Mind Matters

by the Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 423
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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