According to Crystal (2012) one language dies every two weeks, but is that really down to English?
Ceramella (2012: 12) believes so, stating that English is a “vampire language both for the way it feeds on other tongues and contaminates them” This idea of contamination can be linked to the current concern of language loss causing culture collapse. It may be easy to accept the simplistic idea of English ‘just’ overpowering other languages, especially when the language that is disappearing is not your own. However, when English is believed to be a killer that preys on indigenous tongues like a fanged beast, causing a country’s culture and history to be slayed, the matter becomes a lot more serious.
The Kenyan writer, Thiong’o (1986) explains that “one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu” his mother tongue in the confinements of his school, as English was “the language and all the others had to bow down to it”. To feel disgraced when speaking the culture-holder of your beliefs and heritage is saddening. This argument proposes that English is more than just killing languages; to many, it’s a powerful force that has destroyed their whole existence. Thiong’o claims that language as communication and language as culture are interlinked, as “communication creates culture and culture is meant for communication” (1986) but if a mother tongue has deceased, how is communication regarding a certain culture meant to happen? Once a dominant and global language – like English – is established, members of indigenous countries are unable to communicate, due to future generations speaking the dominant language rather than their own mother tongue. So what happens when the last and only speaker of a mother tongue language dies? Does the country’s culture die too, as no one is able to translate history or speak of their heritage, as information is unable to be passed down to non-native speakers? This is the growing concern for many linguists. If up to a billion people speak some form of English who is left speaking their native language? Trudgill reiterates this concern as he believes that “one of the greatest cultural tragedies ever to befall the human race is taking place before our eyes but no one is paying attention” (quoted in Jenkins 2009, 160).
But is this really one of the greatest ‘cultural tragedies’? Some linguists believe the dominance of English is just a natural progression of language and society. For example, Schneider (2013: 217) discusses his friends having international business relations from Austria, Korea and America, with most of their conversations taken up by “trying to work out the others’ intended meanings”. However, he “hears no complaints – all of this is just considered natural, an unavoidable side effect, not the main point”. This shows that non-English speakers are able to communicate without the dominant language. So really, English is only a killer language if people choose to speak it. For three years I have lived with my bilingual housemate. Her mother tongue and first language is Welsh but she is fluent in English. On a number of occasions we have had casual conversations on her views of the dominance of English and she says that “it’s just a way of communicating”. My housemate will always be Welsh, she will always choose Welsh as her first language, but in order to communicate with people outside of her little village (where 95% of people speak Welsh) she has to talk English. Again, it’s simply a way of talking to people, not a killer language.
So, if you ask me, to say English is a killer language seems a little strong. A form of lingua franca between different language speakers may be the more balanced idea, but that may be since I only speak English. However, if my language was one of the “3,000 [languages] in the process of dying out” (Trudgill, quoted in Jenkins 2009, 160) I most certainly would have a very different opinion.
JESSICA METCALFE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Ceramella, N. (2012) Is English a Killer Language or an International Auxiliary? Its Use and Function in a Globalised World. International Journal of Language, Translation and Intercultural Communication. [online],