English has an 'imperialist' reputation that needs a rethink, argues linguist

English may have a reputation for being a "linguistic imperialist," pushing local languages into obscurity but linguist Mario Saraceni argues English should be viewed as a global language with multiple versions existing on equal footing.

'One of the problems is that we tend to consider languages almost like concrete objects,' says Mario Saraceni

Mario Saraceni and World Englishes vol. 1
English may have a reputation for being a 'linguistic imperialist,' pushing local languages into obscurity but linguist Mario Saraceni says English should be viewed as a global language but with many equal versions. (Submitted by Mario Saraceni/Bloomsbury Academic)

English is present all over the world as an enduring legacy of colonialism. But it's also a global language of commerce and culture overtaking local languages and pushing them aside.

Some think of English as a gift. Others call it a bully, a loudmouth, or a thief. 

Mario Saraceni argues there's a need to rethink English and see it as a language with multiple versions standing on equal footing. He's a reader in English language and Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K.

IDEAS producer, Naheed Mustafa spoke to Saraceni to explore the question: English, Friend or Frenemy?

This is an excerpt from their conversation. 

The widespread aspect of English brings about the question of whether English is a gift or whether English is a monster. Does it have to be either of those things? 

I mean, a lot of people feel very negative about the presence of English in this global context, and they tend to think of it as a monster, as a language that kills other languages and kills other cultures. And colonizes it as a continuation of imperialism and so on and so forth.

Other people see it as a gift. It is something that gives opportunities, that enhances careers, makes communication, international communication easier and so on. The fact is that both these aspects are true but they're not mutually exclusive in the sense that when we're talking about a global language, in fact, when we talk about language in general, we are talking about something extremely complex. 

Is the term 'English-speaking world' a useful term? 

I don't like it, particularly because it suggests that whatever we refer to when we say world or country or region, what that tends to mean is that that world or that part of the world speaks English. And that's simply not true, because in the vast majority of cases, English exists and is used in conjunction with and alongside other languages.

circa 1800:  American philologist and lexicographer Noah Webster (1758-1843), best known for his 'American DIctionary of the English Language'. He also founded two New York newspapers, 'The Commercial Advertiser' and 'The Spectator'.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American lexicographer Noah Webster's first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1806. Decades later in 1828 he was responsible for the first edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language, known now as the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

So probably the majority of people in the world are multilingual. Very often they speak three or four languages and English is one of them. And sometimes English does not feature at all. So when we say English-speaking world or English-speaking anything, it's misleading because it kind of erases the presence and importance of other languages that coexist with English. 

Another term, 'dialect.' You have a very pithy description of what a dialect is. 

The word dialect is slightly problematic because dialect tends to come with negative connotations. When people think of a dialect, they tend to think of some sort of substandard form of a language. So when somebody says this is a dialect of English or a dialect of German or a dialect of any other language, the assumption is that it's a nonstandard variation of that language. Whereas in sociolinguistics, which is my academic area, we consider dialects as varieties -- a form of a language. And so differences aren't good or bad. They're just differences. We tend to prefer the term variety rather than dialect to avoid the negative connotation.

If we consider language in a much more fluid manner... not necessarily as separated from one another that would be one step forward.- Mario Saraceni

But the other interesting thing about dialect is that a question that often we don't think of is what really is the difference between a language and a dialect. You know, who decides whether one form of a language is a dialect and another form of a language is the language, so to speak. And so that ultimately is a matter of power. And a group of people that holds more power in a society or a community of people that holds more power in the society, their language or their version of the language is likely to be the standard, whereas everything else will be considered a dialect. And so it's very political and is very much related to power.

There's an effort which is connected to politics and cultural protectionism in some sense, to keep English at bay from "polluting local languages." And so everything gets translated into a local language, even words like computer or phone. As a person who studies language and the interplay of languages, how do you think about this effort when you see this sort of drive to keep language so-called free or original or authentic? 

I can see the motive behind it and I can understand why in some places these efforts are in place. But these efforts aren't successful because what they try to do is they try and legislate against particular language use. And that's just not possible. People use language as a matter of life.

I think one of the problems is that we tend to consider languages almost like concrete objects. So this is mine. This is yours. So if I am French — I'm using French because this particular legislation exists in France — but in other places in the world as well. So, you know, if I'm French, I have to own this particular object called the French language. And I'm not really supposed to be using this other object, which is called the English language because it belongs to other people and does not belong to me, it's not part of my identity and so on. So we tend to see languages in that way, and I think that's part of the problem.

circa 1920:  A man reading a sign at a London Language School advertising classes in French, Russian, Italian and even Scotch!  (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
A 1920 sign at a London Language School advertising classes in French, Russian, Italian and even Scotch. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images )

Whereas if we consider language in a much more fluid manner as something that is integral to our life, and not necessarily as separated from one another, that would be one step forward. They're not some kind of fixed object that you would find in the museum. It's something very much alive, to use that metaphor. And so English totally coexists with other languages, not only in France, but in many other parts of the world, and quite happily so, as well. You know, people use English and people use other languages and mix the two and mix three languages together. That's physiologically what happens when you have a world that is mostly multilingual, these languages in multilingual places don't stay separated.

When you have a situation where a society has two languages, you can't take them apart. And so I think this misconception is due to how much we have let our minds be persuaded that monolingualism is the norm. The German people speak German and the Italian people speak Italian and the Spanish people speak Spanish and so on and so forth. In reality, in most parts of the world, people speak the four languages together simultaneously. And multilingualism is the norm. Monolingualism is the exception. This is what we need to realize.

*Q&A was edited for clarity and length. This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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