Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why Everyone in the World Speaks English

When my family first considered moving, I was concerned that we didn't speak a word of Arabic. "Don't worry," I was told. "Everyone there speaks English." And in fact, wherever one roams throughout the wide world, they will find that it isn't that hard to get along. For many, many people of all nations speak English. In fact, I've noticed that Americans can get quite cocky about that fact. Our pride tells us that we are the leaders of the free world and that people of other countries speak our language because they know of our great influence. Or perhaps because they admire us so much! Well, I have finally realized why it is that so many people speak English. Americans' influence doesn't originate in Washington, D.C., or in New York. No, it all comes from Hollywood.

The people of the world learn English so they can watch American T.V.!

I've long been ashamed of Americans' attitude toward language. In European countries, people rub shoulders with others of different nationalities and languages frequently. Because the countries are small and the borders are porous, everyone learns to speak competently in several languages. Even here where it's more difficult to enter the country, people speak Arabic, English, French, and often another language or two. I watch people on the bus greet each other, and finding they don't speak the same language, switch back and forth until they find a language they have in common.

In the United States there has lately been a fervor over immigrants learning to speak English. "If they want to live here, they should learn to speak English," you'll hear stridently proclaimed. Well, yes. They will. And their children will. But learning a language doesn't come in two weeks. I've been working on my Arabic for over a month now, concentratedly. And I have an aptitude for languages. And I still don't know much more than greetings, counting to ten, and part of the alphabet.

How much more human we would be if we all learned as much of other languages as we could. For those who live in the US: how many of us speak adequate Spanish? The likelihood of encountering a Spanish-speaker is great at this period in our history. Do we know how to ask someone their name, to show them how to fill out a form, to give basic directions in the Spanish language?

I love the way that many Mormons all over the world can speak foreign languages because they served missions. On missions, we actively meet people, we have a message to share, we have a motivation to learn the language. But in our daily life we have little motivation to learn so that we can communicate with the world's people.

How would our motivation change if all television programs came into our homes in different languages?


C. L. Hanson said...

I agree that American entertainment is a big part of it. But there's another important motivation to keep in mind: There's an advantage to having one central language that everyone learns as a second language.

I wouldn't say that it's typical all over Europe to speak multiple languages -- in some areas, yes, but not everywhere. So the standard is that as long as everyone can speak a little English, then there's less work to do and a better chance of being able to communicate than if everybody chooses five or six languages at random to learn.

Working in Europe in a technical field, the importance of English as a "lingua franca" becomes quite clear. Engineers have to communicate with other engineers all over the world, and it's not practical to expect them all to learn fifty new languages, but it is practical to expect them to learn one new language. When I went on a business trip to Korea, the French people I was travelling with joked among themselves about the Korean's poor English, but it wouldn't have crossed their minds to expect the Koreans to address us in French or to have taken the time to learn Korean before making the trip. English was lucky enough to have become the international language, and as a result it becomes increasingly important to learn it.

It's true that it's a mixed blessing though: speaking English well can limit the necessity -- and hence the motivation and opportunity -- to learn more languages. And learning new languages is a fun and rewarding task! (Actually Arabic is on my list of languages I'd theoretically like to learn...) But I'm ashamed to admit that even though I know I'm moving to Zurich, I've been too lazy to work on my German. The problem is that I've seen that there's no problem at all getting by there in English and French...

Bored in Vernal said...

Yes, chanson. There really is an advantage to having one central language. And English is well on its way to being today's "Esperanto." Not only because of entertainment, I admit, but also because English is the primary language of the computer.

I still lament the fact that people don't take the time to learn a few elementary words and phrases in languages they know that they will encounter often. People who know only one language should consider themselves severely handicapped.

onelowerlight said...

Yeah, having studied Arabic for one year and living with a Syrian roommate, I know a little bit how you feel! It can be difficult. One key thing that could really help you is to learn to recognize the juthr (الجذر) and the wuzin (الوزن). Learning these principles is the single most significant thing that has helped me to expand my language skills. Basically, every word has a three letter root (juthr=root), and that three letter root is associated with an abstract meaning. Then, using that root, you plug the letters into the pattern (wuzin=pattern), and the pattern manipulates that abstract meaning into something more concrete, and also shows whether the word is a noun, adjective, adverb, verb, etc. So, for example, you have the three letter root of ك-ت-ب, which has an abstract meaning of "writing." You plug those letters into various awzan, and you get كتب يكتب (to write), كاتب (writer) كتاب (book), كتابة (writing [the gerund]). There are also ten verb forms which are very important to learn. In fact, if you want to accelerate your learning as much as possible, my advice is to focus on learning the verb patterns, forms I-X as well as the verbal nouns. The most important part of the Arabic language is verbs, and if you know your verbs, you can figure out the rest fairly easily. But yeah, as you read and speak, try to recognize the juthr and study different awzan, and it will help a lot. Oh, and I wouldn't try to read the Book of Mormon in Arabic until you're fairly experienced. Besides, it's confusing because the BOM has all the short vowels and i'3raab (الاعراب = case) in there, and you really don't need to learn the case until MUCH later (even though many intellectuals don't think that to know Arabic is to know case).

So, yeah, I hope that wasn't too overwhelming, but I'd say that focusing on roots and patterns will do more for you than just about anything else you can do. It will also help you to actually use your dictionary, because the words in the dictionary are not organized alphabetically according to the actual word, but alphabetically according to case.

Bored in Vernal said...

OLL--Thanks for the advice! Your arabic keyboard is cool. I have one too, now I just have to learn to say something...

Ana said...

I want to be able to watch the telenovelas, something fierce!! :)