Can English Kill?

Drawing on an original paper by Mario Aquino Alves, Professor of Public Policy at FGV-EAESP Brazil, the issue of promoting diversity of language and knowledge is increasingly becoming a subject of hot debate.    

For native English-speakers “Can English Kill?” might seem a little ‘over the top’. For those speaking the world’s 6,908 other living languages it might seem all too much an obvious threat. Interestingly, roughly only 6% of that number of living languages have more than a million speakers each – a figure that means that these 6% account for 94% of the world’s population. Staggering. Those in the know can cite Chinese and Spanish as being the most spoken languages in the world, but the way that English has embedded itself into international relations, economics, business, popular culture and education is deep, wide and unprecedented.

If we focus on education in particular, written in another way, the title of this article might read “For a diversity of knowledge”. And this is where professor Mario Aquino Alves comes in with a paper produced from a debate on how to resist linguistic domination and promote knowledge diversity. So rather than looking at whether English can kill – by which we mean lead to the disappearance of other languages – let’s look at some ways in which the world of education, and academia in particular, can manage to ensure that both mother tongues and English as a lingua franca may find a win-win.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us*

“Hold on – wouldn’t you rather like a language study trip instead?”

Every language has a history. All told, that of the English language is quite an epic tale. Introduced to the British Isles towards the end of Roman occupation and influence around 500 AD, the invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes brought with them a family of related Germanic languages. These retained their grammatical complexities of gender and conjugation until the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066 – himself the descendant of Scandinavian Norsemen that for several hundred years previously had ruled over Normandy and taken on a form of French. Norman rule of Britain initially meant a cleavage between the new aristocracy that spoke French and the dominated peasantry who kept their Saxon English.

This situation gave rise to some interesting characteristics of the language that still exist today. Animals and their meat, for example, can be split into two distinct groups – the animals once raised by the poor Saxon peasantry (ox, sheep, pig) and the Norman gentry who were rich and powerful enough to eat the meat (beef, mutton, pork [boeuf, mouton, porc in modern French]). Victual of less repute, succulence, wildness, value or scarcity – fish, rabbit or duck – kept their old names. Look at the English dictionary today and you will find almost twice as many words as you would in other language dictionaries, due mainly to the fact that modern English, the symbiosis of which can be seen in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (quoted in the sub-title above) of 1392, is more than fifty percent enriched with French words of origin.

Linguists and scholars tell us that English is huge in lexicon and simplified in grammar. They will also say that it is a language that remained autonomous and open to change, on boarding words from other languages and easily accepting grammatical change. This is in relative contrast to French, for example, which has been kept ‘intact’ from many outside influences over time through the purists of the Académie Française. Their concern over the decreasing influence of French also led them to raise barriers to Esperanto, the world language invented by Zamenhof in the late nineteenth century, by being the only country to veto a proposal for it to become an official language of the League of Nations after World War One.

Nowadays, however, drop into any office or educational institute in France and you’ll find most sentences coming from people’s mouths sprinkled with English words and phrases – meeting, call, challenge, too much, gore, mobile, so what, borderline and the sky is the limit being but a few examples. Indeed, many other languages too have been invaded by this ‘Globish’.

*“Once upon a time, as old stories tell us…” Geoffrey Chaucer, The Knight’s Tale (1392)

Losing an idiom is equivalent to losing a work of art

Purveyor of the Queen’s English…

All in all, English is a dominant world language. Why? David Crystal, the renowned British linguist, provides a luminous explanation in that he connects the import of a language to power. In the case of English, to the political power that England exerted from the 16th to 19th centuries, the technological power of Great Britain throughout the Industrial Revolution, the growth of American economic power in the 20th century, and the cultural power of English – from Shakespeare to the Beatles to Brad Pitt and Star Wars.  For the French linguist Claude Hagège the dominance of English constitutes a threat to the heritage of humanity in that it comes with the risk of imposing not only a language but a way of thinking: language is more than just a way of communicating – it is a way of seeing the world. And for Hagège, every idiom that disappears from a language represents an inestimable loss equivalent to that of a monument or a work of art.

According to David Crystal, twenty-five languages disappear each year. But is this the fault of English? Perhaps not entirely, though the last thirty years or so have seen a seeping of the language into things that count on a strategic level for a nation’s brains and institutions. This can be seen most notably in the fields of science and education, where institutions are judged on their research prowess, with schools and universities engaged in fierce competition for students and funding that rely on international accreditation bodies and publications in leading journals – overwhelmingly in English. Careers in these fields too are linked to mastery of English. And publishing in one’s native language, especially if a non-English speaker – be it Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Portuguese or French – cannot guarantee a widespread public or a seal of quality. Under the pressure to produce, many Latin American management researchers, for example, have been forced to adopt a strategy of “publishing at any cost”, something that has seen a spate of pseudo case studies or work lacking methodological consistency. So the question remains as to how to ensure that the full bouquet of living languages finds a way to bloom while also ensuring that the work produced by professors and researchers is allowed to become an English rose.

Scandalizing, scrutinizing and inventing

While not neglecting the usefulness of English as a lingua franca, the spontaneous use of it in the academic world has drawn some criticism. Chris Steyaert and Maddy Janssens (Organization, 2012) argue for the employment of three strategies regarding language use and differences: scandalization, scrutinization and invention. Scandalizing means refusing to accept conferences or journals that pretend to be international while not reserving space or occasion where cultural diversity might be expressed. For them, such absence should be loudly disapproved, deplored and criticised. It also means questioning the massive translation of English-language works into local languages, their argument being that non-English books are becoming absent, decreasingly reviewed or referred to in so-called international journals. Worse still, original editions are increasingly substituted by English versions of the book so that publisher’s stocks and bookshop shelves are only filled with the translated version. The point has moral and cultural substance, though it can also be said that thanks to English, many scholars’ research has become recognised through translations of their native-language original work.

Knowledge diversity: Not such a no-brainer

Translations, and the loss of nuances unable to be fully coined in English, lead to the second strategy – that of scrutinization. Here, Steyaert and Janssens call for a more studious examination of how linguistic resources are prioritised and the consequences of these choices. A striking example of negative impact can be seen in the use of the Journal Impact Factor, a way of counting the number of citations of a journal within a given scientific field. This is used as a tool for measuring and assessing publications (research papers, chapters and articles) and effectively puts journals into competition on a worldwide scale. The trouble is that if a Chinese, French or Russian researcher writes a brilliant piece of work in his/her own language and in a local journal, it will inevitably fail dismally in terms of number of citations due to the fact that the vast majority of journals of any value are published in English, and within an English-dominated environment. This said, even in the English-speaking research community the overuse of the Journal Impact Factor to assess the quality of a piece of work gives rise to criticism – not only through the undue stress-levels that this competition generates among researchers, but also because the JIF is being used to shape pay and career prospects. In effect, it’s a little like using the number of views and re-tweets obtained on a person’s Twitter account to judge what quality of person they are.

Finally, invention. Here, creativity and daring are invited to take control. Steyaert and Janssens advocate the employment of multiple languages within an English translated text when possible, something that they view as enrichment. This would entail keeping terms, quotes and expressions in the original language and either using footnotes with translations or leaving it up to the reader to be curious, use a dictionary, or interpret how he/she understands it. Success stories using this approach indeed exist, the Brazilian journal RAE published by the leading educational institution FGV (with content in Portuguese, English and Spanish), or the Canadian-based Management International publishing articles in French, English and Spanish. Interviewing the editor of the journal, Mario Aquino Alves was struck to learn that although authors are encouraged to submit works in Spanish, most Spanish-speaking authors insist on sending in their work…in English.

Esp, Espèra, Esperanto – Hope

Further solutions have been suggested that include technological ones – using real-time translating software, for example – and inviting the ‘top journals’ to publish special editions written in different languages. This would not only encourage diversity of culture and knowledge but might also provide a novel ‘selling angle’ that provides the incentive to journals and institutions to do so. The issue seems to boil down to the paradoxical question does English mean international? Perhaps that should be the theme for another article (contributors welcome). Or perhaps, if power and interests can be set aside, it’s time for Esperanto to make another bid for worldwide scientific and academic publishing.

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