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Keep Your Multilingualism to Yourself

Leeuwarden, Friesland, Netherlands — My assignment here in the pleasant Frisian city of Leeuwarden, in Holland’s only officially multingual province, is to debate Guillaume Thierry over whether learning a new language shapes your thinking and your view of the world, at a conference on multilingualism. But already, just from lunch-table conversation on the first day, I have learned something new and surprising about the growing global dominance of English.

I talked to an English-speaking American, fluent in German, who is raising his children as English/German bilinguals. He is currently resident in Germany, attached to a university in Hamburg. The main point of this visiting position is to allow him to immerse himself and his family in a German-speaking community, so naturally he wants to speak German with his German university colleagues. But to his astonishment he finds they don’t want that. They want him to use English with them. Their attitude toward his germanophone tendencies is distinctly disapproving.

At the same table was the applied linguist Robert Phillipson, who told me about a native speaker of English he knows who is living in Korea and is experiencing the same thing even more sharply. The man in question has learned Korean really well, and uses it to talk to students and colleagues, but he reports encountering real hostility over it. Colleagues and students alike seem to think it is distasteful that he should do such a thing. Some almost seem to regard his speaking Korean well as almost racist—as if by speaking Korean to them he is stereotyping them as gooks, or even mocking them.

His honest efforts to accomplish the very difficult task of learning Korean (it is totally unrelated to English and other Western European languages, of course) are being not just spurned but regarded as a kind of insult. He wrote to seek advice. He thinks he may actually have difficulty getting further employment in Korea now that employers are beginning to realize that he is fluent in Korean.

Just two anecdotes, of course, not a scientific survey. But I was shocked. I had of course seen this kind of reluctance to let outsiders join the speech community with languages of very low prestige, for instance creole languages. Efforts at learning Jamaican Creole are typically met with anger rather than pleasure in Jamaica: Jamaicans, especially if middle-class or college-educated, want to be regarded as English speakers. They tend to despise the creole that is in fact the primary medium of oral communication across the country.

But discouragement from learning prestigious national languages like Berlin German and Seoul Korean? It amazed me.

The global dominance of English is an inexorable fact about the state of the world: English is an official language in 50 or 60 countries around the globe, and in just about every country it is used to some extent, at least as a medium for basic trade, air-traffic control, or official communications to foreigners. No other language has anything like this international currency. To some modest extent this has been engineered by British and American official policies and organizations (a point that Robert Phillipson argues hotly in his 1992 book Linguistic Imperialism), but the majority of it seems to me to have been mere luck. The tall ship of Standard English has been pushed along by undeserved favorable winds like the massive success stories of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the BBC, American and British pop music, and so on.

I hadn’t quite appreciated, though, that English is beginning to be so dominant and so much desired that its speakers are being condemned or bullied for having the temerity to even attempt the use of other languages.

Heaven knows, it is already hard to persuade the British or the Americans to take seriously the idea of learning a foreign language to a high degree of proficiency. (Last year I spent some time mulling over what would be the best arguments to convince them to try: See the Lingua Franca posts here and here and here.) But if assiduous learners of other languages are spurned and disdained, and pressured to revert to a predefined role as models for those seeking to practice their English, then the enthusiasm of English speakers for taking on the hard work of becoming multilingual is likely to fall to roughly zero.

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