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.