Preserving Language Preserves Identity

11 February 2003

By Stentor Danielson

In describing how out of touch Americans are from the rest of the world, one fact frequently cited is how overwhelmingly monolingual most of the nation is. College-bound young people take a couple years of Spanish or German to satisfy a foreign language requirement, then forget everything beyond "no hablo español" (or if they're feeling particularly resourceful, "¿dónde está el baño?"). This point was the source of much self-flagellation in the period after September 11, as we realized that the war on terrorism was being hindered by, among other things, a shortage of translators who knew Arabic (not to mention the even greater shortage of translators who knew Arabic and weren't gay).

The reason for this widespread monolingualism is that - aside from language geeks who study other tongues as a hobby -- people only learn to speak a new language when they have to. And Americans for the most part don't have to. Across most of a continent, English is the only language you need to get by. And Americans are determined to keep it that way, considering the popularity of "learn English if you want to live here" sentiment directed at immigrants.

Increasingly, that's true of the world as well. English is widely spoken as a second language through much of Europe, to the frustration of Americans who go there hoping to practice their skills. The Internet is widely believed to be a force for making English the standard language of global culture. As the Internet got its start in the US, English got a head start. Proponents of designed languages like Esperanto have long hoped that globalization would provide a vehicle for establishing their rational language as the world's common tongue. But the chaotic, often unplanned and uncontrolled, growth of the web enshrined an illogical patchwork of a language at the same time that it gave Esperantists a forum for meeting and preaching their cause.

Websites directed at a global audience benefit from being readable by the greatest number of people, especially given that services like Babelfish translate text poorly and images not at all (though one of the web's most popular phenomenon these days, the blog, seems to be attracting a hugely disproportionate number of users speaking Portuguese, to judge by unscientific observation of the "recently updated" section on

The globalization of culture is widely expected to bring with it worldwide homogenization. The growing salience of American movies, American music, and American consumer goods would push other languages toward irrelevance.

Short of a major catastrophe knocking America off its pedestal and allowing competitors speaking other tongues to start up, there seems to be little hope for the survival of other languages. Yet paradoxically it may be the very success of American cultural globalization that could keep languages alive.

I don't dispute the probable triumph of English as the most important language of global interaction. Knowing English will become more and more essential to participating in the world economy. But the assumption that the utility of English in meeting one's communication needs will eliminate the desire to learn another tongue may be misplaced.

Language is an important marker of identity. Even when speaking the same language, social groups differentiate themselves by the way they talk. So language offers a way of stating a resistance to cultural homogenization. A native language goes beyond simply differentiation. It represents a whole cultural history. The need to define one's roots, especially in the face of what can look like foreign hegemony, is powerful.

For evidence that identity-languages can thrive in the presence of a widespread business language, we can look to the contemporary revival of Native American languages. Anglophone Americans spent two many years trying to eradicate Native American culture, in order to force assimilation into white society. The aspect of this effort mentioned most poignantly by survivors is the ban on speaking the native language. Now that Native Americans are allowed to celebrate their culture, many tribes are working to recover the language that was suppressed for so long. Bilingualism is rising from the dead in the heart of Anglophone country.

For example, the last fluent speaker of Mohegan died 95 years ago. Today, members of the tribe are working with old documents to piece together their lost language. Washington state is expected to approve a plan that allows tribes to certify teachers for native languages, making it possible for the few remaining speakers of some tongues to pass their knowledge on in the classroom without jumping through the hoops of university teacher certification.

Native Americans who learn their ancestral languages aren't doing it to challenge the dominance of English. They're doing it as an affirmation of who they are, as a way of showing that there's something special about their heritage.

This pattern of language as identity is likely to continue as English threatens the viability of other languages as forms of business or mass culture communication. While other languages may fall from their current importance, their significance as assertions of identity will ensure that they never die out.

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