When I was younger I didn’t like languages. In school, I hated Irish and thought it was a complete waste of time. Why bother learning it when everyone spoke English? In fact what’s the use of any other language when it’s obvious that English is the international language? This view is very common among English native speakers and to a certain extent it’s true. English is one of the most spoken languages in the world and is by far the most common second language in the world. No matter where you travel in the world, you have a decent chance of finding an English speaker. International conferences almost always are held in English and over 90% of academic articles are published in English. So it seems like case closed, English is the global language, everyone speaks it and I should be thankful that I happen to be a native speaker.
Except recently I’ve been having doubts. I began to reconsider my views when I went travelling through Europe. I was impressed at how many people could speak English, but I felt guilty that they had spent years learning my language, yet I couldn’t speak a word of theirs. Learning a language isn’t easy, it involves months of hard work just to become conversational and years to become fluent. It is costs time, money and can be deeply frustrating. Up until that point, I had taken English for granted, I never realised how much work the rest of the world goes through. It’s not as though English is an easy language to learn, it’s incredibly irregular and outright random (especially the spelling and grammar).
Nor did I pay much attention to what happens if you don’t speak English. The vast majority of academic papers are published in English and it is a requirement in most of the top universities and businesses. English is a privilege, if you have it; you get access to an elite club of the rich and famous. If you don’t, you’re left out in the cold.
Language isn’t just a tool to communicate; it is also a huge part of our identity. It’s how we think and how we view the world. So when English speakers expect the rest of the world to learn our language, we are actually asking a lot. English speakers often treat not knowing English as primitive as not have electricity, but we don’t think about what people give up to learn our language. Languages carry a lot of cultural and historical baggage, both good and bad. The only reason I (and many others) speak English is because centuries ago my country was invaded, colonised and the native language suppressed. It wasn’t for linguistic reasons that English dominated, but political.
To put it in perspective imagine if you had to speak Spanish (presuming you don’t already). You still live and work in the same place, but for reasons beyond your control it has been decided that more people speak Spanish than English so therefore this is the new international language through which you will have to work. Most people would be horrified at the prospect. I’m sure plenty of people in England and America would rather die than do so. It would feel like surrendering our culture, our traditions. Yet this is the very thing that many English speakers expect the rest of the world to do. If we aren’t willing to learn even the basics of another language, why should we expect the rest of the world to make such an effort just to suit ourselves?
Imagine if a law was introduced putting major barriers in front of women’s careers in the world of business and science. They could still attend university and get good jobs but beforehand they had to undergo years of work to get an additional qualification. Men could go straight to the top, but women were sidetracked by years of extra work. Sure they could still continue their careers but with a serious handicap. Most people would be rightly horrified. It would be deeply unfair and severely damaging as we would lose all they have to contribute to society. Placing extra burdens on some people just to the luck of birth offends our sense of justice. Imagine still, if the barriers were erected in front of all non-whites in the world. This is even worse. Society would be dominated by a small handful, who didn’t earn their place, but only got there based on who they were born to. No one could in any good conscience support such an unjust system.
But this is exactly what expecting everyone to speak English does. It enforces barriers to three quarters of the world that are difficult to cross and exclude the rest. It is similar to erecting barriers to success based on arbitrary classes like race, which like language mostly comes from your parents. Sure many overcome this barrier and become successful in the world of science and business, but many do not. Even those that do, have to spend years learning English that could have been put to better use in their research or at their job. It is the equivalent of a tax on everyone who had the misfortune to be born to parents who didn’t speak English. It is the same as asking people to complete and extra qualification before they can make it into the upper levels of business and science (considering how research is almost solely published and business so heavily conducted in English).
A world where everyone speaks English and only English would have advantages (I’m deeply aware that this blog would only have a tiny fraction of the number of its views if I blogged in any other language) but also major disadvantages. It would be a duller blander world where we all had the same conversations, watched the same movies and listened to the same music. We would lose a huge amount of the diversity in the world, a huge part of what makes us unique, what makes us who we are.
Restricting the conversation only to English greatly reduces the quality of the conversation. Having only similar people with the same language leads to groupthink and blinds us to major problems. For example, economics has a huge American bias. Most of the Nobel Prize winners have been from there (or moved there), the main bloggers, economists, institutions and books are in/about America (and of course in English). This means the discourse is heavily skewed by US issues and viewpoints, to the point that it often feels that they’ve forgotten a world exists outside America. The healthcare debate is a good example. The debate was limited to whether America should have a private system with some government influence at the margins or one with none at all. None seemed to be aware that there are countries that exist where the government provides insurance or even universal healthcare. Likewise the gun debate is limited to those who want some guns and those who want a lot, unaware of the fact that there are many countries where having almost no guns is the norm. Limiting the conversation only to English speakers prevents us from hearing other opinions and ideas that we never would have considered.
So what can we do about it? We could ignore it and hope it sorts itself out. This option has the least going for it and the most support. The idea that they should have to learn another language is a thought that rarely crosses the mind of an English speaker (unless they’re moving abroad). The English language advances like the tide, slowly and without fanfare or any coordinated effort so people don’t notice until it’s up to their waist.
The second option is to promote polyglotism and other languages. Scientific journals could accept other languages with or without translations, business conferences needn’t have to be in English. After all, German used to be the language of science and French the language of culture. While encouraging other languages and helping people take pride in their languages certainly has many positives, I’m doubtful of how much of a long term strategy this is. There are huge economies of scale in languages, so large that they naturally push towards monopoly. There will always be pressure for conferences to be in one language and given the economic might and stubbornness of English speakers, this will more than likely lead to English being used slowly. Even if French, Spanish or German launched a delaying attack, this offers little for other smaller languages. Irish, Dutch or Danish are never going to be major international languages so learning French or Spanish is no different to learning English for these people.
The third option is Esperanto. Unlike English or any other language, it is neutral and thereby avoids all the problems I’ve listed above. There is no cultural baggage or legacy of colonialism; it was never spread at the point of a sword or gun. As there are almost no native speakers, no one has an advantage due to the luck of birth; everyone is on an equal level playing field. It also has the crucial advantage of being incredibly easy to learn. It has no irregular grammar at all and resembles building blocks in that small simple words are combined to create more complicated ideas that are easy to learn while still allowing people to fully express themselves.
This seems like the best and most efficient compromise. Everyone would still speak their native language but when they submitted their research to scientific and economic journals, it would be in Esperanto so that everyone could read it. Instead fields being dominated by native English speakers due to their unfair advantage, people would be able to contribute from all over the world and have an equal chance of being published. News, ideas and opinions could flow from all over the globe, instead of just a few corners as at present. Businesses would be open to using the talent from everyone, not just those lucky enough have English speaking parents or good tutors. People would still have to go to the effort of learning another language, but it takes only a small fraction of the time to learn Esperanto as it does any other language.
Now some readers might dismiss Esperanto as something that can’t possibly succeed. I admit it’s certainly a long shot (but then again, I’m blogging this from my bedroom so my chances of changing the world are all long shots), but the alternatives aren’t much better. Sliding into an English dominated world who be great for people like me, but impose a heavy burden on everyone else. I believe everyone has as much right to be heard in this world as I do and we shouldn’t shut out the majority of the world. The chances of another language replacing or even challenging English are slim (it would probably require a major war) so French, Spanish, German etc can slow the march of English, but can’t stop it. Esperanto is the only option that offers us the hope of a fair and equal world without any one language or culture dominating. It’s an idealistic dream, but one worth having.