At TEDxDubai, longtime English teacher Patricia Ryan asks a provocative question: Is the world’s focus on English preventing the spread of great ideas in other languages? (For instance: what if Einstein had to pass the TOEFL?) It’s a passionate defense of translating and sharing ideas.


Comments

  1. #1 Riman Butterbur
    April 2, 2011

    Languages do not live or die on their own merits. Whole populations will give up their own language for one of greater prestige.

    Of no language is this truer than of English, which has spread over the past two centuries under the military/industrial dominance of Britain and the US, in spite of:

    1) An unusual, difficult phonology

    2) An illogical, deceptively simple-looking grammar & syntax

    3) An insane spelling system

    4) An enormous, disorganized vocabulary

    In fact, the only true merit English has is it’s ambiguity, which makes it a favorite of diplomats, politicians, and wingnuts.

  2. #2 Millet
    April 2, 2011

    On that note, I just watched Maison Ikkoku. The first season’s rather weak, but after that…wow. King of the Hill is the only U.S. counterpart that even comes close…I can see why Rumiko Takahashi is now one of the wealthiest women on the planet.

  3. #3 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 2, 2011

    It isn’t clear that English being so common is actually the cause of language loss. In many areas (such as in some areas of South America) when these languages are lost the people are speaking Portuguese or Spanish not English. The problem is connected to the largescale globalization and reduction of isolation as a whole.

    But, her general point about the problems about making people learn English has some definite validity.

  4. #4 informania
    April 3, 2011

    @1 Compared to German, French or Dutch, English seems rather simple to me.. And I’m not even a native speaker of English.

    So what are you on about??

  5. #5 Giliell
    April 3, 2011

    Having the privilege to speak 3 languages where two of them are not my mother tongue I understand what she’s talking about. Everytime I use one of the languages I start cursing that this one doesn’t offer me a possibility that would come in handy now but which is only avaible in one of the other languages.

    Conversing with native English speakers I often think that something that could help would be also to strengthen the secondary language skills of English speakers. I often encounter a lack of awareness as to how their language shapes their thoughts and view of reality. And also to humble them a bit when they encounter somebody whose English is not perfect.

  6. #6 P Smith
    April 3, 2011

    Riman Butterbur: “In fact, the only true merit English has is it’s ambiguity, which makes it a favorite of diplomats, politicians, and wingnuts.”

    Not so. English’s greatest strength is its flexibility and adaptability. One can say more concepts and ideas in English than in any other language.

    Other than that, I’ll agree. English has no rules, only exceptions. And by some linguists’ estimates, only 200 of English’s near 1,000,000 words of vocabulary are purely English, the rest are stolen or absorbed from other languages.

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
    – James Nicoll

  7. #7 Giliell
    April 3, 2011

    Other than that, I’ll agree. English has no rules, only exceptions. And by some linguists’ estimates, only 200 of English’s near 1,000,000 words of vocabulary are purely English, the rest are stolen or absorbed from other languages.

    I’m wondering what the definition for “pure English word” would be anyway since it’s of Germanic origin. Is a word of Germanic roots that the Germanic invaders brought to England and used ever since English?

    The advantage of English, apart from its dominance, is that it’s easy to grasp the basics for a simple conversation. Spelling is something much focused on in schools, but for people who simply want to use it as a means of spoken comunication, it’s totally irrelevant.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    April 3, 2011

    Bullshit: One can say more concepts and ideas in English than in any other language.

    Ridiculous: English has no rules, only exceptions.

    Imaginary numbers: And by some linguists’ estimates, only 200 of English’s near 1,000,000 words of vocabulary are purely English,

    Was I diplomatic and vague enough?

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    April 3, 2011

    Sorry, didn’t mean to be so stark … just wanted to point out that English is actually very good at being non-diplomatic, probably better than some other languages. One of the problems with comparing what languages can do is that one should not only know a few languages, but also, know languages from different families, not just different languages. There is a language that has markers indicating the degree to which a speaker thinks the statement being marked is true. You can certainly do that in English, most likely. No, let me rephrase: You can certainly do that in English. Well, let’s just say that I’d say, subject to revision, that you can do that in English. But in at least one language (I’m told by an anthropologist who studied the language and was my fiancée) that you can do that. There is a language (that I know) with a tense reserved specifically for the origin times (so if it was used to write the Bible there would be a tense used only in the book of Genesis) and a tense reserved only for the end times (so, for the JC Bible, it would be used for the apocalypse only). Both tenses can be used day to day as well, but a verb conjugated for either tense has a very special meaning. You can actually say “I’m going to kick your ass to hell and gone” by saying “I’m going to kick your ass” in the end-times tense. And, of course, in that language, you can say it the English way (by making up the tense that you don’t have) or the conjugated way.

    (That language also allows you to pluralize verbs, which is interesting).

    I agree that it is not only English taking over other langauges, but for the most part, those other languages that are busy displacing linguistic diversity are being taken over by English. Spanish and Portuguese will be taken over (maybe) by English, for example.

    I went to a conference in Germany a while back where everyone was required to speak in English, no matter what, even in informal settings. There was one person from Great Britain, three from the US. One guy was from Norway. Everyone else was from Spain, Italy, Germany and France. (And, the only people who did not know multiple languages of those spoken there were two of the three Americans and one German who was not attending the conference officially, but as a spouse of a participant)

  10. #10 Giliell
    April 3, 2011

    I went to a conference in Germany a while back where everyone was required to speak in English, no matter what, even in informal settings. There was one person from Great Britain, three from the US. One guy was from Norway. Everyone else was from Spain, Italy, Germany and France. (And, the only people who did not know multiple languages of those spoken there were two of the three Americans and one German who was not attending the conference officially, but as a spouse of a participant)

    And that’s the great thing of having a lingua franca (no matter which one it is).
    I recently picked up a job for two days doing translation for an internal company training. They had participants from South Africa, Israel, Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany and two or three other countries and only the Spanish guys didn’t speak English. My luck.
    Sure, the English often made my toenails curl and half a dozen times I had also to clear up missunderstandings happening due to incorrect English, but for a company it’s great to be able to do such a training in only one language.

  11. #11 daedalus2u
    April 3, 2011

    There was a funny episode where GWB held a press conference with the President of France and one of the American news people asked the President of France a question in French, to which GWB was clearly irritated because he didn’t understand and thought that the question should have been in English.

    This episode was brought up on Wait, wait, don’t tell me where one of the commentators opined that speaking French could not be inappropriate when you were in France and addressing a question to the President of France.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    April 3, 2011

    But to a Republican, speaking French is similar to raping children, even if you are French in France! I have no idea why. Some dust-up over French Fries in the Congressional Mess a few years back.

  13. #13 MadScientist
    April 4, 2011

    It is not language which fosters ideas but intelligence and understanding (and communication of ideas and …). Personally I see the more widespread use of English as an accelerator of progress. Having a widely-used language is a good thing, and this is nothing new. Just over 60 or so years ago a university educated person was expected to know Latin; such people could travel through much of Europe at the time and converse with any other university graduate. French enjoyed some popularity for a moment; the chief advantage being that French was a language still in widespread use, unlike Latin, and thus had new words introduced fairly regularly. English has superceeded Latin and French, but it’s all good.

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