The promises and pitfalls of English as an international language

By | 2018-06-12T11:30:01+00:00 June 12th, 2018|Musings|

In our day to day lives, the language that we speak is, most often, something that falls firmly into the background of our consciousness.  At most moments, we are not even conscious of the fact that we are speaking a language at all – we are simply communicating in the way that we always have in the same way that everybody around us does.  But the language you speak as your mother tongue is just as much an accident of where you were born as anything else is, and it has many, many implications for the course of your life.  If you have 15 minutes, I highly recommend the TED Talk below to get a sense of just how much your language shapes the way you think.

 

Over the course of human history, various languages have emerged as the lingua franca of various regions at various times.  Never until now, however, has a global lingua franca emerged, and it turns out that English is that language.  The implication of this is that, the world over, everybody wants to learn how to speak English.  In that sense, a regrettable colonial history has produced a happy accident:  we now live in a world where it is conceivable that the vast majority of the world’s population will have a common language of communication.  This can have extremely positive implications for promoting dialogue and understanding between the cultures of the world.  On the other hand, it has the impact of disproportionately privileging those of us who happen to hail from the Anglosphere: a mere 6% of the global population.

It is, of course, is enormously convenient and enriching for those of us who are native speakers of English and enjoy traveling the world to have the chance to speak with many of the people we meet along the way.  I am thoroughly grateful for the fact that I’ve been able to make many wonderful friends from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Korea, and Taiwan over the years.  None of this would have been possible if those people weren’t able to speak to me in English, and it is especially interesting and enriching to my perspective, because the cultures and languages represented among that group differ so much from one another.

There is, on the other hand, a dark side to the emergence of English as a global bridge language, and it is how the English speaking world has been elevated to an exaggerated level of importance.  As the old saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility,” but most people who are native speakers of English are aware of neither the power they have nor the responsibility that comes with it.  As Americans, British, Irish, Australians, Canadians, etc. we have come to be seen, in a certain sense, as portrayers of global cultural norms.  It is not an exaggeration to say that in the East Asian countries I’ve spent time in (at the time of writing, South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia), people who look “western” are viewed and treated as minor celebrities.  Random people on the street will ask to take pictures with you because it is “cool” to be associated with a western person.  You will often be seen as exempt from following most or all established customs of good manners.  You will constantly be told how “handsome” or “beautiful” you are – again, often by random strangers.  It’s not hard to see that while this may start out as an innocent confidence boost, it can get to a person’s head and make them feel and act much more “important” than they know deep down that they are.  A very dark side of this it that women in much of East Asia have become convinced that beauty and whiteness are the same thing, and popular “beauty” products are designed to make their skin look more white.  South Korea has also become the world capital of plastic surgery, with an alarming number of Korean women in particular having procedures done to give themselves more “western” eyes and facial features.

Leiden, Netherlands: a beautiful university city where nearly everybody speaks English.

I had a different and more varied experience in Europe in terms of how I was viewed as an American.  People were often not afraid to (rightly) poke fun at some of the excesses we have come to be known for, and in general I was treated more as a “normal” person who is no better than anybody else, even if I was a bit of curiosity.  But in the end, I still lived the daily privilege of being able to function perfectly well in my native language.  In the case of countries like the Netherlands and those in Scandinavia, the English level is so high that it wouldn’t be necessary to learn a word of Dutch or Danish to live there comfortably for twenty years.  Almost every road sign, restaurant menu, and website is written in both English and local language, and in the rare case where it’s not, there is a 95% chance that someone who speaks English fluently is available to help you.

Of course, interactions between foreigners and local populations only scratch the surface of what it means that English has become the language of the new globalized world.  By extension, it means that the popular culture of the United States, Great Britain and (to a lesser extent) Australia, New Zealand and Canada is known by nearly everyone in the world, and shape global perceptions of what is “normal,” “hip,” “desirable, “beautiful,” and “impressive.”  I don’t mean to imply that this is always a bad thing.  There are lots of things that our culture produces that we can and should be proud of.  Our music, art, cinema and athletics sometimes share the best of what we have to offer with the world, and sharing this helps to build common ground with people from faraway places who grow up with very different traditions, beliefs, and customs.

Few would argue, however, that today’s popular culture presents us at our best.  Most would agree that current American and British popular culture are based on one thing and one thing only:  the almighty dollar.  In the past, thought-provoking, artistic, and interesting material was highly marketable.  The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Crosby, Stills and Nash used popular music to get people thinking about a better future.  A generation of comedians like George Carlin and Bill Hicks used stand-up comedy to critique aspects of our culture.  Even television shows like All in the Family got people talking around the kitchen table about racism, the generational divide, and the kind of society we’d like to live in.

Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.

Today, we live in a pop culture world dominated by the likes of reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Teen Mom, and Duck Dyanasty.  The average quality of what is generally popular has declined precipitously over the course of the last 30-40 years, with the goal of appealing to the (ever lower) lowest common denominator.  It would be bad enough if we were just lamenting a “dumbed down” world of show business, but the lines between “entertainment” and “reality” have blurred so much that a former reality TV host and WWE (professional wrestling) Hall of Famer has now ascended to the Presidency.  No longer are substantive policy debates even presented as window dressing on TV news.  We are simply presented with tweets, “twitter wars,” and the spectacle of substance-free “debate” and controversy that are instigated by such reporting.

In a word, most of it is crap:  crap that sells, but crap nonetheless.  To quote author and media theorist Neil Postman, “one way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of crap.”  This has never been more true than it is today, when our veneration of celebrity, spectacle, and the next flashy distraction has reached a level that the parodists of previous generation could not have made up.

Now, because the English speaking nations are the most powerful in our new globalized world, this crap is being exported to the ends of the Earth.  Of course, this is nothing new.  Previous empires felt that they were doing the world a favor by spreading their “advanced” cultural values, music, art, and literature with the world.  What is new are the forces at work driving those processes.  While in the past, a monarch or elite class would attempt to “share” (by force) the great works of their nation’s literature, music, etc. with the world, today we have a situation where nobody is being “forced” to acculturate to anything, and the market decides which aspects of our culture get exported.  The result is that (mostly) men in boardrooms are dreaming up highly marketable crap to export to the rest of the world.  Of course, these are not men who view themselves as creators and propagators of the global culture of an empire.  They are simply business men, interested in making as much money as possible by providing a population with endless entertainment and stimulation.  This ethos, sadly, seems to be our most prominent export.

American politics are often followed very closely by ordinary people from all around the world.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the average person that I’ve met elsewhere in the world – particularly in Europe – is much more informed about American politics and current events than the average American, and tends to have a much more sophisticated and well-thought out perspective on matters of international importance.  Today, most people that I encounter abroad are basically completely flabbergasted at what has become of American politics.  Currently, it is hard to distinguish from the most pernicious aspects of our pop culture.  To once again quote Postman, in his uncomfortably prophetic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.

― Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

That last bit raises many questions:  what is “culture death,” and what are its implications when the dying culture is viewed as the standard bearer for the first-ever global culture?  I think that what Postman means by “culture death” is a culture addicted to amusement with a strong aversion to any type of depth or complexity.  Stimulation, shock value, and manufactured controversy eventually become the only means for holding the attention of the population.  As a result, that culture stops producing anything of value and eventually fades into history. Today, we are seeing the effects of this all over the world, as unprecedented numbers of us are glued to twitter, waiting to see its impact on global events.

I don’t mean to paint too bleak a picture.  The spread of the English language around the world, coupled with how the internet has connected us all in an unprecedented way truly has created an amazing opportunity to build a better world.  While it’s true that we are drowning in more trivia and distraction than ever, the average person also has access to more substantive information and cultural content than ever before.  A WiFi connection in a Starbucks or a public library is all that anybody needs to access exponentially more human knowledge and wisdom than the Library of Alexandria ever held. The question is whether we will take advantage of the opportunity, or instead choose to be continually distracted by the same manufactured dramas and trivialities.  It’s up to us where we go from here.

Did you ever feel, as though you had something inside you that was only waiting for you to give it a chance to come out? Some sort of extra power that you aren’t using – you know, like all the water that goes down the falls instead of through the turbines?

― Aldous HuxleyBrave New World

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