Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The sun never sets

I've been thinking for a couple of weeks about writing about the English language (funny how treading water in a sea of Korean will do that) and the movement-that-will-not-die to make it the official language of the United States. I have to admit I have extremely mixed feelings; I'm no jingoist, but I do think that it's a wondrous language, and that if everyone in America learned it, it would be a wonderful unifying force-- but who wants to align himself with some of the racist yahoos who are pushing it?

It's a tough piece to write, and as I'm lazy, I think I'll post this instead; it's a model essay I wrote for LIKE responding to an online talk about the world's "English mania". One of the things I do at school is writing essays, complete with glossary and notes on why my essays are the Pope's knickers, for the upper-level kids to critique, take notes on, and translate into Korean.

(According to the speech, TWO BILLION PEOPLE are currently trying to learn English.) (And the speaker's name really is Jay Walker. No comment.)
PROMPT: Why is English “the world’s second language”, as lecturer Jay Walker says?

For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, the world is moving toward a common language. English is fast becoming the second choice of billions of people around the globe, on every inhabited continent. English is the language of business, of education, and of popular culture. Jay Walker tells us, “English represents hope for a better future, a future where the world has a common language to solve its common problems.” But, of all the world’s languages, why is English the chosen one?

For 400 years, the United Kingdom’s empire spread around the world, from India and Australia to North America. “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was the saying; a quarter of the world’s population, covering a quarter of its landmass, was subject to the British crown. The sunset of the British Empire was overlapped by the rise of American superpower, and the military and economic might of both has led to the dominance of English. Above all, the 21st century business world runs on English, and speaking the language is nearly a prerequisite for success in international business, in the sciences, and in education.

Indirectly, English has also been boosted by its ubiquity in popular culture around the world. It is the mother tongue of Shakespeare and Chaucer, of Mickey Mouse and the Pussycat Dolls. Any language that produces both “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the Sun” and “Don’tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?” is endlessly adaptable. Few Korean pop songs, for example, fail to have a “nobody, nobody” or a “baby, baby” thrown in. Clearly, English is also the language of emotion and entertainment.

Finally, English has grown and prospered because it takes the best of every other language as its own: skunk and raccoon from the Algonquin Indians, safari and jamboree from Swahili, kimchi and taekwondo from Korea: all these have enriched English and increased its appeal. French was once the language of diplomacy, but the French Academy jealously guarded it against incursions from “inferior” tongues, and French faded as English threw open its doors to all comers and grew stronger. One website claims that last week English gained its millionth word; there is no doubt that it has the largest vocabulary of any language on Earth.

The short answer to “Why English?” is Jay Walker’s: it’s the language of opportunity. But we must look deeper, to how English became that in the first place. As the language of empire and entertainment, and the language that has welcomed every culture with open arms, it has earned its place in the sun, the sun that never sets on the English language.

No comments: