A Question of Language – foreign or not? (guest blog)

It is my pleasure to reproduce a blog written by a friend and colleague of mine, Chris Markiewicz. He writes weekly, always producing something of interest. This week his title is Inwazja Angielskiego – not a phrase I readily understand, as it is his second language, Polish.

multilingual signs

What country am I in?

Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by language; the use and misuse of it. As a diversity practitioner, how words are used and phrases formed is fundamental to successful communication in the workplace and beyond. So I welcome Chris’ words to my blog page. I would be pleased to hear what you think and, if you find it of interest, you could visit his blog for more of the same.

Imagine walking down your local high street and seeing advertising slogans, signs and other such items written in say French or Czech or even in Cyrillic or Arabic script. I’m certain it could feel quite alienating and even invasive.

While working away in Central Europe (Czech Republic and Bulgaria) over the past two weeks, I was struck by the prevalence of English language about the place.

As I passed through my local shopping centre the day after my return, I tried to imagine how I might feel at such an intrusion from a foreign language.

Granted, English is considered to be the global lingo of commerce and international politics, but does it need to permeate so into peoples’ day to day lives through billboards, packaging and the like?

Maybe it’s a generational thing and, being a bit of an old timer myself, I’m pretty sure I’d find it doubly difficult to adapt. I fear though that nations’ cultures and individualities are being eroded by this onslaught of the English language.

Scanning the shelves of Bulgarian and Czech supermarkets I was at times lost and baffled by what might be contained within boxes, jars and bottles labelled in the local language. I accept this as part and parcel of visiting another land. However, many products had English as the prime language pasted across them – handy for me, yet how do many locals cope with that, and how might they feel? I’m not sure we’d tolerate the equivalent here in the UK – oh dear, is my “inner Farage” bubbling up here?

And this extends beyond the written. A few years back I was checking into the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw. I decided to engage with the receptionist in my mother tongue, to which he declared, in a US accent – “I’m sorry sir, I don’t speak Polish”. Looking around the place, I noticed that all the signs in the hotel were in English. Interestingly, the only signs in Polish were those denoting emergency exits!

Last Friday evening, on my way home from my trip, I was going through security at Prague airport – the bleeper sounded, alerting that some metal on my person had tripped the alarm. An airport employee approached me and said “Do you speak English?” You’d have thought that, being in his native country, he would have been perfectly within his rights to first ask whether I speak Czech and, only suggest English as a second option.

I find that quite sad.

Thus, I turn the tables with the Polish title to this post. Worked it out?

Do zobaczenia!

Thanks Chris, for your thoughts and stimulation. The inequality of language impacts on us all locally and globally. Next time I travel abroad I will work hard to leave my English in the drawer from where I take my passport.

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 A Question of Language – foreign or not? (guest blog)

  1. Reblogged this on Society for Diversity and commented:
    A very interesting perspective about the business language of the world.

  2. Tony D says:

    Interesting article, but I must say that you just have to let language go where it will. Any efforts to restrain it, imprison it, banish it are futile. We’ve learnt this throughout history. Also, here in the UK, certainly Brits my age have grown up “seeing” and hearing things foreign. This hasn’t really been a problem (only for Forage it seems whose wife is German), in fact, it’s been fun! Of course, most British-born folk may not see it as that, but I certainly do and see this as enriching our country. I’ve been to Czech Republic and Poland (saw a Tesco’s in Prague – horror!!) and there were still plenty of folk who couldn’t speak English. If they don’t know what the tin contains, they can ask! Just like I do when I’m shopping in Polish shops. It’s social and it’s fun. I also lived in the US for 10 years and the even after a 4-5 hour flight, as a European to get off a flight in another American city to still hear English being spoken was initially a little strange. In this shrinking world, all languages will change, adapt, grow etc. Let’s not put parameters on this aspect of culture, there are enough already. Let’s continue to explore free movement of not only people, but also of languages.

  3. Sunniva says:

    Languages have always been in movement, it happens within a country even without external influence. Adding the fact that we are now exposed to the world through travel, television, social media, internet – we have a massive external influence. Seen from the perspective of a linguist, it is understandable that external influence is a threat. Seen from the perspective of commerce and travel, it is simplifying matters. I don’t think we will see a Europe with one language just yet, though.

    • equalityedge says:

      I agree with the sentiment, but how would it be seen by the indigenous people. Do they want English becoming part of their cultural and national identity?

      • Sunniva says:

        I think some if it happens without people even noticing, like the “word” PC. Then there are cultural differences, of course. I’m Norwegian and Norwegians like new things, new technology – they are less resistant to new words coming in (although the linguist will oppose). However, in France, where I live, there is resistance to change, and pretty much anything “anglo-saxon”, so they feel more of a threat of English words. Although it sneaks in.. like the word BBQ..

  4. It is fascinating how language changes and gets used.

    As an English English speaker, I sometimes feel disadvantaged because I don’t have to speak a second language. I certainly feel permanently on edge in the ongoing battle between US and GB English- brought to us via our computers.

    Apparently the spread of English and its hybridisation into Panglish and Globish (said to be oriental versions of English – and virtually unintelligible to a native speaker) raise the spectre that we shall be minority niche users of our own language at some future point.

    Should I mind?

    I remember a friend who is trip-lingual (English, Czech and Dutch) saying that as a long term Dutch resident, his Dutch friends hated the fact that he had learnt their language as they couldn’t talk privately in front of him.

    • equalityedge says:

      I’m always amazed at the two countries I visit most often, Israel and India, where English is spoken almost as widely as the native tongue among the circles I mix in. Indeed, in Israel, signage is regularly in three languages and sometimes even in four: Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian.

      The globalisation of the English language is a bonus for those of us that travel to other countries, but perhaps it represents a form of ongoing, post-colonial British dominance? Therefore is it yet another question of inequality?

      • Tony D says:

        Perhaps it represents a form of ongoing, post-colonial British dominance?
        No, I don’t think so. The fastest growing English is American English – that’s probably why, for the most part, many Israelis of influence one could mistake for American by the way they speak. To really think Britain carries such clout as it being able to continue its post colonial dominance is rather amusing. We’re a nation like any other, with a rich history, often brutal, sometimes caring, but our days of global domination, economically or linguistically, are, thankfully, over.

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