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6 Comments

  • Ignorance on the part of first-language English speakers doesnt help. Bill Bryson recounts a story (apparently true) about American Educators being concerned that fewer students, each year, were taking foreign language courses, or bothering to learn a second language. Congress was asked to support a Bill to provide large amounts of money (millions) to invest in American colleges to encourage language studies. One opponent of the Bill – a congressman – didnt see the point, stating – and i quote: “I dont see the point in learning a foreign language. If English was good enough for Jesus, then its good enough for everyone.”

  • Great article. Allow me to point out that between “places where people are banned by law from using their first language” and “language shift”, there are a lot of government policies that limit language. In DRC, for example, most of the country’s languages are banned from formal education Some language communities have developed their language and want to use it in primary school in spit of this ban, but the efforts are still considered illegal by the authorities who resist them. One could cite many other cases of government policy that is quite hostile to language without actually banning it.

  • Thanks, Kenneth. The “good enough for Jesus” story is also discussed in an interesting and entertaining lecture by Raf Salkie, titled “Does English have a Future?”, available as a PDF from his homepage. And thanks to Ed for pointing out the middle ground between outright bans and “organic” language shift – an area where there must be many other examples like your DRC one, of languages being marginalized.

  • Nowadays is Catalan which is imposed to Spanish speakers here in Catalonia (very much like French in Quebec),please remember that.

  • Languages don’t exist as such, in the way that actual living people do; languages are performative acts by people. All languages are equal — that is, they’re all of roughly equivalent semantic efficiency, so it really doesn’t matter which language(s) are spoken. Your culture (of which language is a part) is not like your skin color. It’s more like your clothes. It’s something you chose, and can change.

    So the reason people do one set of performative acts rather than another is their usefulness. When most people were peasant farmers who rarely moved around much, the local patois would do. In a nation-state, the national language was more useful — hence the eclipse of Breton or Provencal by French. And nowadays, English is more useful.

    It’s more useful not because of any inherent superiority but simply because its more widespread than any other language, and particularly so among the urbanized and affluent. If an Indian executive and a Japanese executive and an Indonesian executive are sitting down making a business deal in Mombasa, chances are they’ll do it in English.