In a city that initially felt unfamiliar, the mermaid called to me like a beacon of light. While conducting research in Madrid last summer, I had promised myself that I wouldn’t set foot in the major symbol of American capitalism, but there she was. And without giving it another thought, I entered one of the many Starbucks that dotted the Spanish city. From that day forward, it would become a virtual ritual to sit down in a Starbucks every morning and read through El Pais, the premier liberal-leaning Spanish paper. Of course, to spice things up a bit, I tried various Starbucks throughout the city, never settling on a favorite.
Until, one day, it happened: I became too comfortable in my environment. Madrid began to feel like home, and I broke the golden rule of conduct while sitting in a Starbucks. Instead of maintaining a tight hold on my purse, I placed it on my seat, right next to my thigh. Within a few minutes, two girls headed toward me and yelled, “Tu bolsa, tu bolsa (your bag, your bag).” But it was too late, the criminal was long gone, and I panicked. I cried for help in English, and the only thing I could think was why couldn’t anyone speak English well enough to help me? My frustration with my level of Spanish and my ability to only communicate in English, given the shock of the situation, left me more than a little upset. Needless to say, I breathed a sigh of relief when I landed in London five days later. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about a language barrier, or at least not one as pronounced as in Spain.
Now it seems that neither I nor anyone else will ever have to worry about that language barrier again. In fact, I may come to find that my continued wish to learn Spanish was a complete waste of my time. Turning the United States into a bilingual country? Forget it. It’s no longer necessary because we have it all backwards. While we are pouring hours into the study of other languages, other countries are focusing on improving their English language skills.
For example, Mongolia recently decided to forgo Russian as the primary foreign language to be learned in favor of English. In South Korea, students are being immersed in English studies, and, according to Tuesday’s New York Times, there has even been the development of so-called “English villages” that have “Western architecture and signs.” To top it all off, Iraq is toying with the idea of adding English to its list of official languages. Even in the European Union, in which only two member states speak English as their primary language (the United Kingdom and Ireland), English has become the preferred language. Other countries around the world are following suit because they feel that knowledge of English will better their futures. In that case, where’s the need for us to learn other languages?
The rise and importance of English on the world stage might be an aftershock from the end of the Cold War, or perhaps the result of globalization, or further proof of the reach of American culture, or simply of a reverence for the West. Regardless of the reason, if I had to envision a futuristic society and could write my own version of “The Giver,” I would tell the story of a world where language Darwinism occurs, and English has been naturally selected. The powerful elites who maintain control over the welfare of the greater society obtain their lot in life because of their ability to speak English. Only they are able to compete, while the lowly subjects continue with their less civilized and unimportant idioms. Essentially, everyone would be English-speaking clones except for an insignificant minority. Still, prejudice, war and hatred would be eliminated because the communication barrier had been broken. The New English World Order would finally have been achieved.
Alright, so maybe I let my creativity run wild. The more likely scenario would be for English to become the new Latin, and for many world languages to derive words and phrases from it. Yet, even if this happens — or even if English becomes THE official international language rather than one of them — other languages should not have to become subjugated. (French definitely won’t be, with France’s crazed efforts to prevent English from influencing their precious language.)
The benefits of speaking English in the international world should not lead to the forsaking of national languages. Having one language that the entire world can understand does indeed facilitate communication, but it won’t solve the underlying competing needs of various nations; it’ll just make it easier to communicate them.
As I recall my experience in Spain, I remember how everyone I came into contact with liked Barcelona better than Madrid because it was more international and because people there spoke English. However, as much as I try to jump on the Barcelona bandwagon, I realize how much more enchanted I was by Madrid by virtue of the fact that it was so Spanish, that the people insisted on speaking Spanish rather than English, and that they held on tightly to their culture.
The diversity of languages and cultures is what makes the world so appealing and so exciting to explore. So I say let the world learn English but hold onto and preserve the languages of individual cultures, for these can express things in ways English cannot. “Lo que en los libros no esta, la vida te ensenara” — it just sounds so much more beautiful and profound in Spanish.
Alicia Washington is a senior in Trumbull College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.