“In a globalised world, the spread of English has adversely affected language diversity and cultural identity.”
“If a child decides to abandon her or his language and customs and go around speaking only a foreign language, you can imagine that that child will turn out to be like a bird that just fliesaround and around [with nowhere to land], not understanding anything. That will be a child with confused thoughts” (Aika Rambai, 1997, quoted in Sheldon, 2003: 3).|
The eloquent quote above expresses a concern over the degeneration of languages caused by many factors such as globalization and political, economic, and social diversity. These factors are believed to have caused the extinction of some of the world’s languages. One of these factors is said to be the spread of English in the ‘globalised’ world. John Walsh says that “[the claim that] English, the ‘International Shark’ as one commentator has dramatically called it, is about to devour other state languages, ignores a far more diverse tapestry of linguistic diversity” (Walsh, 2001). However, the threat of English to linguistic diversity and other cultures is debatable. This paper will discuss three significant issues with a view to the clarification of this issue: globalisation; English as a world medium; and English as a new ‘cultural identity’ for Asia. ‘Globalisation’ is a word which is widely used and differently interpreted.
The word first manifested itself in around the first half of the 20th Century. “It slipped into its current use during the 1960s; and the ‘globalisation of English’, English literature, law, money and values are the Cultural Revolution.” (McCrum, 2004:3). It emerged in the midst of political conflicts; the Great War and World War II brought significant consequences: the victory of ‘Democracy’ and the emergence of the military might of Britain and America. This greatly influenced the spread of English and globalisation. However, after the end of the Great War there emerged a new world superpower: The United States of America. By the first half of the 20th Century it had supplanted Britain in both political and trade power (McCrum, 2004:183). English, a significant part of its culture and a political symbol, had already become a global language. However, in the latter half of the century this became underpinned by more than just military might. “Other critical factors include: prosperity, commerce, industry, media, communication, the internet, the arts and popular music also makes English supreme” (Cunningham, 2006:192-198).
Thus, English and globalisation seem to share the same destiny under the patronage of the world superpower. However, the planet is also the home of “linguistic diversity”: there are more than 6,000 languages spread across the globe (Cunningham, 2006: 196). However, “42 percent of the languages were reported in danger of disappearing” (Lauder, 2006:195). Research shows that the “world’s linguistic diversity is being seriously, perhaps disastrously, threatened in the 21st Century by the rising of economic and ‘cultural globalization” (Shaefer, 2002:1). It is claimed that English has caused this adverse affect. There is also the suggestion that “the biggest current threat to the linguistic wealth globally is probably English”, but it is not the only threat (Cunningham, 2006:197). Thus, this claim seems to be too pessimistic. Firstly, if “linguistic diversity” means “the enormous wealth of languages and cultures” (D.E Ingram, quoted in Cunningham, 2006:2), English is also to be considered a part of that wealth.
For example, it has brought friendship, peace and harmony to people. For Centuries of an inhumane slave trade across the Atlantic, “in 1807 ‘a negro becomes a freeman the moment he sets his foot on British ground.’ For the world’s English, one vital consequence was the absorption of the language and rhetoric of the slaves into English culture” (McCrum, 2010:125). Similarly, the history of America, after World War II, shows that English connected the American people together in the midst of identity crisis: “Now, white American began the appropriation of African words and style: jazz, the blues, ragtime, rock’ n’ roll; the cakewalk, the jitterbug, break dancing; and cool, jive, hip and heavy” (McCrum, 2010:127). Furthermore, English is a significant medium of communication in multicultural societies. In countries such as India, Singapore or China where nations are comprised of multiple cultures, linguistic diversity is always common (Cunningham, 2006:196).
In mixed cultural contexts, mastering many languages encourages effective communication and better understanding. Fatima Badry suggests that “in multilingual contexts linguistic identities are lived along a global to local continuum which allows individuals to cross from language to language without necessarily feeling the fragmentation or living this multiplicity in negative terms” (Badry, 2008:9). In addition, English helps young people to succeed in their education which in turn assists them in becoming professionals in a modern society. Badry’s research on Arab students, who use English for study, showed that ‘although the knowledge of Arabic is taken for granted, they could no longer imagine themselves solving a mathematic problem in Arabic (most students were from the Engineering or the business School). English seems to prevail in their daily interactions and academic thought processes, often instinctively’ (Badry, 2008: 12). It is not only English, that is causing the degeneration of linguistic diversity, but also other significant factors are at work.
Lauder suggests that “the dominant reasons [for the disappearing of some ‘languages’] in most places are ‘economic’ or ‘cultural subordination or discrimination” (Lauder, 2006: 196). Shaefer also points out that the degeneration of languages is because of the fact that “ethnic minorities are frequently marginalized from the mainstream of their nation’s social, economic and political life and institutions’ (Shaefer, 2003: 2). For example, it is well acknowledged as a factor in the case of the marginalized ethnic minority of the ‘Sea gypsies’ in Thailand. They speak both Malay and Indonesian dialects; however, due to a lack of access to mainstream education and health care, and being treated as outlaws by the Thai government, they now tend to neglect their languages and try to master Thai in order to obtain proper rights and citizenship (Gilboa, 2000). English is also believed to have a negative effect on ‘cultural identity’.
The term ‘cultural identity’ is difficult to define. However, Norton defines it as “how people understand their relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how people understand their possibilities for the future” (Norton, 1997:410). Therefore, if ‘cultural identity’ is perceived as a ‘relationship’ which creates understanding among people, this means that ‘language’ is merely one part of a social structure. To become one ‘culture’ might require several other elements such as a way of life, activities, history, tradition, religion, social values, and also languages (Raymond, 1994:32-33). Thus, language does not represent the whole ‘culture’. To claim that English adversely affects ‘cultural identity’ is problematic. Badry points out that “what makes students from different countries identify as Arabs [or others] is their shared destiny and not necessary their language” (Badry, 2008:13).
In addition, the spread of English has had a significant effect on the relationship between cultures. For example, during the Cold War, the English-speaking Western world, America and Britain, was treated with hostility by the Marxist world: the Soviet Union, China, and others (P.R. Palmer, 1965:891). It was partly considered a political threat and a cultural difference. ‘Identity’ was clearly divided. Cultural collaboration seemed impossible (H.G. Wells, 1936:350). However, at the beginning of the 21st Century, this social tension has gradually faded. Today, English has not only become instrumental in international communication and allowed access to Western wisdom, but has also become a bridge encouraging friendship between the two worlds. Currently, in China, “every Friday evening, several hundreds of young Chinese gather in the so-called ‘English Corner’ to hold ‘English conversation’.
This extraordinary scene reiterated on campuses across China today. There are chatting together, in English, about anything and everything, including asides about Tiananmen Square” (McCrum, 2010:1-2). In turn, if the spread of English affects ‘cultural identity’, these changes should be acknowledged as part of a new ‘identity’. English seems to have created several new ‘identities’ in Asia. These significant ‘identities’ are a consequence of English being assimilated with local contexts. It has transformed into various styles which all play a significant role in those particular societies. English has become “‘Englasian’ – a mostly English vocabulary set into Chinese and Hindi syntax – It is the business language of Asia.” (Vittachi, quoted in McCrum, 2004: 5). Also, in the case of Singapore, although “Singaporeans are not multilingual in the literate sense in three languages, at least they have comprehension of words and idioms of various languages, especially Hokian, Malay, and perhaps Mandarin, and it is this facility that gives rise to ‘Singlish’, a mix of all these languages” (Gim Lian Chew, 2009:143). Similarly, English has created “Jafaikan, or local Asian hybrids like Konglish (English in South Korea) and Manglish (Malay and English)” (McCrum, 2010:4).
However, whereas its transformation into its new forms is endless it seems to carry the seeds of its own decay: “In the heartlands of the mother tongue, there are numerous anxieties about its future: in the coming century the legacy of those ‘imperial principles’ meant that, for the first time in this narrative, speakers of the mother tongue would be far outnumbered by non-native English speakers: Africans, Indians, Chinese, Malays.” (McCrum, 2010:173). Therefore, it is natural that “under certain specific conditions that must be consciously created…old identities may fade, and new ones emerge” (Barakat, quoted in Badry, 2008:7).
To sum up, the ‘globalised’ world and the spread of English seems to be a natural phenomenon. Nonetheless, for the past few centuries of its long journey English has become a significant instrument introducing people and cultures to a new face of friendship and collaboration. Although it is believed to have an adverse affect on other languages and cultures at some levels and is also said to be facing its own degeneration in which it will be outnumbered by those new identities, English has given the world significant legacy and a lesson to be learned. It reminds us of the historical ‘pain’ mankind has caused and in doing so it encourages us to move on together to a future of peace and harmony.
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