Language, identity and global necessity

Language is a cultural, political and economic tool, and English has shown great success in this domain. The spread of English internationally has been aided and abetted by the advancement in technology, forging of international organisations, and bare economic and political necessities. On the other hand, languages have been (and can be) taken over by one which is spoken by those from an economically, politically and socially dominant nation.

People who speak English as a second language do so because either they want or are obliged to (it is imposed from the outside). These days, they represent more than two-thirds of English speakers in the world, and the distinction between native and non-native speakers is not that significant anymore.

In the Philippines, for example, English is used in government, private and public dealings. Although Tagalog is the official language, English is the medium of instruction in schools and universities and is used lavishly in the mass media. This country was a Spanish colony for more than 300 years; however, it’s the Americans who have had the recent influence on its culture. Its proximity to Australia – another native English speaking country – has been a convenience. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines has the largest population of English-speaking inhabitants (over 102 millions).

The majority of this year’s Eurovision songs were in English. Even the winning title by Jamala of Ukraine has more English than Tatar words. For the first time, Spain’s entry was also in English which aroused criticisms from its Royal Academy of Spanish Language (RAE), the official body that oversees language use. The French entry was also mainly performed in English. (In Eurovision’s earlier days, contests were dominated by francophone nations – e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg & Monaco – and by entries in French). These days, contestants believe that English gives them a better chance to win because it is more widely understood than other languages; as well, successful songs have English lyrics.

Language is part of our identity, i.e. we identify and communicate with each other through it. Without language, a society and its culture do not have strong and unifying foundation upon which to exist. It is sad that sometimes this identity is sacrificed in favour of financial gain and/or career ambition.
Bilingualism or multiculturalism is definitely advantageous, particularly to access job and education, improve relationships or open opportunities. What is disconcerting is putting aside our native language (heritage) in favour of another; for example, parents insisting on their children to speak only the language of their new country or place of residence. Without practice, the ability to speak a language (native or acquired) gradually vanishes.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the most spoken languages in the world are Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic. The BBC (www.bbc.co.uk.languages seen 30/05/16) has reported that there are 7,000 different languages in the world; 90% of these are spoken by less than 100,000 individuals; of which 2,200 are in Asia and only 260 in Europe.

Sadly, many of these languages (e.g. Romani in Europe, Austral in French Polynesia and Native American Hupa) are disappearing, which has global consequences. Reports published by UNESCO have expressed concerns that if nothing is done, half of the languages spoken today won’t exist anymore by the end of this century; and with their disappearance, humanity would lose cultural wealth and ancestral knowledge embedded in indigenous languages. This is an absolute worry because local knowledge, which is mainly transmitted orally, is linked to timeless wisdom on health, wellbeing and biodiversity (i.e. their wise understanding of the environment can be lost during the change in language).

Therefore, there is an urgent need for well-planned and implemented policies on maintaining or revitalising mother tongues and pass these on to younger generations. Every small effort in this regard is an extra mile. UNESCO’s “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” is a useful guide in monitoring the status of endangered languages and creating awareness on the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity. On individual level, let’s continue teaching and speaking with our children and family our native language as this is a heritage issue and not a hindrance to life’s success.

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At 5am on 14 November 2015, I was awaken by a phone call from Australia. My sister was so relieved that none of my family and friends was in Paris. My brother-in-law continued the conversation with information on deaths and damages unfolding on their television screen the whole day.

We were in Luxembourg that Friday evening watching Spectre, and as soon as we got home at 11pm we went to bed oblivious to the terrorist attacks in the city of lights, where my first son was born and I resided for 2 years. Though we don’t live in Paris any more, I’m affected by this insecure state and threats of terrorism, which I had never seen in my life before. Last week, one of my students was at the funeral of his cousin’s son who was one of the Bataclan victims. For 2 weeks now, I’ve been coming home late, missing dinner with my family as it takes 2 hours to get home due to traffic jams and security checks. These days, I spend more time commuting than teaching.

Terrorism threatens our existence and that of the civilised world. This has ramifications on every aspect of our society: psychological (limit our activities & choices/create fear), political (e.g. State resources are redirected from social development to security measures), social (relationships are redefined, suspicions arise, and stereotypes prevails) and economic (increased expenditures on health and security; loss of income – e.g. shops in Brussels were deserted last November 21-22).

As the saying goes “If it doesn’t kill us, if will only make us stronger,” and this is exactly what our democratic world has become. There has been an outpouring of support and solidarity. This write-up is my contribution to ensuring that such support and solidarity continue even after families and friends have buried their loved ones and the injured have left their hospital beds.

Solidarity is best described as a fellowship due to common or shared feelings, interests, purposes and responsibilities. Thinking about solidarity, I was reminded of my undergrad lecture more than 3 decades ago on Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), a French-born academic who’s known as the Father of Sociology. He put forward the concept of mechanical and organic solidarities. In the former, people have common values and beliefs (i.e. they have the same jobs and responsibilities) that constitute to a collective conscience leading to cooperation between individual members of the group or community. In the latter, there is specialisation of tasks (division of labour) so the society is more secular and individualistic hence people rely on each other to achieve and maintain unity.

Yes, we depend on each other to keep our world safe and democratic – i.e. solidarity. There is a need to intensify our efforts to stay connected to people in our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. We must be proactive in dealing with friendly and hostile encounters, especially within a diverse and multicultural environment. As well, let’s not forget that poverty, ignorance or misinformation, discrimination, absence of communication, lack of political will (or their opposites) contribute to the kind of society we have and leave for future generations.

There are enormous examples of individual and group solidarity. « Je suis Paris » was written on t-shirts, walls and banners in many countries, and some individuals have collected money to help the families of victims.

Likewise, there are commemorations, fund-raising events and social/political gatherings (e.g. last week’s Domestic Violence Day and Climate Talks in Paris) when we can give support beyond monetary terms. We shouldn’t wait for the loss of lives, natural disasters, accidents or gloomy situations to demonstrate solidarity. Every day we are faced with circumstances and people that provide us with the opportunity to show sympathy, cooperation and a sense of humanity.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a peaceful and happy festive season. This is my last article in 2015, and I hope that there have been more ups than downs in your life this year.