by the Rev. Robert H. Tucker
March 25, 2002
Vietnamese Water Puppets
"Do You Speak English"
A group of young travelers, from countries as scattered as Denmark, France,
South Africa and Japan, were sitting in the lobby of a small hotel in Bangkok.
Conversation flowed easily--in English. In the languid town of Luang Prabang
(pop. 20,000), in the landlocked country of Laos, guides, shopkeepers, guest-house
owners, and tuk-tuk (motorized 'rickshaw') drivers all spoke--in English.
On a park bench in Hanoi, an unemployed business school graduate sits down
and converses--in English ("knowing English is necessary to get a good job").
Americans, I thought, for being such a monolingual people, are truly fortunate
when traveling in foreign countries. English is the world's common linguistic
currency, today's lingua franca.
Why is English so dominant? Simply, America is the world's dominant culture,
and language follows power. Greek power meant the world spoke Greek, and
that continued long after Rome had supplanted Greek supremacy (for example,
the Apostle Paul wrote in Greek in the Roman world). Subsequently, Latin
continued to be the language of the Roman Catholic Church, long after Roman
political power ended.
Another factor is the pervasiveness of American television programs around
the world and highly sophisticated marketing. (Actually, how odd it was,
I thought, that for three weeks-after leaving Singapore and before arriving
at Bangkok, traveling in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos--I saw not one McDonalds.)
A third factor is rooted in what an American friend, living in Turkey in
the 1960s and who spoke five languages, said: "English is the easiest language
to learn, and the most difficult to master." (One look at the massive Webster's
Unabridged Dictionary points to that difficulty, and to that we might add,
as one person wrote, "The verbs tend to be irregular, the grammar bizarre
and the match between spelling and pronunciation a nightmare.")
There are, though, some definite negatives to English's dominance.
Two, of the estimated 6,000 to 7,000 languages in the world, are disappearing
each week, and some estimate that by the end of this century 50% to 90% of
all languages will have disappeared. Along with each language's demise, a
part of the world's culture, diversity and unique outlook dies as well. (Anyone
who has studied a foreign language learns that each culture looks at the
world and other people in unique ways. Even within a culture, a book such
as Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus points to the different ways that
men and women can view life.)
In addition, I believe there is an arrogance that subtly creeps into the
requirement that others always have to 'come our way' in communicating. I
cannot help but feel that the attitude fostered by our lack of attentiveness
to the language and culture of others helps fuel the underlying unhappiness-to-anger
with the United States.
However much I may contribute to such unhappiness-to-anger, my lack of knowing
the languages of others leaves me grateful for those who ease my path in
this world by learning English.
--Robert H. Tucker
25 March 2002
© Robert H. Tucker, 2002.
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