Friday, December 17, 2010

Is English a 'true' multicultural language?

In a fall issue of the Japan Times, an article was published that got me thinking again about why English has stuck as an international language despite its many irregularities. Every day in the classroom, I am struck by the challenges that English brings to non-native speakers: the incongruities between spelling and pronunciation, the use of foreign words which are often not pronounced the same as the originals, and the abundance of sounds and structural aspects that do not commonly exist in other languages.

Dr. Nobuyuki Honna, an Emeritus Professor of Sociolinguistics and International Communication at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, the author of the article, is also the founder of The Japanese Association for Asian Englishes. Honna suggests that today's English would be more effective if it were truly multicultural. In other words, a language should reflect the culture where it is being used. However, when you learn English as a second language in Asia, you often learn it as American or British English. Consequently, the non-native speaker attempts to pick up expressions and concepts, customs and traditions associated with these Englishes, rather than adapt the English language to his/her own culture.

Professor Honna also claims that "Contemporary English has two major characteristics that no other language has ever developed in the history of linguistic evolution. One is its global spread and the other is the development of its regional and local varieties." I cannot deny the reality of the first claim, but I would add that the global spread of English correlates with the technological advancement of the worldwide web established in the USA (starting with the development of the ARPAnet) and is likely a bit of a fluke. Time will tell if the base structure of the internet limits its takeover by another language.

The second point about the unique 'development of regional and local varieties' of English is more problematic for me. Certainly, the Earth's population is larger in size than ever before, but regional and local varieties of French, Spanish, and German have abounded in the past. For example, recently, I was speaking to a friend who had spent some time in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I also had done field research some 15 years ago. She commented about how difficult it was to understand their 'French.' They didn't have an 'accent grave,' for example. I have heard that Montreal (Canada), which is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, has a unique version of French, too. Whether or not, the varieties of French outnumber the varieties of English can probably be debated, but this puts the second claim into doubt.

Nevertheless, Dr. Honna makes many observations that are well worth examining in depth, such as 'mutual communicability' and a need to have 'language awareness' and recognition given to the many 'Englishes' spoken in the world. There is a huge range of topics for cross-cultural research raised in this thoughtful article. Check it out.

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