Monday, September 15, 2008

A Problematic Lingua Franca

We all know that English has become the world’s lingua franca (now that’s a phrase that needs updating!). But sometimes having English as a common language can be a bad thing, or at least a problematic thing.

For example, as Yann Foucault has
pointed out, translation can help expand both the target language and whatever topic the text is on.

Also, using tongues other than English can create a sense of regional identity. Read this
piece on using English in the Nordic countries. In the Nordic region, is it better to use English as the common tongue or to insist on interpretation and translation?


snoristed said...

Each group should be able to decide for itself what makes the most sense for that group. So if the Nordic Youth Council wants to use English, I don't see the problem. Any member whose English isn't up to the task can still use an interpreter. But then, that's the pragmatic approach.

Really there are serious political issues afoot here. First of all, my time in Sweden, Norway and Denmark showed me that the Swedes, Norwegians and Danes are deathly afraid of losing their identity. They fear that they will be subsumed by English and cease to exist. Which is a ridiculous but deeply held fear. The Finns, on the other hand, get that the rest of the world doesn't speak Finnish and they're fine with using English if it facilitates communication.

The Finns are not afraid that any amount of English could take away their Finnishness. That would be absurd. Finnishness cannot be taken away. And they're happier about using English (a useful world language) than about Swedish (a mandatory relic from the colonial days and not that useful on a global stage).

I have no idea what people in Iceland think.

The other political issue is that a fair number of Scandinavians (e.g. certain rural folks I love but disagree with) 1) don't have very good English skills 2) are xenophobic about anything English-related 3) have made it their life's work to try to prevent change in any form from affecting their lives and they're desperate because you just can't legislate change away. Try as you might. I met a Bokmål to Nynorsk translator once who had a cushy government job translating textbooks into Nynorsk. You don't want to see a comfortable situation like that come to an end. No matter how cost-effective or sensible a newer system might be.

Honestly there's also a generational issue here. It makes sense to me that a group of young people wants to use English.

Perhaps the governments will make it illegal for youth council members to speak English to each other. But I bet if you follow some youth council members on their coffee break, they'll be speaking English.

Bill Chapman said...

Bore da! Hello from north Wales. You don't mention the possibility of an expanded role for Esperanto. I think that a wider use of this planned language is at least worth considering.

Take a look at

What do you think?

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comments!
Bill, I am interested in Esperanto, but I am not sure I think it has much chance, given the spread of English and the way English has really taken over as the world's second language. How would Esperanto be able to compete with this?
And, yes, Snoristed, many countries are afraid of losing their languages. Some defend their languages to extreme limits while others try to keep English to certain fields. I agree that the groups should be able to decide for themselves, but it does seem a bit silly, even sad perhaps, that Scandinavians don't/can't speak "Scandinavian" amongst themselves.
Best wishes,

transubstantiation said...

David Crystal's seminal 'English as a Global Language' is probably one of the best works out there describing the (possible) future of English. Also worth reading is 'Empires of the Word' by Nicholas Ostler.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for those suggestions! I am reading Nicholas Ostler's book on Latin now and have enjoyed David Crystal's work in the past, so I will have to look into those two books.

Best wishes,

Bill Chapman said...

I don't suppose that Esperanto has more than a million speakers - although it's hard to know. Of course it is a young language, 120 years old with a relatively young speaker population. It does to a limited extent fulfil a role of defending minority languages, through simply avoiding the 'oppressive' language. When I speak to my friend Jorj in Quimper / Kemper, Brittany, we don't use English or French, but Esperanto. I foresee a wider such role for Esperanto in the future.

B.J. Epstein said...

I will have to learn more about Esperanto, Bill. Do you have any book suggestions? For now, I tend to think it sounds too small to become our new lingua franca, however.

Best wishes,