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.