and articulate the culture which spawned and sustained it. This type of provincial focus will lead to the loss of ambitious speakers of mother-tongues because they will choose to embrace more powerful world languages. Sadly, along with mother-tongue speakers will eventually go the beautiful and varied cultures that these languages capture and articulate.

English DOES have a word for that sad cultural and linguistic destruction. We call it progress.


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2 Responses to “At a Loss for Words”

  1. Brooke April 30, 2017 at 11:14 pm #

    I found this article to be incredibly interesting. I have never before considered our English language in the same context of our American culture- a melting pot of anything and everything. It is interesting to consider that the desire to hold on to one’s culture is what is ultimately making various other languages die out.

    • Mark Condon May 1, 2017 at 8:26 am #

      I know, Brooke! I love your take on English as a melting pot … or perhaps I see it as a stew in that pot. The additions from other cultures to our language are the spices in that ever more interesting dish.