Saturday 2 April 2011

Going global, full monolingualism ahead?

I cannot predict the future, but I suppose I can safely guess that global monolingualism is not in the stars. I have two reasons for saying this. One is that, historically, monolingualism has hardly been a global trend; the other is that monolingualism can hardly become a global trend.

Many of us are monolingual, but I also suppose I can safely argue that most of us have nevertheless experienced non-locality in some way or other. I say that I speak Portuguese, for example, but I don’t, really. What I speak is the variety of it that was used where I happened to spend my first Portuguese-learning years. But, like most of us, I can both understand different varieties of my language(s), and make myself understood to users of different varieties than mine. 

What happens within (what we may choose to call) a single language happens across languages too: we can all adopt bits and pieces of other localities, and shed bits and pieces of ours, respectively, in order to engage in business that matters to us. Going global involves awareness that there are other landscapes out there, besides our own navel. It means realising that our locality is just that, our locality: one qualified locality among many others – all of them qualified as “ours” by those of us who share them.

I mean the word business, above, quite literally. Let’s face it: excepting those of us who collect languages like others collect cats or bumper stickers, the reason why people want to go global, language-wise, is money. Or economic power, or employment opportunities, or head start in life, or other paraphrases of this word. In more than one way, we’re all selling something. Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor, once expressed the linguistic connection to this by saying that if you want to sell to someone, then you must speak their language. (I think it was Helmut Schmidt who said this, by the way, and I also think he was quoting Gabriel García Márquez, but I may have got all my sources wrong.)

Human beings have had global business and related global languages for a long, long time. The charm of the current global language, English, dates only from after World War II which, globally speaking, is a tiny time frame. Human beings have also had several global languages to choose from, not just successively, but also simultaneously, because not all of us need to go global in the same way. If Koreans, say, become interested in doing business in, say, Brazil, they will learn Portuguese, not English: as we were taught in geometry classes in school, the most cost-effective route to a goal is a straight line.

Globalising means linguistic diversification in another, related, sense: the languages that go global bear the marks of this process, because their users are linguistically diverse (or they wouldn’t need one common language), and because they necessarily adapt their common language to their diverse purposes (or they wouldn’t have any use for that common language). This is how local words, for example, become global words, and this is how global languages become usable across the board, including for new local purposes that are different from the original local purposes to which globalised languages were put, and continue to be put.

Putting different languages to different uses is what being multilingual is all about, as I’ve noted before. Most of us who currently use (or want to use) English as a global language learn(ed) it in school, which means that most users of global English are (becoming) multilingual. But many users of English are not. So how can one teach, and learn, a language where so much monolingual and multilingual variety is the rule, in ways that make global sense? The next post, a guest post, gives a number of answers to this question.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= The globalization of English: implications for the language classroom, by Robin Walker. Saturday 9th April 2011.

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