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March 28, 2006


While in some ways I think Chirac's reactions are a bit silly, I also understand the frustration and indignity that continuously having to adjust oneself to a foreign language can entail. People like Bush, for instance, don't even make an effort to learn another language, let alone speak one. Why in the world should everyone accommodate him when he makes no effort to accommodate them?

A lot of my Japanese students recount stories of having to deal with foreigners, nearly always Americans, in business matters wherein the foreigners, even though sometimes the Japanese are their *clients*, make absolutely no effort to make it easier for the Japanese by attempting to learn Japanese. One of my students even complained to me about an American officer on a base *here in Japan*, while ordering emergency parts for some of their machinery on the base, who shouted at her on the phone because she couldn't understand all his very loud and very fast English (and her English is quite good... other students who can barely express their names have it much harder). I'm afraid I have absolutely no respect or sympathy for someone who is in someone else's country and never makes an effort to learn the local language. Why should the locals go out of their way for that person?

I concur. The rampant spread of English across the Globe is great for mass communications and wonderful for we English speakers but is destroying native languages and cultures... taking one example at the environmental level, once a small language dies so too does the knowledge and wisdom that it held and that can be disastrous for small eco-systems
I say tear down the English Tower of Babel and protect linguistic diversity
(I speak as a TEFL student, shame, but one who is studying Breton so that I can give something in return to my future French students)

Butuki and Julia, I agree with you about the "accepted" hegemony of English. As an English speaker I never launch into English when abroad, even though it is likely that some people have some understanding of English, but try to start at least with a few words in their native language. It makes me cringe to hear people, visitors to a foreign country, Speaking LOUDLY and SLOWLY to the locals in English. Or, worse, bawling at them in normal speed English. So rude.

I completely agree with the basic points made by the readers above - which is why I am trying hard to learn and speak French in my adopted country and why I agree with Québec's efforts to maintain and protect its French culture. Butuki, you are completely right when you say that there is no reason for local people to go out of their way to speak someone else's foreign language. I also agree with everything said here about English; why wouldn't people be resentful?

However, I also think lingistic purity and protectionism can go way overboard. Language is about communication, after all, and in an international setting, there needs to be respect for all the participants' languages, as well as and an effort to facilitate communication. We have to be realistic. If everyone working on an international level had Chirac's attitude, how far would communication get? That EU budget for translation shows how seriously the participants take this issue.

It isn't just Chirac, of course.The French have been whining about the ascendence of English for a long time (though they never complained when French was the Lingua Franca). During the 70's the French government tried to curb all English influence in the country, changing such words as hotdog to "chien chaud". I think trying to control a language is a futile endeavor, because language is alive. It just changes according to the times.

Japanese has really been overwhelmed by English. I would say about 1/4 of the daily spoken language is now English, often changed to become Japanese (words like "skinship"... the bond and feelings two people have through physical contact, especially between a mother and child... and "my boom"... when you become excited about something and concentrate on it to the exclusion of much else, such as "musicals are my boom" or "Belgian beer is my boom"). In many ways I would say Japanese is slowly growing into a new language; many older people cannot understand, literally, what the younger generation is talking about. It's devastating for the culture, because so much of it has no connection to the past. Besides the disappearance of most of the traditional architectural and social infrastructures, the linguistic, musical, and artistic traditions developed over thousands of years is eroding away within the space of one generation. Many young people don't really have any sense of what it means to be Japanese any more. And it's affecting how many of them see their lives and their prospects.

I think that I read somewhere that each language uses somewhat different pathways in the brain. I usually go to Spanish mass with my wife. Sometimes we go to English or Vietnamese mass. There is a different feel to each mass. We only enrich ourselves by trying to learn another language. I personally think we should all learn Vedic Sanscrit........

I don't worry about French -- it's fine, and even if it were to become a dead language centuries from now it would be "dead" like Latin -- you could still learn it and read its literature. (Even less dead than that, because we have the actual sounds recorded.) The linguistic losses that I mourn are the hundreds of unwritten unrecorded languages that are dying out altogether. They're never coming back.

I think Chirac's ridiculous. He wants to know linguistic oppression, let him try to make his way using only Basque, say, or Cherokee. I find the French indignation that they've been toppled from linguistic hegemony really comical. But when English falls from its pride of place -- which I'm betting it will do within this century -- we'll all be the same way, I'm sure, vehemently objecting to Chinese statesmen expecting everyone to understand Putonghua.

I also don't care much about languages changing -- they do it all the time, and you can play King Canute and order the tide to go back all you want; it won't do a bit of good. The best you'll be able to do is create an "official" language that diverges so far from the vulgate that ordinary people won't understand it, thus making the linguistic landscape even more burdensome for them to navigate.

French itself, of course, is a hopelessly debased and corrupt form of Latin. Setting it up as an ideal of purity is grotesque.

Oh, Dale, thanks SO much for this comment. If I hadn't just written that I say "that's ridiculous" too often, I would have written it as my response to Chirac's indignant posturing, because that's what I think it is. That sort of indignation never got anyone (or any culture) very far. And language, it seems to me, is one of the least controllable aspects of human culture. Linguistic change is inevitable unless we wall ourselves off so that communication, trade, intermarriage and all other interpenetrations of cultures are difficult or impossible. I agree with Dale's underlying point. I think the best way to preserve language and build respect for it is to teach, learn and use it in all its forms, but especially to encourage good writing and the reading thereof. Flaubert, Balzac, Gide, Voltaire, Zola will all endure not only because they are French but because they are universal -- AND because they used their language so well to express their own culture.

Yes, languages DO change... language belongs to the people who speak it and I agree that it's crazy to try to go againgst the flow and force people to use certain 'state-sponsored' words... we, in England, took our language from the Anglo Saxons,added a liberal sprinkling of Latin for the legal and religious lexis, a nice amount of French for flair and diplomacy and some good-old Viking vocab, spiced it up with some Asian additions and Caribbean tasties and here we are now...
(apologies to those omitted)

I don't argue in favour of linguistic purity, but rather diversity and respect

My ex-husband once announced that he would only ever visit a country in whose language I, his travel-organiser, could converse sufficiently to cover his basic needs... I have to say that I agree with the principle if not his pomposity

Learning a language opens the door to a new culture and, was it Confuscius who said 'A man who knows two cultures lives two lives'???

Beth, I do agree with you that Chirac was being oversensitive - I can't remember the exact details of the occasion - but yes, in European business ALL languages are catered for and yes, all documents are composed in each of the constituent languages - language difference is taken very seriously.

And yes, Butuki is right about the tradition of French linguistic protection - performing amusing linguistic gymnastics to prevent the adoption of the English word for say, a new piece of technology.

But there IS a general anxiety in countries throughout the world that their native languages are being eroded through the spread of English (and this is happening as Butuki points out via the younger generations who are increasingly using "foreign" words and phrases). This is happening here in England too, as what we are actually talking about is the spread of "American English" -which is different from "English English." One small example is, with the coming of chains such as Starbucks, we have to use American terms such as "regular" (for size of drinks) and "take out" or "to go" (for takeaway food) and opening times are Monday "through" Friday. American spellings are more widely used: "thru" and "tonite". All part of a language evolving many would say: others say that it is irritating - that their language isn't so much "evolving" as being overridden by "American English." With globalisation, however, and the sheer dominance of American media and culture across the globe I think this it inevitable that languages will become a cultural mix. This, after all, as Dale noted, has happened in the past.

Im told that, with Chirac as with gWB, it has something to do with
penis size. Go figure.

Dale's absolutely right. Don't get your knickers in a knot about English conquering the world: here comes Chinese!


"The French have been whining about the ascendence of English for a long time"

Bravo. Very enlightened view there. Perhaps we should all just speak American (why bother with cumbersome Canadian spelling, while we're at it) and be done with silly things like diversity of cultures, languages and ideas. One great, big, bland, McDo-fied world. Hurrah!

This is partly why linguistic diversity is so valuable for the world:


And as far as the need for being understood in international meetings and such, isn't this why there are interpreters in the first place?

Sorry for the many posts, just one last one (found a better source):


What the devil does Chirac's whining have to do with linguistic diversity? Since when is French a wee, sleekit, timorous cowering beastie of a language?

The point is that the French language has been just as much of a bully, and just as transient, as the English language will prove to be. Don't try to cast me, or Beth, as the person who wants to do away with linguistic diversity. I treasure it.

Virtually all the conditions that have made English a lingua franca are vanishing rapidly. But in any case, an influx of new vocabulary doesn't kill a languages. Linguistic chauvinism does.

Here's Chirac, the supposed champion of linguistic diversity, explaining his opposition to a European convention to protect minority and regional languages (from wikipedia):

'Jacques Chirac, when putting an end to the debate, and justifying why France could not ratify the Charter, said that it would threaten "the indivisibility of the Republic," "equality in front of the Law" and "the unity of the French people," since it may end by conferring "special rights to organised linguistic communities."'

That's the attitude that kills languages.

"Bravo. Very enlightened view there. Perhaps we should all just speak American (why bother with cumbersome Canadian spelling, while we're at it) and be done with silly things like diversity of cultures, languages and ideas. One great, big, bland, McDo-fied world. Hurrah!"

Erm, Muse, I do hope you are merely being facetious there... Please read my first comment. And to give some weight to my words, please take note that diveristy is a very big part of who I am and that my first language was not "American".

It seems to me that what we need to do is move from the familiar arguments about a) why languages and cultures are important and b) the difficulty maintaining those in the face of a shrinking, interpenetrating world with media reaching everywhere and certain cultures dominating world communication TO: if linguistic (and cultural) diversity is important, as we all seem to feel it is, what are some effective ways of encouraging and preserving it? Because I would argue that Chirac's way is not one that works, and further, to immigrants of other non-English and non-French cultures living either here in Quebec or in France, for example, it appears racist. Nor does it do much good to continually deplore the hegemony of American language and culture without suggesting effective ways of countering it. So what do we do? Let's talk about THAT.

Muse - we are all in agreement that linguistic and cultural diversity exists and is a good and valuable thing. And we are all agreed that the dominance of one language in the world has negative effects. We are not arguing the opposite.

As I see it, the protection and preservation of language is mostly achieved through family upbringing, through formal education and through active government support -as it is in Quebec (and here, Wales and Ireland are examples). Knowledge and understanding of your own language - and culture - is an important part of its continued health. (Big debates here, by the way, on rapidly worsening literacy skills among students.) After this is in place, what more could/should be done? Guarding a language does seem an unrealistic, undesirable undertaking.

The reality at present is that English is globally dominant and will continue to be for some time yet and English classes are full of people who recognise the need to acquire English language skills.

As I posted earlier, languages infiltrate languages and always have done, and this process is driven mostly by the young. So I see language change as inevitable and although this can be unsettling, even annoying at times, it is not realistic or indeed desirable to believe that a language can be frozen in aspic.

Beth - out of interest, what is happening in the US regarding language. Wasn't there a move to make English the official language of the US? And wasn't this in part motivated by the rise of Spanish to prime position in Florida and California. Are these states bilingual now, as in Quebec?

As an English teacher here in Japan it is interesting that amost all my students have studied English for on average at least ten years, and yet most of them can barely carry on a decent conversation in English without stumbling all over their sentence structure and grammar. At the same time nearly all Japanese people, including those who never studied English or only very little, use a huge English vocabulary in their daily language, English which has altered to meld with Japanese itself, in many cases no longer recognizable to English speakers.

I don't think there is anything anyone can *do* to protect a language unless people use it. It cannot be forced on people, since it is something like art or music, in a way: it lives and thrives from welling up in each individual and the interplay of each person using it with another person is what creates. Children instinctively understand this; that is why trying to teach a child a language out of book so rarely works.

Languages are a people's way of interpreting their local habitat and the nature of their emotional and social identity. When the old ways drift away, so does the language that interprets those old ways. You can't have one without the other. That's why Latin always seems out of context these days.

Where is Languagehat when you need him?

I think, as I've said before, that the ascendancy of English is a flash in the pan. The big drivers of it were the relative economic power and prestige of the English-speaking countries, the centralization of entertainment (Hollywood, the music industry, and the big TV studios), and the the predominance of English in the major new communications technologies. All these are dwindling rapidly, maybe even precipitously, which is why I don't worry about English shouldering out, say, French or Japanese, or even Dutch or Finnish.

The languages that are in trouble are the little ones without much political or economic clout, especially where governments are hostile to them (it's still more the norm than the exception, I think, for governments to be hostile to dialects and languages that diverge from that of their ruling elite.) The most useful thing to do, I think, is to challenge that hostility. The idea that every sovereign nation should have only one language is an illiberal, destructive, and ahistorical one, but it's still holds sway in much of the world.

We're going to lose a lot of languages, though, no matter what we do. The forces eroding the littlest languages are powerful and constant, and I don't know if there's a whole lot to be done about them.

Check out the second article, "The Emperor's Heirs" in this website: http://www.yawningbread.org/ (If the link doesn't show up in these comments, please just go to yawningbread dot org). I think it dovetails nicely with the discussion here.

Yes, Bukuti, Where IS LanguageHat...
I've been eagerly anticipating his input sinced this discussion began
Mayhap one of us should hop over and wake him up?
So, you are a TEFL in Japan?
Do you have a blog?
(Apologies Beth for hijacking your comments)

Dale, isn't *everything* a flash in the pan? (^J^)/"

Julia, have to stop by Languagehat and ring the doorbell. I, too, would really like to hear what he might have to say.

Yes, I am a TEFL, though not certified. Been teaching English for 15 years now. I quite like the teaching, especially when, like the other day, the classes delve deeper into using English and the students really get into it and begin to show signs of intelligence on Earth. Last Tuesday one of my students, who is a PhD in robotics, talked about how robots can never replace people, no matter how sophisticated they get (the robots, that is!). We went on to discuss cybernetics and the development of minds in inanimate objects. *That* led to talk about the human immune system, the development of many insect societies as gestalt individuals (he basically saying that robots, if they are to develop further, will have to complement themselves by cooperation with multitudes of themselves), and the workings of the Earth's climatic system and how it is possible that a supposedly inanimate object like the Earth could have developed a self-regulating protective safeguard using the interaction of the biosphere... a.k.a John Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis... pretty impressive for an English class, don't you think? Now just imagine you trying to hold the same conversation in Japanese!

ps Julia... (got carried away there).. I think you can find most people's links to their blogs via their names below their comments. Mine is right there. *bow with a flourish*

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