A language is a collection of words and sounds symbolizing meaning. In its most basic form, it is a set of agreements that this symbol or this sound means a particular thing.
If you agree with a friend that: 'dadadido?' shall mean ‘Did you find food?’, then you have a language, though a very simple one. Over time, it will find its written form and gradually develop a grammar to add nuance and preciseness.
Pre-reading activity: Vocabulary
You will find all the words below in the text.
Individual work: Go through the words and find out what they mean.
In pairs: Pick a random word from the list below and explain it to your partner. While explaining, you are not allowed to use the specific word and you are not allowed to speak Norwegian. Your partner should try to guess the word.
A language is a collection of words and sounds symbolizing meaning. In its most basic form it is a set of agreements that this symbol or this sound means a particular thing. If you agree with a friend that: 'dadadido?' shall mean ‘did you find food’, then you have a language, though a very simple one. Over time, it will find its written form and gradually develop a grammar to add nuance and preciseness.
The development of language formed the most important cornerstones of early human communities. It meant that you could work together, store communication by means of words and share feelings and ideas. The cavemen in France 50 000 years ago needed to communicate with those around them, and so do we today – only our range has changed dramatically. From this perspective, it is not very difficult to understand why tens of thousands of years later, English is spreading. Transcontinental travel is as common as a hike in the woods – or rather much more so. The hunting ground has widened into a global scene. So there is a need for a global language, and this need is being met by English. Though far from being the biggest language in terms of native users, it is the most widely understood language in human history.
Business = English
Today’s businessman, artist or scientist takes part in settings that are defined by occupational functions or cultural preferences rather than geographical positioning. He is likely to be more familiar with Tokyo, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and New York than with nearby villages or suburbs. He will have a network of contacts spread all over the world – and he will have the tool of communication which makes it possible for him to say today’s equivalent of dadadido, which may be: Do we have a deal?
Whether he comes from Finland, Germany, Russia or the United Kingdom, he will, in most cases, use English in communication with people from other countries. English has become a tool of communication between people who do not share a native tongue. The level of proficiency will vary. A native speaker will show fluency and use idiomatic expressions, while the English usage of foreign users of English may vary from very basic to almost native. The inexperienced user of English will find electronic tabs and gadgets offering simultaneous translations useful when looking for a hotel or asking for a price, but at the same time the verbal nuances of homely face-to-face communication, the idioms and colloquialisms will be lost to them.
Politics, Science and Cultural Exchange
The world is being woven into gradually tighter networks through trade, travel, politics, science and cultural exchange. In these arenas, we relate to people from various linguistic areas, such as tourists, engineers, scientists, politicians, diplomats and aid workers, with the most preferred language being English. English has become the lingua franca of the world.
English is, in many ways, different from other languages. While most regional languages are defined by a geographical area – such as Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic, English has a unique global spread. It is perhaps best compared to Latin, which up to a few hundred years ago transcended national and regional borders in that it was widely used by scholars and clergy all over Europe. English today is not a language reserved for the learned and scholarly. English expressions are picked up by people all over the world through advertisements, films, news, McDonald’s restaurants and so forth. As the lingua franca of the world, it is the natural choice of international aviation. If there ever was an activity that depended on clear and unmistakable communication, this is it! However, the need for a common language is equally required within science, arts, sports, trade and many other areas.
Many fear that Global English will take over for the native languages. As of yet, there is no evidence to support this fear. There is a big difference between being able to communicate an intention for a business deal or share interesting findings in a science report on the one hand, and talking casually and naturally about everyday events on the other hand. Most people will find their native tongue much richer and more precise than a learnt language. As English strengthens its position, other languages are standing their ground. Therefore, it does not seem to be a question of which language will dominate, but rather of whether we are able to master the use of more than one language.
A mini version of English is in the process of evolving. Called Global English, it will get you by in most contexts. This is not a mother tongue since it develops through practice on networks. It is re-created, shaped and simplified through a gradual and daily process involving hundreds of millions of English-users worldwide.
Latin had the same international function up until the Industrial Revolution. Latin was not a native language either, but a constructed language. It was regarded as the language for proper communication. Even today, some people like to reel off Latin quotes to add a whiff of high culture to their speech. French enjoyed the same position within the arts, cooking, fashion and the areas of law and government.
Words are Clothes for Ideas
This proves an interesting point about language: that it is more than a language. It is a bit like the clothes you’re wearing. They’re there for more reasons than to cover your nakedness or to help you keep warm; they’re there to tell others who you are. Many people take care to dress up in clothes that fit their mood, their lifestyle or their political or religious views. Such is the case with words. We “dress up” with words to suit the occasion. But this rather advanced use of a language requires a high level of proficiency, for which our native tongues prove far more suitable than a lingua franca.
Therefore, as you learn more languages, there is one that will be closest to your heart, and that is your mother tongue. Through learning another language, many of us also experience the joy of developing a greater appreciation of our own language. The characteristic sounds and idioms of our own language stand out clearer contrasted with other languages. So, as English gradually expands as the language of international affairs and exchange, the national languages are not weakening their position as native tongues.
Go back to the pre-reading activity. Can you still remember the meaning of the words? Work with a partner.