Jun 6, 2008

Why bilingual ? Why English ?

Beside my mother tongue, French, I speak English, German and Spanish (in alphabetical order, although in learning order, it is GES and in skill order it is ESG). I also studied Latin, which explains why I understand lots of Italian and Portugese, which are so close to French anyway, especially when written, and Japanese. I can read a little Dutch, mainly through being more or less immersed in a partly Dutch-speaking country, and through extrapolation from English and German, its very cousin languages. Eventually, I can utter and understand a few Breton and Magyar words.
That's all for my language skills, unfortunately, because I really wish I could speak fluent Italian, Portuguese, Russian or Arabic...if I had only time to dedicate to serious learning.
Languages are great. They open one's mind. Words are the basis for thought and the vehicle for cultures, the more words, the more diverse and interesting the thoughts.
So why do I blog in 2 languages ? NOT because I consider English as a universal language. It is NOT. English is a good flexible tool, but it is also extremely awkward because so many different cultures use it in so many different ways that "global-English" sometimes feels as a stodgy porridge.
I deplore the use of low-level English as lingua franca in non-English-speaking areas such as Belgium, or Scandinavia : It serves as an excuse to ignore each other's language and culture and enables a very low level of communication, usually not even mutually intelligible in an oral form.
I remember attending a meeting in an International company where almost everybody was struggling with extremely bad English (the different and sometimes exotic "accents" reflecting where people learnt it : USA, UK, Europe, Africa...) and I remarked that all participants were actually francophones and it would be consequently more "practical" if not abiding by the rule, to discuss in French. How ridiculous these meetings can sometimes be !
I blog in French or English for very practical reasons : I have friends around Europe, the Americas and Asia, and most of them can read English. So whenever a post is of local interest only, I write in French, and when it is of larger interest, I write in English. Confusing ?
Pragmatic !
As a matter of fact, the relative importance of languages in Europe and the world is usually misconceived by most people.
Especially, the "French" have a misconceived reputation of not speaking languages. It is misconceived because 45% of the French speak a second language. But the reputation is spread by Brits and USians because these 45% usually didn't choose the one single language that these can usually understand, ie English, as their 2d language, but rather Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German or Arabic or African languages, at which many French are good. My mother speaks Italian and Spanish. My older sister speaks English, Arabic and a little German. My younger sister speaks English and Dutch. I'm not saying that French people are particularly gifted with languages, I'm saying they're not bad, by comparison, especially if you consider the diversity of language families of their neighbours. It is of course much easier to speak English when you are a native speaker of its closest related languages, Dutch or Danish, than it is to speak Arabic or German when your are a native speaker of a Romance language. And of course, it is much easier when one has a more limited number of neighbours : France has 8 + Mediterranean opposite coast. UK has just 4 across the seas (France, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands). Only 30% of Brits speak a foreign language. Tell me how many of them speak Dutch, Norwegian or Danish ? Zilch !
I used to have a neighbour from the USA in Paris who came to Paris to POLISH his Mandarin Chinese at INALCO...Funny, isn't it ?

To overcome prejudice, I encourage everybody to refer to George Weber’s article “Top Languages: The World’s 10 Most Influential Languages” in Language Today (Vol. 2, Dec 1997)

A major misconception is to consider only first and/or "official" language speakers, when many people on earth speak more than one (like most Swedes also speak "English" and most Algerians also speak "French", although neither language has official status in either country)
if you add the secondary speaker populations to the primary speaker populations, you get the following list sorted by number of speakers:

1. Mandarin Chinese (1.12 billion)
2. English (480 million)
3. Spanish (320 million)
4. Russian (285 million)
5. French (265 million)
6. Hindi/Urdu (250 million)
7. Arabic (221 million)
8. Portuguese (188 million)
9. Bengali (185 million)
10. Japanese (133 million)
11. German (109 million)

So using French and English in my blog I potentially address 705 million people. Not bad. But merely 1/10th of the world's population :( ...
I have a few brazilian readers, and I promiss I will write posts in Portuguese as soon as I feel comfortable with it in order to enlarge my audience ;-)

After weighing six factors (number of primary speakers, number of secondary speakers, number and population of countries where used, number of major fields using the language internationally, economic power of countries using the languages, and socio-literary prestige), Weber compiled the following list of the world's ten most influential languages:
(number of points given in parentheses)

1. English (37)
2. French (23)
3. Spanish (20)
4. Russian (16)
5. Arabic (14)
6. Chinese (13)
7. German (12)
8. Japanese (10)
9. Portuguese (10)
10. Hindi/Urdu (9)

So with French and English, I get 60 points. Not bad ! And an additional 32+ more in my reading the WEB ability ^^ !

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