What If I Didn’t Speak English?

Your language is a key to your fate. And your native language is determined purely by chance

Your language is a key to your fate. And your native language is determined purely by chance.
Creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by TobiasMik · WhatWeDo: http://flickr.com/photos/tobiasmik/3809460658

I’ve taken up French classes 5 days a week for 2 hrs a day. It’s great fun and an excellent hobby into which I can pour my copious amounts of free time. Learning a new language inevitably brings up comparisons to my native tongue – English. While French isn’t easy, I’m struck by the complexities of English as I navigate my way through subjunctives, relative pronouns, prepositions, conjugations, and tenses. I wonder if I will ever speak French like a native – who knows?

But what about the millions of people who have to learn English the same way? I have a new appreciation for those who struggle to master the nuances of a language that I take for granted. I’m never confused about whether to use “a” or “the” or “from” or “for”. It all comes naturally. And what a coincidence that my native tongue is also the lingua franca of the world!

It sure makes things easy for me. When Anupa and I were in Greece, we met a girl who said she was from Georgia. Naturally we assumed she was talking about the state in the US, but it didn’t compute since she didn’t have an American accent. Only later did we find out that it wasn’t the State of Georgia, but the country of Georgia in Eastern Europe. It has it’s own language – Georgian, which I presume she speaks fluently. I’m certain that mastering Georgian is every bit as difficult as mastering English or French. It can take you a lifetime to learn all the nuances of Georgian. And yet…how unfortunate that no one speaks it outside her country!

With English being the common tongue of the world, I was born with a bit fat platinum ingot in my mouth. English enables me to earn my living in relative comfort and opens doors for me that would otherwise have been slammed in my face. I have done nothing to earn this privilege. It simply exists. Neither can it be taken away by the government. In every sense, it’s as close to “fate” as one can get.

It almost makes me sympathize with the protests across India demanding that regional languages be given priority over English. Almost. I mean, there’s nothing that can be done about the situation. Learning English is simply the smart thing to do. It’s sad that network effects determine the value of a language, but that’s the way it is. The purpose of a language is to communicate and the more people who speak it, the more people you can communicate with. Therefore English has a better utility than just about every other language in the world right now.

But I admit that it sucks donkey balls. As far as innate value goes, English, Hindi, Tamil, Swahili, and all other languages out there are on an equal footing. It doesn’t matter. English outstrips them all as far as demand and utility goes. And there’s no solution to this. Not unless other languages die out and just one prevails, which isn’t going to happen. Those fluent in a tongue will pass it on to their children regardless of greater or lesser utility. It’s kind of a depressing thought really.

Without language equality, there can be no real equality in a globalized world. If businesses were all local, then it probably wouldn’t matter. If the people of India spoke just Hindi, it wouldn’t matter. But we speak so many languages that English is the default used to communicate between people from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, MP, or the North East. And the more people who mingle across the world and cross state and country borders, the greater the influence of English.

I benefit from it. I’m grateful. But I also wish the fruits of speaking the “right” language were available to all.

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  1. Hi Bhagwad,

    I’ve written about my experiences being an urban fluent English speaker in India here: http://thecommonroom12.blogspot.in/

    Some of them haven’t been very nice experiences.


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