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The Future is Multilingual

It’s as if the planet is shrinking.

We can access information from the other side of the world in an instant and physically travel there within a day.

Paradoxically, as the world gets smaller, our vision must get bigger. As outlined by Nicole-Anne Boyer in World Changing: A User’s Guide to the 21st Century (2006), we must broaden our perspectives if we are to experience the wonder and vitality that the world has to offer.

This is not least in terms of the shared cultural diversity that has become a feature of globalization.

Working (and playing) with people from an increasingly wide array of locations and cultural backgrounds, we need to learn and understand something of their lives and experiences if we are to co-exist into a sustainable future.

Travel can open our eyes to new worlds and new ways of seeing and being. Formal study can help us discover the knowledge and tools required to bridge cultural divides. We can watch movies, read books, eat different foods, listen to world music, learn languages from far and wide…there are countless ways we can access the wondrous diversity that permeates global culture.

As Boyer says in World Changing:

“Global thinking benefits us all, but even more important, opening our mental borders can be thrilling. The world is marvelous, complex, and ever changing. To limit ourselves to our own nation’s stories, songs, and languages is like going to a huge community potluck and insisting on eating nothing but Jell-O. Life is much more interesting when we sample from all the dishes our neighbors have perfected” (2006, p.368)

Globalization (amongst other things – good and bad) has resulted in the cross-fertilization of cultures and creative expression. We witness this frequently in contemporary cinema, TV, literature, music, and food. It is also evident in the emergence of “new” languages.

English is the dominant language at present in business and scholarship, and proliferates the Web and popular culture. This is a time unlike any in human history – never before has a single language been spoken (however imperfectly) by so many people. The trends of change, however, indicate that in coming decades, the linguistic landscape will be increasingly multifaceted.

“It will be less about learning to speak the Queen’s English and much more about being multilingual and mastering a fusion of tongues” (Boyer, 2006, p.375).

So what does the future of language look like? According to World-Changing: “By 2050, Mandarin Chinese will hold the top spot. Spanish, Arabic, Hindu/Urdu and English are likely to be equally ranked. The fastest-growing languages include Bengali, Tamil, and Malay. However, arguably the most interesting development is the growth of new hybrid languages – new argots, pidgin dialects and Creoles. Hundred of forms of English now exist, each with distinctive grammars and socio-cultural contexts. These hybrids, born at the cross-hairs of globalization, have emerged either in order to improve our ability to communicate in diverse contexts or to provide a new way to create community” (p.375).

An example of this is Hinglish – a mixture of Hindi and English. It emerged as Bollywood’s preferred language in films and has also appeared in English screen hits like Bend It Like Beckham. According to Boyer, “Hinglish has become hip and respectable, uniting many different groups of Indians through a lingo they feel is their own and not just the elite’s. There are already 350 million Indians who speak Hinglish as a second language, exceeding the number of native English speakers in Britain and the US combined”.  Some of the Hinglish words in in popular use include: airdash (“travel by air”), chaddis (“underpants”), chai (“Indian tea”), dacoit (“thief”), desi (“local”), dicky (“boot”), lumpen (“thug”), would-be (“fiancé” or “fiancée”) (Ibid).

Given the many Web-savvy Indians working around the world, it’s no surprise some experts argue that Hinglish words are destined to become part of the global vernacular. But, as Boyer highlights, Hinglish will have some competitors, especially from Globish,

“a simplified form of English most non-native speakers use to communicate with each other when traveling or doing business…Consider it “English lite” with a limited vocabulary (about 1,500 words), basic structure and gestures”.

I’ve recently had varied discussions with people about cultural appropriation and hybridization. It goes without saying that many a cultural custodian will decry the trend of cultural fusion as undermining the integrity of a language. Certainly, such concerns have some merit. But as Boyer explains:

“While linguistic fusion may be a recipe for confusion, these new patterns will also inspire new poetry, art, and creative insight in the world. Overall, multilingualism, like multiculturalism, is good news for the people and the planet.  Not only does learning another language lubricate trade and economic growth, but more important, it gives us a richer frame of reference for seeing the world and its cultures. This is essential if we are going to make a diverse society work effectively” (p.376).

There is little question that for some years to come, English will continue to dominate the linguistic landscape, especially in science, global pop culture and the Web.

Yet simultaneously, “English’s pre-eminence will disguise a more complex picture under the surface of our diversifying and globalizing world” (Boyer, 2006, p.376).

The ability to learn new languages is a uniquely human facility. Amongst other things, it is an active expression of human creativity, community, and our adaptation over time. It provides us all with a remarkable opportunity. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a language or discover more about your own multicultural heritage, now is the time. Do not delay (or “time-pass” as said in Hinglish), for there is much to be learnt (beyond language) from the experience.

As Boyer says, “The future is multilingual – and mighty the mongrel tongues will be” (2006, p.376).

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