In the debate over the relative values of the Irish and English languages in contemporary Ireland one of the arguments being put forward by a small but powerful minority of anti-Irish zealots in the Anglophone community is that we should be learning another non-English language instead of Irish for “economic” reasons. The one picked from a presumably global list of languages is usually German, followed by French and, rather bizarrely, Mandarin Chinese (I’ve also heard Russian, Japanese and even Hindu mentioned – which really takes the argument to new levels of desperation).
The claim is that these non-English languages would be more valuable to the Irish people, or rather the Irish business community, than their own Irish language since some of these are the national languages of states with powerhouse economies or global economic reach. Give up Irish, cry the Anglos, and replace it with German, the supposed lingua franca of the business world.
The only problem is they are lying. And what’s more they know it. The lingua franca of international business is the same language it has been for the last fifty years and will be for the next fifty years – English. And what language is one of Ireland’s two spoken languages? Hmm?
Other languages, German, French, Chinese, are red herrings. False flags of convenience flown by a minority of English speakers in Ireland who are desperate for something, anything, to justify their opposition to our native tongue. They no more care about creating future multilingual entrepreneurs than I do about the average viscosity of custard!
They do care about destroying the Irish language, about completing a process began centuries ago through a foreign invasion and colonisation of our country. A colonisation that gave these people their language – and in some cases their identity. To say that there are people in Ireland who, though regarding themselves as Irish, hate all manifestations of Ireland’s native language or culture with a degree of loathing bordering on a mania is to simply state the truth.
In light of all of the above Salon features an excerpt from a new book by Henry Hitchings, “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English”, examining the role of the British English language around the globe. It contains a few truths, good and bad, the Angloban extreme most certainly won’t want you to hear.
“No language has spread as widely as English, and it continues to spread. Internationally the desire to learn it is insatiable. In the twenty-first century the world is becoming more urban and more middle class, and the adoption of English is a symptom of this, for increasingly English serves as the lingua franca of business and popular culture. It is dominant or at least very prominent in other areas such as shipping, diplomacy, computing, medicine and education.
…the propagation of English is an industry, not a happy accident.
English has spread because of British colonialism, the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, American economic and political ascendancy, and further (mostly American) technological developments in the second half of the twentieth century. Its rise has been assisted by the massive exportation of English as a second language, as well as by the growth of an English-language mass media. The preaching of Christianity, supported by the distribution of English-language Bibles, has at many times and in many places sustained the illusion, created by Wyclif and Tyndale and Cranmer, that English is the language of God.
Wherever English has been used, it has lasted. Cultural might outlives military rule. In the colonial period, the languages of settlers dominated the languages of the peoples whose land they seized. They marginalized them and in some cases eventually drove them to extinction. …English is treated with suspicion in many places where it was once the language of the imperial overlords. It is far from being a force for unity, and its endurance is stressful. In India, while English is much used in the media, administration, education and business, there are calls to curb its influence.
And as English continues to spread, it seems like a steamroller, squashing whatever gets in its way. True, it is often used alongside local languages and does not instantly replace them. Yet its presence shifts the cultural emphases in the lives of those who adopt it, altering their aspirations and expectations. English seems, increasingly, to be a second first language. It is possible to imagine it merely coexisting with other languages, but easy to see that coexistence turning into transcendence. As English impinges on the spaces occupied by other languages, so linguists are increasingly finding that they need to behave like environmentalists: instead of being scholars they have to become activists.
There are more people who use English as a second language than there are native speakers. Estimates of the numbers vary, but even the most guarded view is that English has 500 million second-language speakers. Far more of the world’s citizens are eagerly jumping on board than trying to resist its progress. In some cases the devotion appears religious and can involve what to outsiders looks a lot like self-mortiﬁcation. According to Mark Abley, some rich Koreans pay for their children to have an operation that lengthens the tongue because it helps them speak English convincingly. The suggestion is that it enables them to produce r and l sounds, although the evidence of the many proﬁcient English-speakers among Korean immigrants in America and Britain makes one wonder whether the procedure is either necessary or useful. Still, it is a powerful example of the lengths people will go to in order to learn English, seduced by the belief that linguistic capital equals economic capital.
In places where English is used as a second language, its users often perceive it as free from the limitations of their native languages. They associate it with power and social status, and see it as a supple and sensuous medium for self-expression. It symbolizes choice and liberty. But while many of those who do not have a grasp of the language aspire to learn it, there are many others who perceive it as an instrument of oppression, associated not only with imperialism but also with the predations of capitalism and Christianity.
There are challenges to the position of English as the dominant world language in the twenty-first century. The main ones seem likely to come from Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Both have more first-language users than English. But at present neither is much used as a lingua franca. The majority of speakers of Mandarin Chinese live in one country, and, excepting Spain, most Spanish-speakers are in the Americas.
I have mentioned India already; English is important to its global ambitions. The language’s roots there are colonial, but English connects Indians less to the past than to the future. Already the language is used by more people in India than in any other country, the United States included. Meanwhile in China the number of students learning the language is increasing rapidly. …it is a symptom of China’s English Fever: the ardent conviction that learning English is the essential skill for surviving in the modern world.”
So much for the “urgent” need of Irish people to learn non-English languages to compete in the global market. The global market is learning English!
There exists in Ireland a small but influential community of English speakers who regard the Irish language as entirely alien, entirely foreign. It is part of scary Éire, the Ireland they don’t understand or want to understand. They wish Irish to disappear, to be no more. They may well, and sometimes do, qualify it with statements of seeming generosity and understanding along the lines of “I personally don’t mind Irish but…”. The “but” usually leading to things like no funding for Irish language organisations or events, no public service broadcasting in Irish, no Irish in the public education system, no state documents, websites or signs in Irish – or to put it all more honestly, no Irish full stop. They simply want Ireland to be an English Ireland and that is it.
Or do you really believe these people are opposed to the Irish language in order to have Mandarin Chinese spoken in Irish schools?