The Privileged Tongue

28 Nov

As English speakers, we have an undeniable privilege: people all around the world clamor to learn our native tongue. The same can be said for any number of other languages, of course, but English carries the unique distinction of being a sort of lingua franca for many types of cross-cultural encounters. On a recent trip to China (yup, that’s where I’ve been the last couple of weeks!), it really sank home for me just how lucky we are.

I don’t speak a word of any Chinese language, and neither does the girl I traveled with. And yes, there were times we had communication issues. But we also found a lot of people who spoke English. Maybe just a few words, maybe fluency. That’s not the point here. The point is, as travelers, we’re used to enjoying the benefits of a widely-spoken tongue. Other countries sometimes criticize Americans for not learning foreign languages, and English speakers more generally for not bothering to speak a local tongue when they travel. The truth is, we really do expect others to speak our tongue. We expect to find someone, somewhere, who can tell us what we need to know, in our own language. We don’t expect to HAVE to adapt. We think we can fall back on what’s comfortable.

I’m not justifying language laziness. Instead, I’d like you to think about how lucky you are to have this privileged tongue in your linguistic arsenal. Imagine you’re from Romania, and you’ve never learned any English. You take a trip to China. You don’t speak any Chinese dialects, and really need help finding a specific store. The only way to find it is to ask someone on the street. How would you do it? You can pretty much guarantee that a random passerby wouldn’t speak Romanian. So what would you do? Now imagine you’re French, on a trip to China. Again, no Chinese dialects, and you need help. You might find someone who speaks French- who knows. But you’re also likely to switch into your grade school English to get what you need.

Yes, there are places in the world where English is not widespread. And there’s plenty of people who don’t speak it in China, too- my friend and I got really good at pointing and gesturing. But the takeaway here is to think about how good you have it- then think about what it’d be like if your native tongue was something less “relevant” in today’s world. we only have this privilege because English has gained cultural importance in today’s world. But “relevant” languages do come and go- after all, Latin and French have both had their heydays. So there’s no guarantee that English will forever be the default language of cultural crossover. And if the default language suddenly becomes Romanian- what will you do?

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2 Responses to “The Privileged Tongue”

  1. Bill Chapman November 29, 2012 at 12:06 AM #

    This is an interesting and fair account of how language impacts on ther traveller. (Spot the British spelling, by the way!) I am one of many people who for decades have argued quietly that support for Esperanto as a lingua franca could bring many benefits to us all.
    Esperanto is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. It deserves our support. Do you agree?

    Like

    • Felicia November 29, 2012 at 8:40 AM #

      Hi Bill. I’ve read the case for Esperanto before, and do agree that having a lingua franca could bring us all a lot of benefits. Still, the consultant side of my brain has a hard time grasping to how it would be “implemented”- seems very difficult to get the world to commit to teaching their citizens a new language and hard to create a language that only uses sounds all tongues are prepped to make. But in an idealistic world, I think it’s a fantastic idea and that it’d ease a lot of the issues we have today with cross-cultural communication, from travelling (British, just for you!) to business. I’m curious to see if the idea ever takes root!

      Like

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