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September 7th, 2005

English vs. other languages

by Barbara Wallraff

Robert M. Gossart, of Salisbury Cove, Maine, writes: “Why is it that I find the English language more precise and concise than my native French when I read scientific journals and books? (I am a physician.) Do we have more words in English and therefore more precise nuances? Or is it that English grammar allows for clearer communication? I wonder if there is such a thing as global linguistic competition.”

Dear Robert: Among others, scientists the world over have embraced English. According to “The Future of English?” by the British researcher David Graddol, “A study in the early 1980s showed nearly two-thirds of publications of French scientists were in English.” And more than 80 percent of German academics in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology “claim English as their working language.” One reason for this is that a lot of groundbreaking scientific research has been conducted in English-speaking countries, particularly the United States. (We’re a huge and innovative country.) So researchers everywhere have needed to learn English to stay current.

It’s also true that English contains more words than any other language, and therefore allows for more nuances. Why? Because English has been busily borrowing from other languages since before it was called English. The Roman invasion of Britain, around 55 B.C.; the Anglo-Saxon invasion, around 449 A.D.; the Norman Conquest, in 1066, after which French became the official language of Britain; and the British Empire, carrying English to all corners of the globe, where it acquired countless new words and ideas, have all left their mark. While the French have tried (not very successfully) to defend the purity of their language, we have cheerfully welcomed everyone’s participation and influence.

If there is such a thing as the global linguistic competition you wonder about (I think so), then English is definitely winning it. But this isn’t necessarily good news, even for native English-speakers. For one thing, hundreds or thousands of languages formerly spoken by small groups of people are going extinct. Linguists in particular find this tragic, because each language provides a unique window on the way the human mind works. The potential harm is like the damage done as our planet loses biodiversity.

For another thing, nearly all the growth in the use of English comes from people for whom it’s a second or a foreign language -- like you. But few non-native speakers manage to learn English as well as you have. As someone who studied Spanish in school for five years and can’t communicate anything in it beyond the basics, I know that becoming fluent in a new language is hard. As “The Future of English?” explains, though: “Those who speak English alongside other languages will outnumber first-language speakers and, increasingly, will decide the global future of the language.” I fear for the clarity and nuances of English that you find so valuable.

I don’t mean, by the way, that we should encourage non-English-speaking Americans to give up their native languages and speak only English. If much of the rest of the world is going to be bilingual or multilingual, it can only help us to be multilingual too -- fully fluent in English and other tongues. The history of our language teaches us the benefits of being welcoming and inclusive. I’d like to think the lesson applies to our society as well.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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