Lingua Frankly

Lingua Frankly

            The ability to communicate is a vital aspect of maintaining society, but its importance did not begin with civilization. The need to warn other members of the species from predators made the foundations of language start in the hoots, screams, and yells of our predecessors. The echoes of this primordial panic can be seen in how humans recoil and gasp at somebody falling or an unexpected noise, and can be seen real-time in how fellow primates react to nearby predators.

            This is not a primate-specific action - nearly every animal has some sort of way to alert to danger. What's more, some species seem to have different languages - whales of the same species communicate on different wavelengths, making them only intelligible to whales that listen to that frequency, sometimes with lonely repercussions. As communicating with mutual intelligibility is vital for group survival in the wild, so is it vital for group survival in the modern, political world.

            There are more languages spoken in Queens than in any municipal subdivision anywhere else in the world. This reflects Queens' diversity - billing itself as the "World's Borough", there is no better place to showcase every way humanity has figured out how to speak. But this also comes with innate problems - not everybody who immigrates to the United States learns English. From my personal experience working in an emergency room in Flushing, roughly 40% of the patients coming in are not conversational in English. Many times they have the foresight to bring along a family member or friend to translate, but oftentimes the person they bring along isn't that sharp in English either.

            And to be fair, English is a relatively difficult language to learn - it is a hodgepodge of French, Low German, Latin, and some Spanish. Letters can sound completely different word-to-word (hard and soft C's), some words are spelled the same but have vastly different meanings (Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo), some words are spelled differently but pronounced the same (cereal and serial, wood and would), and silent letters (pneumonia) are a haunting presence. Learning a language, especially a language without a central grammatical authority such as English, can be a burden. But not learning English is a bigger burden - not only for the individual, but for the community.

            Translation services are improving, but there are evident drawbacks to not having a large portion of the population know the common tongue. Police commands cannot be understood, traffic signs can be unintelligible, pressing healthcare questions can remain unanswered, and lives are lost as urgent communication becomes noisy babble. Physical language and vocal intonation can make up for some of that deficit, but there is also the fact that English is the closest thing to a global language that exists. If you are going to be a part of the global system, you have to learn English - it's the most commonly spoken second language in the world. There are languages of regional importance, such as Spanish in South America and Persian in Central Asia, but English transcends borders - partly because of the British Empire, partly because of the American World Order.

            With China on the rise as a prospective world power, it obviously would like to see Chinese as widely applied as English. The problem with that is that the Chinese language is so complex, when it is spoken might not be Mandarin Chinese - it may be something more obscure, like Wu or Min. Chinese has a more-or-less standardized writing system in Hanzi, but the pronunciation of the characters differs between the dialects in such a way that two people may be speaking Chinese, but have no idea what they are saying. An example of how convoluted the Chinese language can be is the following story, which is better understood in the Cantonese dialect than the Mandarin.

First, translated in English :

"Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den"

In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.

He often went to the market to look for lions.

At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.

At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.

He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.

He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.

The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.

After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.

When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.

Try to explain this matter.

And now, in Chinese:

"Shī Shì shí shī shǐ"

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.

Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.

Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.

Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.

Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.

Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.

Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.

Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.

Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.

Shì shì shì shì.

            English may be complicated, but it is nowhere near as complex as Chinese. And the character of Queens means that there are many more languages to worry about - an expectation that civil servants such as police, firefighters and transit officials learn the prominent language of their work area is unreasonable, considering that somebody working in Flushing could have to learn Chinese, Korean, Russian and Spanish. The counter to that would be to hire people from those linguistic backgrounds in civil service positions, but the ability to speak English will still be necessary for these hires so they can understand their supervisors and civilians who are not from their background. And what of the less prominent languages? How should a police officer prepare for pulling over somebody who speaks Bengali, Vietnamese, Tagalog or Portuguese?

            Some of the migrants that come to America make the effort to become fluent in English; some are satisfied with being conversational; some make due with the bare necessities needed to go through their day-to-day; some stay in their ghettos and only talk to people of their background. All of their children will almost certainly learn English and the crawl of time will eventually have their generations seamlessly join the fabric of America. But getting to that point takes time, and the time we live in contains people who do not take kindly to folks that do not speak English, and are being increasingly vocal about it. 

            To be clear, bigotry of native-born Americans should not be a reason to learn English. Rather, migrants coming to America should learn English because it brings them further into the national and international conversation. This is not a request for them to not speak their mother tongue or pass it on to their children - an American should be allowed to speak whatever he wants in whatever language he wants to. But having the ability to speak English has clear benefits, and should be heavily encouraged. While the United States of America does not have an official language, most states have chosen official languages - in addition to English, Louisiana has French, Hawaii has Hawaiian and Alaska has roughly 20 indigenous languages. Furthermore, English is the official language of more countries than any other language, and it's not even close - English has 67 countries giving it official status, while second-place French has 29. 

            In the end, this may all be a superfluous problem. Advances in technology may make translation services easier to use and more accurate, and the internet may be a sufficient common forum to introduce people to English - fully half the internet is in English, and while China tries to block and blacklist some of these websites, its denizens constantly try and find their way around the Great Firewall of China. In two generations, the majority of humanity might be speaking English fluently.

            We just have to make sure we get there first.



Sins of our Fathers

Sins of our Fathers