Take thirty seconds and write down as many languages as you can. Ready? Go!
You probably wrote down English (and any other primary languages you speak) first. After that, you most likely listed the foreign languages you studied in high school or college. Then you might have moved to other popular world languages: Mandarin, Russian, Spanish. But did you list Icelandic? Welsh? Haitian Creole?
According to the Linguistic Society of America, studies estimate that there are as many as six or seven thousand distinct languages spoken across the world. Exact numbers vary due to the difficulty of distinguishing languages from dialects and the challenges of learning about languages from remote regions—still, the number is immense! But as economic, political, and cultural borders begin to disappear, so do the languages that have held together different nations, peoples, and social identities. In an interdependent world, we must balance our need for cross-cultural communication with the need to maintain respect for regional languages, especially those that are in danger of extinction.
Global languages, such as English, Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, and Arabic, serve as lingua francas, or cross-cultural languages that enable individuals from different linguistic backgrounds to understand each other. Think of the mistranslations and miscommunications we could avoid if all diplomats (or better yet, all people) could converse fluently in one language. As politics, business, and technology continue to make the world a smaller place, lingua francas will play an integral role in international affairs.
Notably, the development of languages as lingua francas occurred by historical accident. Over the last two thousand years, languages traveled through two main vehicles: exchange and conquest. During the Roman Empire and Chinese dynasties, roads and the naval routes of the Mediterranean physically and linguistically connected different cultures and allowed for communication and trade. Languages such as Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic were part of an intellectual exchange, forming Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities with a shared religious identity and the ability to communicate across regions. Even today, some of these religious communities are fluent in the language of their religion, as well as the language of their nation.
From a negative viewpoint, the age of imperialism saw the advent of language as a tool for asserting the superiority of a colonizer over the colonized. For example, the nineteenth-century British politician Thomas Macaulay asserted in “Minute on Indian Education” that English was necessary for educating “ignorant and barbarous” colonial India. Expressing the jingoistic attitude of the British Empire, Macaulay asserted that he could find nothing of historical or cultural value in the works written in Sanskrit; only European languages like English were useful. Similar arguments were used to justify the spread of European languages in colonial Africa—and as the current political landscape of former colonies suggests, such attitudes and assertions can lead to disastrous consequences.
How do we reconcile these conflicting views of global languages? Used as a complement to a regional language, learning a global language offers opportunities for communication, trade, and diplomatic relations with other world powers. But used as a substitute for a regional language, a global language can cause the decline or endangerment of individual cultures.
Take, for example, the complex political and linguistic relationships between England, Wales, and Ireland. Irish has been spoken in Ireland and Welsh in Wales since prehistoric times, yet both languages have been adversely affected by colonization. When the Irish and Welsh clergy learned Latin as a lingua franca to communicate with the Church fathers and rulers on the Continent, they still spoke Irish and Welsh as well and did not endanger their indigenous cultures. By contrast, when Wales was officially annexed to England with the Act of Union of 1535, English was named the official language of the court and Welshmen were forbidden to take part in legal and political affairs unless they spoke and wrote in English. For Ireland, colonization and exploitation led to the infamous potato famine, which caused the deaths of over one million Irish speakers. The famine also spearheaded an Irish diaspora that ensured assimilation to new cultures and languages rather than the preservation of their own. Today, far more Irish and Welsh citizens speak English than their regional language.
At a recent Villanova lecture, Eoin McEvoy, a Visiting Fulbright Irish language instructor from Dublin, spoke passionately about the history of his language and its importance to Irish culture, but also about the potential for such a language to be neglected and relegated to a historical curiosity, rather than an integral part of a national identity.
“A language is like a person,” said McEvoy. “It has family, history, and place. A language can live—and it can also die.”
Regional languages, like Irish and Welsh, maintain cultural and historical value, preserving great literature, oral traditions, and shared history. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen a revival of regional languages, often in relation to nationalism. For Wales and Ireland, language organizations and education have attempted to reverse the decline of Welsh and Irish. In the 1960s, the Welsh language movement, spearheaded by the Welsh Language Society and the Welsh teachers’ union, achieved its goal of recognizing Welsh as an official language of Wales (think of that—a prehistoric, indigenous language that was not officially recognized until the twentieth century!). In addition, the twentieth century saw campaigns against English-only road signs, and most signs today are bilingual or Welsh-only. Welsh students also reserve the right to be taught in Welsh and to receive their degrees in a Welsh-language ceremony.
Similarly, Ireland in the late twentieth century created an Irish-only radio station, and instituted Irish-only schools. According to Eoin McEvoy, Irish students learn the Irish language throughout their education, whether or not they speak it at home. Ireland’s efforts led to Irish becoming an official language of the European Union in 2007.
So how do we balance our need for common languages with the need to protect individual languages? The solution is twofold. The responsibility is not solely on those who speak a regional language to switch between their own languages and global languages. Those who speak a global language would do well to learn a regional language as well, especially if they expect to live in or work with a culture that takes great pride in its own language.
Whether you are a student for another few years or you are preparing for graduation to the “real world,” I encourage you to take another language class. Study abroad. Learn a language you know little to nothing about. There is no better way to show respect for another culture and to strengthen international ties than to respect and learn that culture’s language.