What do you think about this “English as global language” business?
On the east side of Asia, especially, educated dudes insist that there’s got to be one language spoken by everybody, and a global English is the only way to go.
But the rise of any lingua franca is not neutral. It leads to special gatekeeping privileges for whoever is perceived as owning that language. The French understand this.
In one of his books, Jared Diamond brought up the interesting case of a vanished civilization in the desert of West América, 100-some miles outside of modern-day Albuquerque and Santa Fé. At the peak of that civilization, the people who lived in its heartland got their food and their toys for free:
Why would outlying settlements have supported the Chaco center, dutifully delivering timber, pots, stone, turquoise, luxury goods, and food without receiving anything material in return?
Sounds ridiculous, right? But:
The answer is probably the same reason why outlying areas today support our cities such as Rome and Washington, D.C. which produce no timber or food but serve as religious and political centers.
We could add financial centers and centers of marketing and arguably entertainment to that final list. These are places where nothing tangible is produced, while the intangible things that are produced overwhelmingly benefit the people that produced them. These are the places where the gatekeepers live and play.
And gatekeepers don’t need to produce. They and their friends just take what they need. Men, women and children in the Third World work six- and seven-day weeks for peanuts to make clothes, appliances, and all kinds of gizmos for Wall Street guys that rake in six figures and, in return, give the world either (a) nothing or (b) economic downturns, depending on who you ask.
Yet the structure of power that allows New York, Chicago and London to be financial centers but not, say, Alexandria, Egypt, is based on seemingly neutral outcomes like the use of English as a “world language”.
This is a game that’s played on many levels: individual, familial, tribal, national, and so on. But why allow anybody to “gatekeep” you? Why allow anybody to gatekeep “us”?
Equality is not just a “fight”. Equality is won or lost first in the privacy of our own heads. We lose by starting in a losing paradigm. We win by starting in a winning one.
After I’d started learning several tropical Asian port city languages, a Creole Taiwanese chick who’d been freshly introduced to me asked, “Why don’t you learn some European languages instead? Like French or German?”
Mais oui, mademoiselle, je parl l’anglais et l’espagnol, non?
This emphasis placed on learning European languages … by people neither European by birth nor by ancestry, is a paying of tribute, a subconscious kowtowing to Europe as a center of the world in the arts, in culture, in “degree of advancement” and in sheer joie de vivre.
What have the Chinese gotten in return for 25 years of dutifully delivering clothes, textiles, lawn mowers, office supplies, furniture, machinery, and assorted knickknacks to Europe and North América?
A lucky few have struck it rich. With that money, earned on the backs of their less fortunate countrymen, they’ve purchased European luxury items for themselves and higher educations in the Anglostans for their kids, all with huge profit margins for the Anglo or European providers.
In other words, much of the gains from supplying the center with material goods … have been used to reaffirm the center as the center.
On the other hand, within itself, Europe is the part of the world that comes closest to the ideal of each place and each tribe being its own center — politically, economically, and spiritually. Europeans come closest to the ideal of dealing enthusiastically and as equals with their neighbors across borders, mostly as if there were no borders.
Forget Gucci and Bentley. This is what we could learn from Europe, fellow Kims, Nguyens and Patels.
East and South Asians, especially, must open up our cultures to outsiders, psychologically. That’ll be a key to growth and fulfilment. Some of us get a rush from thinking that our cultures are exclusive and impenetrable. See Facebook page “白人看不懂” (White Folks Can’t Read This). This kind of mindset is exactly why the cultures of European countries like Italy and Sweden have gone global while Chinese and Korean culture are just regional.
Do you write or perform in an East or South Asian language? Next time you write or perform something, why not act as if some of your readers were Arabs, Europeans, Africans, Persians, Turks and Américans? Assume a pan-human audience the same way a 21st century French or English-language writer does. You could have one sooner than you think. Maybe you’ve got one already.
What do we have to lose? What do we have that’s worth hiding?
Read more —
part 1: speaker in the storm
part 2: comeback speaker
part 3: impossible speaker
part 4: honorary speaker
part 5: madaspeaker
part 6: romance speaker
part 7: born-again speaker
part 8: gateway speaker
part 9: touchable speaker
part 10: everyspeaker