Heather Lotherington

Researcher -- Professor, York University

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All languages opens doors to knowledge, not just English. Walker's claim is linguistically homogenizing and dangerously imperialistic.

All languages open doors to new knowledge and it is the narrow-mindedness of monolinguals to think their language (our, in the case of English) is somehow the unique key to knowledge. Much knowledge is lost in the homogenization of the world's tongues - knowledge that is not catalogued in books as well as knowledge that is. Many of the great scientists, philosophers and literary giants of the past wrote not in English but in Greek,German, Russian, French, Spanish, and so on... and we know of their work because of translation NOT because they thought or wrote in English.

  • Jun 7 2011: Hi Heather, as I read your post the following thoughts popped into my head. Maybe you can help me with their validity. My multi-lingual friends, usually those from older cultures, often come to a point in a conversation (in English) where they are unable to find the right English word to express whatever it is that they are trying to elucidate. Sometimes it is because of a cultural occurrence that is not common in Anglo societies but oftentimes it is an emotion or life-situation. Usually it seems that their native language is so richly nuanced with words for slight variations of human conditions but there is no equivalent in English. So, the languages of ancient cultures seem to be human-centric and from these cultures we got incomparable art and music and philosophy.
    English, in comparison, appears to be a cold, mechanical language stripped down to the bare necessities. I suggest, a language that is well-suited for science and technology - external to the self, so to speak. Do you think this is a fair assessment? It is a generalization, of course, because there is always a co-mingling of the arts and sciences in any civilization, but I think there is usually dominance of one over the other.

    To carry this further, if we assume that at any point in the development of a civilization, the things that co-exist are the things that attract each other, can we surmise that in this technological era, English is the language that is best-suited and may explain, in part, the proliferation of the language. I am sure you and other TEDsters can poke many holes in this, but do you think there is a valid concept here? I hope I articulated this well enough. Cheers.
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      Jul 11 2011: Hi Julie Ann and sorry for the delay--I have been teaching in Europe. At this stage in life, I speak only three languages well enough to make any sort of comparisons as a language user and my French and Spanish are both much, much more limited than my English. I cannot express my work very well in either and so find I do not have the right words, but it is not because they are not in the languages I use, but in my (limited) capacity to speak them.

      I was at one time also a fluent speaker of a creolized language that I have not regularly used in 30 years or so, and I did find that it was better oriented to social than academic work. This is because creolized languages are very new languages in terms of evolution, and have not been around long enough to have developed a sufficient vocabulary for expressing fine details of science or arts, etc., and--very often--are not given the chance to develop this vocabulary because they are outlawed or looked down upon.

      As a linguist, I must say no to what you have proposed, though it is an interesting idea. All languages have their ups and downs, their quirks, easy bits and hard bits, but all can express what the humans who speak these languages fluently wish to express. Otherwise the languages would have to evolve (as all languages do) to be able to do so. English doesn't sound as romantic as Italian or French to Anglo ears, but perhaps it does to a baby who does not have our social biases. Some languages have greater academic currency than others because they have been encoded in school materials, political media or industrial pursuits--they are more powerful, not intrinsically more suitable.

      Languages can be spoken by different cultures (English, French or Arabic, for example), so it is not really possible to link language and (1) culture closely for all languages, though this works well for aboriginal groups. Is that what you meant by older cultures?
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    Jun 6 2011: When it comes to knowledge, yes you are right. The knowledge is the same no matter how it is said and if anything, english can be very confusing when it comes to speaking and writing it because of how many words have multiple definitions or how our letters have different sounds based off the word it is in and where it is in it. However, as for why people want to learn english is fairly obvious. Europe and North America represent wealth and power around the world, english is the primary language in which Europe and North America do their business, therefore other countries' business men and entreprenuers take advantage of the fact.
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      Jul 11 2011: Well, actually Chinese is spoken by more people than English around the world, and the economic centre of gravity shifted to Asia around the turn of this century. Though English is certainly a world language, it is not THE only world language. North America and Europe are still very, very important continents, but I believe it was Angela Merkel who said (in German) that her country would be happy to sell to you in English but if you want to sell to them, you will be expected to use German.

      Homophones are not unique to English. Chinese uses tones to distinguish between 5 or more words of the same phonetic construction. If you know French grammar, you have to spell your way out of hell to say words that in speech sound the same. This is not novel.
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    Jun 6 2011: Hi Heather! Nice to have your new voice here!

    Another TED talk supports your ideas:

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      Jul 11 2011: Thank you Debra. I know this talk and love what (and how) she presents.
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    Jun 6 2011: Agreed , all languages and cultures have their own treasure of knowledge as INKAN, MAYAN , Old persian , Ancient Indian etc etc...

    Why English is so widespread now and translation in to English make wealth of knowledge open to wider population ?
    Well answers is really linked with collonial imperialism of British empire really...... economics is changing at quicker pace & most things are market driven now.... .....so in future it may be some other langauge which can displace English ..... who knows it can be Chinese..........
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        Jul 12 2011: Hi Ed Sorry for delayed response as you know how difficult it wss to track responses, good news it improved so could trace back your witty comment :)

        Well guess Shakespearean English was more closer to mass people in England than that of Elite English of imperial power center which was my novice knowledge now confirmed Heather below. We collonial people were exposed to may be the Elite English , but for me strength of language lies in the version with which mass communicates.

        What's your thoughts?
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      Jul 11 2011: History...when the Norman kings invaded the land of the Angles, and drove their language, English, underground, it became the language of goatherds and milkmaids. Kings of England never bothered to learn the language of the peasants, but miraculously it survived. English was not a language in which you would educate your children for centuries (well kids weren't educated anyhow). Schools would use a classical language such as Latin. Shakespeare--a popular culture kind of guy in his time by my reckoning--used English for his plays which were attended by the locals (though also sometimes by kings and queens). But somewhere between British political imperialism followed by economic boom in NAm, English became stronger and stronger.

      I agree with Salim. Chinese is used by more people on earth than any other language. Never mind the archaic encoding system used for writing. There may come a day when we all will be dying to learn Chinese so we, too, can get in on the trade of the 21st century. I have been at this for awhile, but my written Chinese consists of pitifully few characters. Ah well, the future is hard to predict.
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        Jul 12 2011: I agree Heather , due it's ancientness and use of wealth of symbols Chinese seems to be a difficult language to learn at least for me ( had the opportunity to learn but ignored to focus on other priorities.)

        It's great you know some.

        Well I feel imeprialism is associated with spread of language it's not only how many people talk in that language. We are in the era of neo-imperialism , which can be termed "imperialism of emerging economy". But here the rules of the game is a bit different. In earlier time Imperialists used to invade , now in this imperialist is not going to invade rather mature economy (past imperialist due to military power) are coming to them to get juice of hyper growth. So these invadors will not burden invaded country with their language , rather invador is learning the language of invaded country. In that way being passive in invasion , the growth of economy taking the role of neo-imperialist.

        From that perspective I feel , chinese might emerge as a major language....thats my daring view to expert like you :)