Problems with English Language Supremacy

A lot of people who meet me and find out that I learn languages are quick to say “Why bother with learning languages? Everyone speaks English anyway.” or something to that effect. Aside from the very clear fact that not everyone speaks English, there are a lot of issues with advancing English as a universal lingua franca. I’m not suggesting that there is an alternative, and in fact, I argue that having a universal lingua franca is not necessarily a good thing. Also to clarify: I don’t think that English as a language unto itself is inferior to others, but rather that it does share an inherent equality with other languages.

Expedience is the name of the game in today’s globalizing world, and most people don’t want to spend the time necessary to learn another language. This seems to be true across the board, regardless of whether it’s for travel, business, or meeting newly arrived immigrants in a country. It is by far easier to just have everyone speak English, but as I mentioned, this is rife with social issues and a tendency to generalize, which can reinforce discriminatory attitudes about different communities.

I have always argued that languages are the base form of communication and culture before anything else, like food, religion, or music. Languages, in some ways, embody the lived experiences and collective memory of a people, and are often the only way that we have glimpses into our pasts. For example, for people who speak Mandarin, this takes the form of 成語 (chéngyŭ), four character phrases that are taken from classical Chinese literature, common idioms, or elsewhere. They are set phrases that preserve Chinese culture in the language itself. Many idioms in different languages function this way, to varying extents.

However much I say that learning a language is just a question of what method you use, there is no doubt that doing so takes time, energy, and commitment. I know that not everyone has those things to do so, but I won’t stop encouraging people to do so. It has long been demonstrated that multilingualism improves empathy and cultural comprehension. A multilingual society also ensures a robust quality of discourse, one that is multifaceted and nuanced. The exchange of ideas in the original language ensures as little dilution of those ideas as possible. This is the logic behind which it is said that there is always something lost in translation.

The pushing of English as a universal lingua franca is a massive act of erasure of both languages and the communities that speak them. To push English onto them is devalue their experiences, and disregard the humanity they inherently display through their language. Policies and beliefs that discourage multilingualism can manifest in forms of racism and other forms of discrimination.  No language, no matter how small, is representative of a particular worldview, and therefore helps form part of the larger picture that is the human experience.

I will be the first to admit that I cannot learn every language in one lifetime, and that it will always be exceedingly difficult to achieve this goal. I do not expect everyone to be fluent in ten different languages, but I do hope that they will make the effort to work toward learning at least one or two other than their own. As it is said in the Katha Upanishad, the wise seek the good, and the ignorant seek the pleasant. I urge people not to do what is easy, and embark on a path toward multilingualism. We have already lost so many languages due to the advance of English in the Americas and other parts of the world; let us not do a disservice to those that remain.

Language in Jeopardy: How to Protect Our Mother Tongues in Public

Take a look at this article before reading on: http://blog.angryasianman.com/2016/06/40-civil-rights-groups-demand.html

When I read this post from Angry Asian Man, I became an angry Asian man, to say the least. This kind of ignorance needs to be stamped out. In an age where Islamic terrorism threatens the lives of innocent Muslims who live in the diaspora, we need to be more vigilant on the behalf of these members of our societies. It is our responsibility to listen to them when they decry Islamic terrorism, rather than ignore them and then ask why they don’t say anything.

But more than anything, this incident’s relation to language struck me particularly strongly. Why the hell are these two men being arrested because some idiotic passenger thinks that any brown-skinned people speaking a language they don’t understand is a terrorist. When this keeps happening on planes, buses, and other forms of public transport, I’m just floored by the people who say they should have been speaking English. Let’s consider the facts: these two men are foreign nationals (Pakistani and Indian respectively) who don’t speak English very well and are in a land very far from home. It’s only natural that they would find solace in finding someone else who speaks their language in a foreign land. Why do people suddenly have to place a label of suspicion on people who haven’t done anything, or cannot be proven to have done anything?

The lack of respect for the Sikh man’s violation of his person by removing his turban, a sacred item in the Sikh religion, is not enough, apparently. This man is apparently not even allowed speak his own language with someone else who does.

Something similar happened with a Chinese woman in Arizona (you can read the article here). Getting punched by someone for speaking your mother tongue in public is racist, prejudiced, and unbelievably horrible in so many ways. Even though I live and go to school in fairly liberal places (California and New York, respectively), I’m dreading the day where I have to be careful about what language I speak in public. As an aspiring polyglot who aims to specialize in Mandarin and Arabic translation/interpretation, these incidents are of great concern to me. These people who hear Arabic, Punjabi, Chinese, and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages in public and then react in these ways are a problem. This needs to stop. But what can we do?

  1. If you hear or see someone making private or public accusations of terrorism based on someone’s appearance or what language they’re using, you tell them that’s not okay. Just because you can’t tell the difference between Punjabi and Arabic doesn’t automatically mean they’re Middle Eastern, and that definitely doesn’t mean they’re terrorists even if they were. Leave them alone!
  2. Start learning other languages! Those who know other languages are frequently more open-minded than others and are exposed to a wider variety of opinions and beliefs than they might be otherwise. We should be instituting the teaching of Arabic and immigrant languages in schools rather than traditionally taught languages like French, Latin, or Spanish. Mandarin in schools is a step in teh right direction.
  3. Help out non-English speaking communities by employing your language to supply them with opportunities for jobs, community, basic amenities, and other necessities for living in a country where few people speak your language.
  4. To immigrant children: Don’t let go of your language. If you never knew it, try to get back in touch with it. Help out those in your community who need you. If you don’t speak it well, it’s never too late to start brushing up (as I can testify in the case of my Kannada skills).

And no, just because this is America doesn’t mean you have to speak English all the time. This isn’t a refusal to speak English at all. But if I want to have a conversation in another language, I have every right to do so. You have no business regulating what and what I can’t say, since we have the freedom of speech. Not everything we say has to be for public consumption. Immigrants and other people use their languages because it’s what’s comfortable for them. We are under no obligation or responsibility to use English if we don’t need or want to. Don’t tell us what to speak.

Stop demonizing immigrants and their languages.

Thanks to Angry Asian Man for these articles. They have inspired me to be more active and political in my involvement with language.

Racism in Language: The Origins of “Black” People

After having read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, I participated in a Socratic discussion on the mimesis (the manifestation of societal or real-world perspectives in art) of racism in the novel. This got me thinking: certain words in different languages have inherently racist, exclusionary, or derogatory meanings or undertones.

Let’s consider the word, “black.” It is a common word, not really seen as offensive or rude by most people. However, as one of my classmates pointed out, the use of a color to refer to an entire people is indeed somewhat if not entirely pejorative in sentiment (historically speaking of course). This is evident in the fact that most Romance languages, those of countries that participated in slavery of some kind in the New World, do not use the actual word for “black” to refer to those of African descent, not in polite/accepted speech anyway. There is no overlap between the color and the demographic term. In Spanish, you would would say moreno/morena or prieto/prieta (though as I understand it, the latter is highly offensive in the Caribbean). Even Portuguese, the language of the country that initiated the slave trade in the first place, distinguishes negro and preto in reference to people as polite and offensive, respectively. As Dr. Molefi Kete Asante points out, this supposedly neutral term stems from a generalization for all the Africans of different ethnic groups and backgrounds.

African cultural and ethnic differences were neither recorded nor considered important in making distinctions, any African was black, and any black was a Negro, and Negroes had no cultural heritage. To recognize Africans as Asante, Yoruba, Ibo, Ibibio, Hausa, Mandingo, Fulani, Wolof, Serere, Kikongo, Fante, and so forth would have meant ascribing history, cosmologies, indeed, humanity to those who were enslaved. Without humanity, Africans could be called the worst epithets thinkable by white Americans.

Now, here’s another word: kaffir. This is widely known to be a word akin to the n-word in English in both its history and severity as a pejorative, mostly in South Africa, against Africans. This word comes from the Portuguese borrowing from Arabic for non-Muslim peoples in Africa. The original word itself simply means, “non-believer” with respect to Islam. However, you may also be familiar with the kaffir lime. This fruit’s name has similar but separate origins. Hindus and Muslims alike on the Indian subcontinent adopted the Arabic term to refer to the people of Sri Lanka, where the fruits were grown, and so they were named. As as result, this word does have racist connotations as well. However, in many places, particularly in Muslim countries and India, the word is completely innocuous, simply meaning, “disbeliever” with respect to one’s own religion, though it is not necessarily a nice thing to say.

I’m not sure I can find any other words at the moment, but I am sure they exist in every language. Feel free to share this on Facebook and Tumblr and discuss this (in a civil manner, I hope)!

The Two Most Contentious Languages and Why You Should Learn Them Anyway

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo incident, the North Carolina shooting of Muslims, and rising Antisemitism on college campuses, I am moved to write this article about the two most contentious, whether it be socially or politically, languages to learn. This article is not to discourage people from learning them, but rather to encourage. We must look past the history of the people who speak the language, and understand them on a personal level. America, or any other nation for that matter, should not be reduced to a xenophobic entity that dehumanizes and derides an entire people for the actions of the few extremists. The goal of learning a language is to become enlightened by that language’s wisdom, and learn how to apply it in fostering good relations.

Hebrew

Due to the atrocious acts committed by the Israeli government in oppressing Palestine, many Jews in America have been targeted. Jews study the Hebrew language in order to learn about their heritage and culture, because it lies nowhere else. Modern Jews, to my knowledge, do not categorically associate themselves, their faith, or their language with the state of Israel. I fear that Hebrew classes in America will be discouraged or even actively protested, because of Antisemitism. There are good and bad people among the Jews. To understand how Jews outside of Israel feel, you must overcome your feelings about Israel, the nation, to truly know how the people feel. We cannot blame Jews in America for the decisions of Israeli government officials. To that end, those that aspire to learn Hebrew, whether you are Jewish or not, I implore you to learn it despite what others say.

Arabic

The Middle East has long been the subject of debate, warfare, and discussion around the world. There are many countries that speak one of the several dialects of Arabic, which each have their own history and culture that you can learn from. Much like Jews, Muslims suffer a great deal due to the extremists or governments that misrepresent them. To learn Arabic is to understand not only the language of the Muslim world, but also to understand their feelings about their religion, its interpretation. With all the hatred of Islam that runs rampant in America, Palestine’s own voice is lost, in addition to the treatment it receives at the hands of the Israeli government. I do not support Israel’s decision to remove Arabic as an official language of the state, because I feel that it keeps Palestine in silence. Learn Levantine Arabic to understand the plight of the Palestinians. Learn any dialect of Arabic, to learn how the people actually live, how they actually think.

I realize that this was a bit of a loaded topic, but this is something I feel very strongly about. Allow me to clarify this: I do not approve of the Israeli government’s actions toward Palestine. However, I do not approve of blaming Jews who are not involved either. Pointing fingers and blaming each other will solve nothing. It is not until you know someone else’s language that you know what he or she has to say.