compulsory reading

German Is Getting Sexy Again.

Bjørn Stærk, who kindly recommended my blog to his readers some days ago, has been wondering why there are relatively few European, particularly German and French, (political) blogs published in English.

Contemplating the deeper issue at hand – the relation of national cultures and supra-national languages – in this case English – in an age of global interaction – Bjørn makes an interesting argument concerning cultural imperialism, linguistic protectionism, linguistic economies of scale and scope as well as the advantages of publishing in English instead of one’s native language.

No doubt about it – English has become some sort lingua franca in many respects.

Who doubts that an age of global interaction needs a way to communicate beyond hands, feet and other body parts‘ interactions? Those are clearly sufficient to guarantee human procreation, but as soon as things become a bit more tricky – which is not entirely unlikely in a globalised knowledge economy – they won’t carry the communicative day. And it will still take years, if not decades, for automatic translation to become useful. As long as hands and feet are a more reliable means of communication than electronically created translations, we will actually need to sit down and learn foreign languages – and probably one above all others.

There is hardly any language which could challenge the English dominance. Given India’s British colonial history as well as her linguistic fragmentation, there’s only one, in my opinion: Mandarin. Assuming a rapidly growing Chinese economy, Mandarin could become a lingua franca, too. But I am not too sure of that – it might simply be too late, as more than a billion Chinese, eager to contribute to the world economy, are equally eager to learn English, whereas the rest of the world is not too keen to learn Mandarin – ask *me* in seven years, as I bet a friend from Singapore that I will be able to speak at least a little Manadarin in 2010 (UPDATE: 04/2012 – I guess it depends on your defintion of *some*, but I suppose I lost that bet). Not least for this reason, Mandarin will become important. But it probably will not rival English in terms of global penetration.

Two weeks ago, in preparation of last week’s „Elyssée Treaty“ treaty celebrations, the German weekly „Die Zeit“ printed an interview (in German and French) with the French education minister Luc Ferry. Mr Ferry interestingly, and rightly, remarked that

„English as a language has to be treated differently.“

It is no longer just a foreign language. It has become a cultural technique, just like using the phone or sending emails. Today, less than 25% of Germans ever attempt to learn French (let alone speak it), less than 20% of the French try to learn German. Most Franco-German cooperation is handled in bad English these days.

And for everyone but the native speakers English, as a cultural technique, is about to solve an important problem that usually arises the more the better one speaks a foreign language. The better your use of a foreign language in a conversation, the more will native speakers assume that you also know the correct social code transmitted by the words you use as well as the correct instance for their application. But in all likelihood you will not be too familiar with a significant amount of semiotic subtleties in any given culture and language. Cultural misunderstandings are much more likely in this case than if both parties speak in a foreign language.

While this is very helpful for non-native speakers, it also means that native English speakers lose some of the advantage they have. They no longer control the development of their own native language beyond its application in their own culture. English, as a cultural technique, is likely to come in different semantic and possibly even syntactic flavours, spiced up with local cultural ingredients – far beyond the subtle problems arising from the use of „fit bird“ in the US or „hot fox“ in Britain.

As more and more people speak English, it will probably become more and more difficult to imply. A great example illustrating this is a story I once heard about an British woman working for the UN in New York. One day, she went to see her gynecologist only to realize he had sold his practice to an Italian who called himself „doctor for women and other diseases“. She tried to explain the error but the doctor insisted that it was perfect Italian-English.

Seriously, we will have to explain a lot more in the future. Just think about the current transatlantic communication problems. We might have a rough idea of what is being said – but I can’t help but wonder – do we really understand it? The more we hear from each other in (roughly) the same words, the more our cultural differences will become a nuisance to real understanding – there are also disadvantages to publishing in English. Clearly more noise. But more signal?

Having said all this, I would like point out that I agree with much of what Bjørn Stærk says regarding the value of publishing in English – particularly when he writes that

„[t]o practice linguistic protectionism in this age is cultural suicide.“

[ NOTE: But I don’t believe linguistic protectionism carries the day when it comes to explaining the absence of political blogs from, say, Germany or France, that are published in English. I don’t think there’s a simple explanation for their relative scarcity, apart from the obvious truism that English is not the native language of most European countries – as the discussion regarding Bjørn’s entry amply demonstrates. I think, the most important variables have been named by those commenting in his blog – penetration of internet connection, especially flat-rate connections allowing to spend a significant amount online reading, awareness of blogging as a concept as well as a technology, motivation to put one’s opinion out there – someone mentioned a possible connection between 9/11 and a rise in blogging -, the main topics of the blog in question, one’s native language’s market size, the target audience, and evidently, the ability to write in English in a way allowing to express sometimes complicated issues and thoughts in a (hopefully) clear and mostly coherent manner. Just by looking at this range of factors (and there are probably a lot more), it becomes obvious to me that c.p. only a small fraction of blogs will be written in English instead of their author�s native language. ]

However, he also makes some points I have a hard time to swallow (which he actually expected)). Most importantly, his assumptions that

„[l]anguage isn’t culture…“,

and that

„[m]ost of the _new_ contributions to Western culture are being made by the US and Great Britain…“,

which then lead him to the conclusion that

„…nothing beautiful or sensible should ever be written in Norwegian, if it could be written in English…“

I again entirely agree with him that it is crucial for Europe, especially the larger linguistic markets in Europe, to

„… drop our linguistic pride, get out of the audience and get onto the stage.“

I’ve been saying for years that having a large linguistic market can create problematic incentives if a larger one is around the corner, especially in academia. A lot of German professors still do not publish in English because the German market is sufficiently big to scientifically survive without doing so. Being exempt from competition has never really benefitted anyone in the long run. And it doesn’t in this case.

But there are things which can not – and which should not – be said in English. Abstracting from the brain-busting problem what contributions to Western culture actually are, I believe it is far from true that most of them are now being made by the US and Great Britain – certainly not in relative terms. If they are marketed in English, it is probably a sign of quality, as someone has deemed it useful to translate them and put them on the world stage. However, evolutionary variation is what made the Western model of social coordination a success story. Thus, in some respects, and I believe also in the linguistic one, diversity is a value in its own right.

Once again omitting impossible definitions, I would agree that „culture“ does not only consist of language. But language is a very important part of culture. Just think of slang, think of thirteen year-olds inventing their own words to represent their own worlds, think of the fit birds and the hot foxes mentioned above. Even British English and American English are quite different today. Differences in language reflect differences in culture and thinking. I very vividly remember a discussion of three Norwegian fellow students in a seminar concerning ethnic conflict regulation about which language is the real „Norwegian“. Their discussion was a clear sign to me that, also in Norway, language is an important part of culture.

Using English, the cultural technique, will keep us afloat on the ocean of global interaction. But it will not enable us to see the beautiful maritime vegetation underneath the ocean’s surface. Even in Amsterdam, where almost everybody speaks perfect English (see my entries from December 2002), no one will ever be able to really understand Dutch culture without speaking their language – all the risks of misunderstanding included.

Cultural deep diving is never easy, always an adventure, and in most instances a rewarding one.

English, the cultural technique, will not enable non-German-speakers to find out first hand just why this entry is titled „German is getting sexy again.“ Although, luckily, this wired article offers some diving advice ;-).

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