Language and Culture – a complex paradox.

The other day, I was listening to an Italian tennis player being interviewed by a French sporting journalist in English. It got me thinking about the language I speak; how I take it completely for granted. English, the global language of business, IT, commerce, sport and much more, is spoken by approximately 370 million people as their mother tongue and perhaps another 1.7 billion others as a second language.

When I go abroad, usually in Europe, India or Israel, I speak English and most often find people will respond to me with full understanding. Perhaps in expectation that people will speak in English, I have become somewhat lazy about learning languages myself.

I am reminded of a time some years ago when I travelled in Kenya. On the beach, I was approached by a boy of about ten, selling local wares to tourists. Thinking I was from Germany, he spoke in German, then French, Spanish and finally in English. I was amazed at how proficient he was in each tongue – certainly knowing enough to be an accomplished sales person. I feel a real sense of disappointed at my inability to converse in any other language, though, if necessary I have my poor schoolboy German and French. I’m not even half as fluent as that Kenyan child.

As part of my professional development, I have become aware of how language is closely linked to cultural identity and when, this afternoon, I was sent a document about endangered languages, I felt compelled to write. With a little research I find there are approximately 6,900 languages spoken today. About 400 of these are the chosen tongue of 95% or the world’s population, leaving about 6,500 spoken by the remaining 5%. A little more investigation shows that about half of these precious languages will be dead within the next 50 years – with so much associated cultural loss.

I wonder what can be done to protect cultural identity from this impending disaster. So many micro-civilisations will become extinct. Is protecting the language the key – certainly it may help prolong the oral traditions of so many peoples around the world.

As I read more about language, I thought of Esperanto – a design of L L Zamenhof in the late 19th century. His dream was to create a global language; he perceived the various tongues of the people in his native Poland were the factors that led to prejudice and discrimination. He designed this new language as a driver for world peace. Strange it would have been, if successful. World peace perhaps; but only at a cost of countless cultures and traditions. What a toss-up!

Zamenhoff wrote in 1895 that “The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on”.

There is clearly a paradox between these two points of view. Preserve language and save a culture or blend languages to minimise difference and enmity. Certainly in the global workplace we have taken the latter direction. I got a call this week from Robin from Reading trying to sell me something, who, after much discussion finally acknowledged that he was actually Manoj from Bihar.

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
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9 Responses to Language and Culture – a complex paradox.

  1. I always circulate your posts

  2. Chris Markiewicz says:

    What strikes me is the fact that a language can die so abruptly. It is not uncommon to have a generation in a family speaking only the original language, the middle generation speaking both the original and adopted language (eg English) and the third speaking only the adopted language. Thereby rendering them unable to communiate directly with their own grandparents and the original language dead. Simple as that.

  3. I am professionally fluent in numerous languages – but I’m not putting much effort into teaching my children my mother tongue (Swedish) – it is a fairly useless language, and it comes loaded with so many corrosive ideas (I am keenly aware of how culture and language go hand in hand) that I just don’t feel motivated. I’d rather they learn some of the other languages I know.

  4. Benjamin Saunders says:

    Interesting article, and I must say although I am professionally fluent in French I now see my abilities in the language as a career tool. As a student several years ago I thought that I would someday be as French as I am Irish, however having now lived and worked in France for years I know that’s entirely impossible. Though I love the French themselves there are definitely some cultural aspects, some manifested in the language, that I just don’t like. I’m willing to admit that I have become rather jaded to the idea of learning more languages, although the spark is still there for Spanish and German. German in particular given the new European order, if I can say that.

    One things in the article: Surely there are more than 370 million people speaking English as a mother tongue – USA 315 + UK 62 + CA 34 + AUS 22 + IRL 5 = 438 Million Wow 🙂

    • equalityedge says:

      Benjamin, thanks for your comment.

      It is interesting that you thought there would be more than 370m English speakers. I was amazed as I did my research that this figure was not higher. The key is that it relates only to those who speak it as their mother tongue. In the USA for instance, where there is no official national language, only about 230m of the 330m people speak English and many of those not as their first language. My understanding is that most speak Spanish first, though most also speak English.

      I am not sure the exact figure, but not 62m people in UK speak English as first language and certainly some do not speak it at all. I can think of three people I know, whose only language is Polish, Urdu and Punjabi.

      Interesting facts and I will probably be doing more research on them.

      • Benjamin Saunders says:

        Aaahh of course, I hadn’t thought about that, I was simply adding populations. Thank you for the correction. It’s still quite a large number and I wonder in the case of the US how English as a mother tongue will expand with the younger generations? It’s funny that watching news coverage of American politics etc you would almost forget how multi-cultural the country is, like a rather elaborate tossed salad. I have always found the US facinating in this regard. In terms of your article here, it would seem to me that hispanic culture/language is largely accepted as part of the ‘American Tapestry’ across the southern and middle of the country. Maybe we are seeing a more cooperative post-clash era between the languages and cultures here?

      • equalityedge says:

        What surprises me is that the US do not have an official language, though English is considered the national language. Perhaps this shows a recognition of the importance of multiculturalism in their societal construction – no one culture would feel minimised as a result of their mother tongue or chosen language.

        What could we learn from that in the UK? I wonder how many people feel ostracised by the wider society as a result of language. I am aware of public sector departments that comply with requirements to make information available in various languages, but only do so reluctantly.

  5. Chris Markiewicz says:

    I’m afraid I’m feeling prompted to put a cat among some pigeons here.

    I was running a course for a Housing Association a couple of years ago. Two of the participants were young Polish men who had been in the UK for almost two years. They worked as Estate Service Officers (what used to be called janitors), They spoke hardly any English, despite having to interact with tenants on a housing estate in England! Luckily, I speak some Polish and was able to help them through the course – but why should I have needed to? My parents came from Poland after the war and prioritized learning the language – partly for practical reasons as life will have been easier for them and partly out of respect for their new home nation.

    Translation services are appropriate for people who come here as unwilling refugees or asylum seekers and then, only for a limited period of time. For all others, if the country were to support them through the public purse then at least spend it on intensive English lessons rather than translation services that pander to keeping them stuck with just their original mother tongue. “Give a man a fish or teach a man to fish?”

    My father was no linguist and he struggled with English to his dying day, but he tried and tried……

    Like it or not, the language of the UK is English and, if I choose to come to live here I’ learn the language. Likewise If I go, out of choice, to live in Greece or Japan I’ll make the effort to learn Greek or Japanese respectively

  6. Judith Abrahami says:

    I found the blog & then the comments very interesting. Regarding the issue of language and identity, I think of the cultural and demographical changes over the last deades in my own country, Israel and in various states of Europe. Being London born but an Israeli resident from a very young age I come to London & other European countries frequently and in the 1990s studied for my PhD at London U. My impression is that most cultures have lost their insularity long ago. The use of the local language is indeed the dividing line between those who want to adopt the local culture and those who prefer their former , but that alone is not the only reason for the lack of cultural uniformity. What ususally happens is that the adoption of a foreign language by new comers is usually devoid of all the cultural baggage. I see this clearly in Israel where those of my students who came from former USSR as young children, or were even born here, & learnt Hebrew as a second language but remained within their communit , have no memory of the children’s literature & all its implications and messages. The consequence is that literary connotations, vocabulary and cultural socialization are not shared with their age group, even if the everyday language is.

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