Monday, January 24, 2011

The Imperialism of the English Language

On Saturday night I could be found in a gorgeous first floor Haussman-era apartment situated in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, complete with Latvian and French people. I'd been invited by The Latvian to a Latvian embassy party at the consulate's residence, and I was admittedly nervous to faires leurs connaissances. Upon arrival though, the first thing the consulate asked me was what language I preferred to speak in, English or French, since I'm obviously lacking in the Latvian department.

"Je peux parler les deux," I replied, as she bise'd me on the cheeks. She brushed her long train of blonde hair aside and nonchalantly let out " Ah c'est bon, nous parlons aussi français ici."

I perched on a chair in living room of Latvians, most of whom, as the consulate promised, were speaking in English or French. As per usual when I'm a bit nervous, I found the resident dog, Cayman, on whom to bestow my attention, and slowly ate a plate of appetizers. As the night went on, I relaxed and was eventually asked from where I come, which elicited oohs and aahss and California is such a dream! topped off with five different stories of trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. I was quite amused.

By two in the morning, we were all standing around the kitchen trying to decide to crash or to go dancing. This was preceded by long, Whiskey-infused debate over American and French stereotypes about one another, and me again being told by a Frenchman that I have no traceable accent. The discussion eventually parlayed into a discussion of language learning in general.

"But you're so lucky!," one Latvian woman pointed out. "I would LOVE to be a native English speaker."

Her utterance has been lingering in my mind since, and not exactly in a positive way. Though not the most beautiful of languages I can say I've ever heard, I loved hearing the Latvians speak Latvian all evening. I loved the accent and the rhythm and the force of it; I loved that the language is a part of who these people are and where they come from and their experience of the world. I loved hearing my Latvian speak Latvian, and I wish I could understand him, because I can gleam that he can't always get his point across entirely when we talk, and I wonder what he really wants to say.

To be told by the Latvian woman that she wishes she were a native English speaker saddened me. I say that it saddened me because it seems part and parcel of the same attitude that I've noticed among the French towards the English language, and it's a defeatist one. There's no qualms, no ifs-ands-or-buts-about-it for these folks: English is necessary and vital, and if you don't start learning it, or don't speak some of it, then you're screwed. No only that, but English is chic; the French sprinkle their conversations with English words like "super," "too much," "hyper," and "cool," the way a five year old let loose in an icecream shop puts sprinkles on top of his two scoop cone. English here is a status symbol, because it means you either have access to enough of the language to properly know it, or perhaps you work in a job that obliges you to use it, and those are the kinds of jobs that make serious money. To me, all of this screams volumes about what I'm beginning to consider the imperialism of English.

On the RER and on the Paris Metro, you can find adds from the Wall Street Institute of English advertising "cours d'anglais intensives," "cours d'anglais spécialisé," and even "cours d'anglais pour les lycéens." English is in high demand in Paris; the US head economic ambassador to France, with whom I train on weekends, told me once that French people in his neighborhood pay upwards of sixty euro an hour for their children to learn English from a American with a PhD in the subject. Another assistant coach in my marathon training group has made it a point to run with Americans so he can practice his English while he listens to English lessons on tape during his workouts. Hell, the French government recruited myriad other young people like me to import just to teach our native tongue.

In sum, the message is clear: business, politics, music, movies, and the rest of the seeming day to day functioning of this planet, at least according to these people, revolves around the high-and-mighty English language.

Even though I know I'm going to take advantage of this fact and earn as much as I possibly can as a grad student here teaching my own language, let's make something (frankly, I know, hypocritically ) clear: this is something that I do not enjoy. It makes me sad and borderline ticks me off that English seems to be reaching its tentacles into the rest of the world, and it makes me feel that way because it reeks of arrogance. Why should the rest of the world have to bend itself to English? Is it simply because English is the language of the United States? And if so, what the hell are Americans doing to bend themselves even an inch toward the rest of the world?

I understand that Americans largely have no need to learn a foreign language. We're bordered to the north by Canada, a 90 percent ( minus Quebec ) English speaking country, and the south by Mexico, a Spanish speaking country. If we know any foreign language, most of us know a poor smattering of Spanish because it's considered useful, a prejudice that made my stomach churn in high school. In fact, half the Latvians I met were in sheer awe that in a country as large as the United States, so many people speak the same language, reflective of the fact that for the rest of the world, it's a reality of every day life that your country is smaller than one single US state and that you might be exposed to multiple languages on a frequent basis.

But it's time for me to get off my soap-box.

What is evil or distressing is not the English language itself; it's the attitude of those who have succumbed to the idea that English is the world language and view it as a superior one, because to me, a language will always be more than just the mere summation of grammar structures and a treasury of words. Languages import far more than that, and their evolution bears the traces of years of change, cultural markers, and the imprint of the hundreds of thousands of voices and pens who have whittled their mother tongues into the form those languages have taken on today. To subordinate one's mother tongue to English because it's "superior," seems a subordination of one's own culture and identity, but alas, lord knows I read too much into everything...

Even so, here's to the beauty of all languages, from those with ten speakers to those with ten million.


  1. When you return stateside, remind me to tell you the taco truck story from this past weekend. It sparked a conversation about offensive use of a foreign language.

  2. This post is EVERY complex, contradictory feeling I felt when I was in Chile, where on top of going to school, I did an internship where I taught english to university students. We must discuss this sometime. Great post, Lindsay :)

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