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The Curse of the Lingua Franca Posted by on Jun 5, 2017 in Uncategorized

Life is hard for native lingua francans learning new languages. But why do they do it at all?

Itchy Feet: Heavy Lifting

I mean, the reason for this should come as no surprise.

English is the current lingua franca of the world, and so any American, Brit or other native English speaker that wants to learn a foreign language is essentially doing so out of personal interest or as a courtesy. The lingua franca thing means that there’s this implication that everyone has to learn that language in order to succeed in business, politics and the arts at a global scale, but of course that doesn’t apply to native speakers.

So native speakers get lazy.

Which, again, kind of makes sense. If we accept for a moment that language is a technology – a system or operation created by man to make life easier – then native English-speaking language learners are kind of like classic car enthusiasts. Most everyone drives boring, modern automatic transmission Toyotas and Fords and Peugeots, but there is a subset of people that love to drive Citroën 2CVs or VW Bugs or even restored Thunderbirds or Model Ts. It doesn’t really serve any practical purpose to them – they’ll still drive their Mazdas to work – but it’s fun. And if they happen to be in a place like Cuba, where classic cars are still used regularly, their skills might actually come in handy.

I know, that seems like a sad light to throw on the task of language learning. We want to believe what we’re doing isn’t just a useful skill, it isn’t just practical, it’s actually making the world a better place. That’s what I believe when I’m slogging through grammar or shaking off the embarrassment of speaking poorly in public. I have to, or I wouldn’t do it: I believe that by reaching out and learning another peoples’ language, I’m increasing the net empathy of the human race. I’m taking off my shoes and trying on yours so that one less person thinks their shoes are the truth. By learning a language, we’re making humans care about each other, one word at a time.

But in reality we do it for us. We do it because it’s fun, or in a few cases we do it because we have to, though that’s usually related to a romantic entanglement rather than business, politics or the arts. English native speakers, generally speaking, don’t have to learn another language.

So when they do, it’s harder. In Europe, a continent with 23 officially recognized languages and over 60 indigenous regional and minority languages, speaking two or three languages growing up is not at all unusual. In fact it’s more unusual to be monolingual, at least in the bigger cities. This is quite the contrast from the USA, where people don’t learn a second language unless they’re forced to in school (and rarely does that lead to any actual comprehension, let alone fluency) or grow up in a household or community where multiple languages are spoken.

I wish it were different. I do think learning new languages can change the world. I think it’s extremely important to broaden your horizons and try new things. It’s a big world out there, with lots of people living different, fascinating lives, and many people, especially native speakers of any accepted “global language,” need to learn some humility now and then.

What do you think? Can language learning change the world, or is it just a fun hobby? Will English always be the lingua franca or will we see another take the throne in the future?

 

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About the Author:Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Jared Gimbel:

    I think, in part thanks to recent developments in politics in the Anglophone world as well as the proliferation of English as a second language throughout the world (in which its “cool factor” is being lost), there will be more of an attachment towards the many languages of the world.

    This is already starting to be felt in European countries, even in those with very high rates of English proficiency (ESPECIALLY them, actually!)

    And actually, knowing English actually brings advantages as a polyglot, given how many pieces of languages throughout the globe ended up in American English (similarities between American slang expressions and Swedish sentence structure is one thing, but when I was learning Burmese I even found some similar patterns! And when learning Tok Pisin [Papua New Guinea’s English Creole], I couldn’t help but think of the “South Pacific” musical, which was set in the nearby Solomon Islands)

    And yes, language learning can indeed change the world, but we’ll have to expand language learning beyond the most powerful languages on the planet and bring the full riches of our linguistic treasures to the fore. Greenlandic and Tok Pisin changed my life more soundly than a global European language ever could.

    Great reflection by the way!

  2. Tom:

    I get the point you’re making, but from a business perspective it is shortsighted and sadly reaffirms this idea that learning a second language is “odd”.

    The fact is that a British person who speaks French and German is more employable as a result, because companies want people who can speak these languages?

    Why?

    Because the rapport you can build in a business and social context when you speak the language of the people you are visiting is immeasurably better than if you rely on them speaking English. Yes they may be able to speak English very well (although it isn’t always a given, especially in Spain and Italy!) and yes you may be able to communicate. But you are far more likely to strike a chord with somebody culturally if you can speak the language of their culture.

    I firmly believe, as someone who routinely conducts business in French and German, despite being a British native, that communicating with these clients in English sits very firmly in second place, a long way behind speaking the language of the people you’re meeting. There is simply no substitute for it.

  3. Megan Mercado:

    I agree that being a native speaker of a lingua franca presents an initial barrier to language learning, but agree with the other commenters that it’s about far more than my own enjoyment (although I do enjoy it!). Even though English is a major lingua franca, it isn’t the lingua franca everywhere, so during my time in West Africa I picked up some French for survival and conversational purposes. I’ve learned Spanish, which helps in communicating clearly and building rapport in both Latin America and parts of the U.S. And I’m currently learning Swahili, which I thought I was doing for fun until my last work assignment, when I realized I wouldn’t be as effective unless my Swahili were proficient enough for at least some work conversations. These are all lingua francas in some part of the world, but I’m starting to think that there would be a lot of value in learning a language that’s not really a lingua franca for anyone, just to understand the social context of being part of that kind of community.


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