Sans Lingua Franca

essays Oct 14, 2020

For better or worse, English is the dominant language of the world. If it isn’t your mother tongue, it is likely your second or third language. To be taken seriously in the academic and business world generally requires adopting English as a medium, and to wield it as a tool to develop relevant skills and knowledge (even if you apply it in another language). Even to communicate across borders, many of us default to English.

Now…there are many reasons why English became the lingua franca of the world. By lingua franca, I mean it has become the default mode by which many of us seek and execute transactions and make connections.[1]

  1. English as a lingua franca: A threat to multilingualism? - Juliane House (2003) ↩︎

It is the defacto form in which research is disseminated and used to develop practical applications. Hell, we even adopt English words in our local languages and use them interchangeably throughout conversations (translanguaging).

But today’s post isn’t here to argue the merits and demerits of Shakespeare’s tool. To do so would be folly, and I do not have the time or inclination for it either. Rather, I will outright say:

English is a curse.

This is not a controversial statement, but I am going to unpack what it might mean. It sadly took me about 60% of my life so far to realize this. To wit, about two relationships with women who did not speak English or had English as a viable means of communication AND living in a country that was not based on Latin script.

English is quite limiting and causes acute myopia. On the surface, it may be inclusive and fluid due to its hybrid and plural nature. A neutral force even. However, things are not so clear cut.

When you go on the internet, you're faced with two choices:

  • Browse it using something other than English (which is a bubble);
  • Or partake in a wider discourse using English (which is yet another bubble).

Doing so via the latter tends to be far more fruitful and bestows upon you a dizzying amount of content that would take several hundred lifetimes to consume (if the internet stopped right now). But it also means that you are approaching the world through an Anglophone lens, and imbuing things with meaning through that lens. Because there is a certain amount of baggage that comes with it that generates a worldview that might be outright hostile to others who do not speak English (or speak English the /right/ way). In other words, English speakers tend to NOT listen.

All languages push forward their own identity like a centrifugal force. This is often a result (or by-product) of centuries, if not millennia, of artistic endeavor, scientific endeavor, political ideology, religious influence, and violence (i.e. the forced assimilation of local peoples and the loss of vocabulary used to describe aspects unique to their original culture). And English is not different, but it has permeated every single facet of modern society (and overtaking French and Latin in the process). Its dominance and ubiquity mean that (international) success is often bound to it.

It is easy to criticize a language and its construction, just as easy as it easy to do the same to another’s culture. We usually pay little attention to someone's past unless they have done something remarkable, or we find it unsavory. We care even less for another culture, and how that has evolved: either naturally or guided by a not-so-invisible hand.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: it seems I am talking about linguistic relativism and to a lesser extent linguistic determinism.

I am not.

At least I do not believe it does so in isolation. It neatly dovetails with other aspects of society to create…well: you.

We say we are open-minded, but until we immerse ourselves in another world (read: not fictional), we often do not become more tolerant or willing to understand others. Our checks and biases are a result of reflexes that we have built during our formative years. These are continuously reinforced through a feedback loop until they become deeply entrenched. Few of us can break the shackles of generations of experience and embrace something new with arms wide open.

Wanting people to accept you involves accepting that you have to change yourself. This is critical, as most are not privy to the process of multiculturalism, and how difficult it is. You have to give more of yourself than the locals, at the risk of losing what you thought you were and becoming someone new entirely.

However, there is something that you have to watch out for. Believing in anything means being susceptible to everything, and in the process becoming a mirror for everything that comes your way.

However, there is something that you have to watch out for. Believing in anything means being susceptible to everything, and in the process becoming a mirror for everything that comes your way.

As expressed on this very blog before, for some people doing so is beyond their capabilities, or it is not even something they will ever consider. For a select few, it’s all they know.

If you face someone attempting to learn something that might seem trivial or come off as second nature to you: take a step back and realize that others paths to the same destination may be much more arduous and threaten to upend all they know.

We tend to embrace diversity and inclusivity if it serves our selfish needs. And English is the worst of all. There is an urgent need for the decolonization of language. Thus, leading to a more sustainable form of the democratization of knowledge and wisdom.

The late Chinua Achebe said it best:

“On language we are given … simplistic prescriptions. Abolish the use of English! But after its abolition we remain seriously divided on what to put in its place … I can see no situation in which I will be presented with a Draconic choice between … English and Igbo. For me, no either/or; I insist on both.”

Further Reading:


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