“We have always wanted to remember more, and we will continue, I believe, to weave webs to catch words in the hope that somehow, in the sheer quantity of accumulated utterances, in a book or on a screen, there will be a sound, a phrase, a spelled-out thought that will carry the weight of an answer.”
So wrote the Argentine author, translator and editor Alberto Manguel in The Library at Night (2006). But what if it is language itself that is at risk? What if words are no longer the domain of people but of computers? Spell-check, grammar-check and auto-translate are already upon us. Auto-correct on cell phones and short-speak in text-messages are the norm. Is this pragmatism writ-large (so to say), linguistic indolence, or is it a threat to the very future of language? Doom and gloom, you might say, but the jury is still out. Unfortunately, by the time a verdict is reached, it may be too late.
Arguably, English has become the world’s most important language. “Arguably” because Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic and Russian speakers may disagree. Yet, in numbers, English is second only to Chinese among first and second language speakers. English literature predominates. English is the most commonly used language in the sciences and vast quantities of content on the worldwide web are in English. Among the myriad qualifications required by air traffic controllers is a minimum level of competency in English.
Does the promiscuity of English obviate the need for native English-speakers to learn another language (or two, or three)? Clearly not, and there are strong arguments from the point of view of civilisation, culture, and greater understanding of the world we live in that learning a second or third language expands horizons in ways that digital technology – for all its marvels – utterly fails to do.
It is the British and Americans who, in recent decades, seem to have lost the linguistic and grammatical plot. How many times have we heard the lament that language tuition in schools and at universities is declining or has been removed from this or that curriculum? Why is there a recurring spat over how to use the apostrophe? The British seem have their heads in the sand when it comes to studying their own language, let alone other European languages or Armenian or Persian or Burmese. One of the great female writers of the post-colonial period in Burma (today’s Myanmar) is Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay (1917-82) (photo right). Her novel Not Out of Hate (1955) explores the impact of the West on Burmese culture and has been translated into English, Chinese, French, Uzbek and Russian. What would it be like to read it in the original?
In “A-level languages: is Britain at risk of turning into a nation of monoglots?” (The Guardian 18 August 2013) David Bellos had this to say:
“There’s a widespread notion that since English is the new Latin, native speakers don’t need to learn to speak anything else. The Romans were not so foolish. Their empire was populated almost exclusively by bilinguals. In a cemetery near Newcastle upon Tyne, there’s a Roman gravestone inscribed in Latin and in Palmyrean (the ancient kingdom situated in what is now Syria). The eastern part of the Roman empire used Greek, not Latin, and most people around the eastern Mediterranean spoke Aramaic, Egyptian, Punic or one of a welter of other languages along with Greek or/and Latin. The idea that because English is now a widely spoken international language, English speakers need nothing else is then very much a modern invention, with no precedent in older civilisations.”
Where is the visionary thinking and policy-making of governments on this matter? Where is the image of Great Britain as a necessarily polyglot nation that values both the English language and the rich universe of multilingualism? The answer is blowing in the wind of self-satisfaction and political ineptitude.