Letters to the Editors

What Global Language?

Barbara Wallraff's article "What Global Language?" (November Atlantic) is an interesting review of the current status of English as lingua franca, but I believe that the particulars she notes are neither new nor peculiar to our newest "global language."

The last several languages that spread far beyond their original borders, such as Koine Greek, spread by Alexander's troops and subsequent events; Latin, from the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church; French and Spanish; and now English, have all had common features and problems. Koine Greek was a simplified Greek, shorn of some of its more extreme grammatical peculiarities, and mangled to various degrees. Aristotle would have had great difficulty with much of it. Although Latin had common texts from the Church, including Jerome's Vulgate Bible, and although work from scholars was good, it went downhill from there. Spanish had so many variants (which can lead to howlers and grave embarrassments) that thick dictionaries have been compiled of those variants. And how would a Cajun fare in Marseille? An Arab in Morocco and one in Syria do not converse easily; a northern German and a Bavarian trying to converse are a classic subject for stand-up comedy.

The "problems" of wide variation in English may well be lessened because of better communication, but they are not different. English began as a pidgin link between Saxons and Danes, and its innate simplicity and openness to innovation have led it, by a selection process, to its present position. It is imperfect, yet one of the best tools we have for communication and community in our global village.

Bill Rudersdorf
Houston, Texas

It is wrong to state that no predominantly English-speaking country is a member of the European Monetary Union. Ireland is. It will be interesting to see whether its uniqueness in this regard affects the location of financial institutions within the EMU.

Brendan Walsh
Dublin, Ireland

Notwithstanding the opinions of Barbara Wallraff, English is the global language of science. Any scientist who wishes to communicate his ideas to the scientific community must do it in English, or his voice will not be heard. This has caused great difficulty to those Asian scientists who still publish in languages other than English.

The rest of the world's countries have slowly shifted to printing their scientific journals only in English, in most cases not allowing publications in their own languages. Until China becomes the most powerful nation in the world and we are forced, all of us, to learn Chinese (provided the Chinese can decide which of their languages they will use), English will be the language of science and, of course, diplomacy.

Ellis Glazier
La Paz, Mexico

Barbara Wallraff concludes that English is not holding its own in the United States because of increases in the number of people in this country who speak other languages, and because of the arrival of some immigrants who do not speak English well and "may not even see the point of going to the trouble of learning it."

Not to worry. Immigrants are acquiring English rapidly and well. In 1993 only 8.8 percent of native speakers of Spanish living in the United States said they spoke no English, and 71.5 percent said they spoke English "well" or "very well." This is even more impressive when one considers that these figures include newcomers. Moreover, results for Spanish-speakers were nearly identical to those reported by speakers of Asian and Pacific Island languages.

Research consistently shows that languages spoken by immigrants are typically not maintained and are rarely developed. This finding is one of the most solid and consistent results in language research, yet it appears to be nearly unknown to the public. A recent confirmation comes from research by Ruben Rumbaut, of Michigan State University, and Alejandro Portes, of Johns Hopkins University: By the time immigrant students are in high school, most prefer English to their family language and feel more competent in English. Even for the group considered to be the most English-resistant, students of Mexican origin, the shift to English is obvious.

Stephen Krashen
Los Angeles, Calif.

Barbara Wallraff says that Canada's linguistic fate hung by a slender thread in the October, 1995, vote by the people of Quebec on secession from Canada. The reason for this contention is that Canada's roughly 30 million citizens are in theory bilingual, so if Quebec had seceded from Canada, the two language groups, French and English, would be on their way to being largely monolingual. But the descendants of Canada's two founding nations are largely monolingual, and the secession of Quebec would not have affected this.

A visit to Montreal will confirm the existence of a population of bilingual (depending on how rigid one's definition of "bilingual" is) speakers in Canada. But Montreal and possibly Ottawa—because the federal government's affairs are conducted in both languages—are not representative of the whole of Canada. Outside Montreal and certain pockets of Ontario, Canadians of either language group have a tenuous grasp on the other official language.

Contrary to perceptions outside Canada, the majority of Canadians are descended from the English, the Scots, and the Irish rather than from the French. Canada's francophone population today is probably under seven or eight million. The other twenty-some million Canadians speak English as either their native or their adopted tongue.

Although English-Canadian universities—again, possibly with a few exceptions—require entering students to have studied French at least up to their final year of high school, this is not enough language training to qualify a student as bilingual or anything close to it. Most Canadians are like Wallraff, who states in her article that even though she spent years in school studying a foreign language, she is barely able to summon enough of it to order dinner in a restaurant.

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