On more than one occasion now I have been asked the question, “Why are you learning languages when the whole world speaks English?”. It may be undeniable that this is a language that is spoken on a global scale, but we must also bear in mind that its development has been greatly influenced by other languages, from African to Japanese. So is it really accurate to call this international language ‘English’ in the modern age, when there is such a huge foreign influence in its vocabulary?
Britian is perhaps most well known for its turbulent colonial past; with the establishment of the East India Company the British empire was able to expand into Asian countries, primarily India and China, the latter due to the lucrative Opium trade. During this era of imperialism Britain expanded into Australia, Canada, Jamaica, The Caribbean and Africa which was to have a big effect on the languages spoken in these countries. Some adopted English as their official language (South Africa, Canada) and some African countires such as Nigeria and Senegal made learning English compulsory in schools, thus conveying the effect British imperialism had, all those centuries ago, on making English the most widely spoken language today.
However, it was not just Britain who was able to influence the language spoken in other countries.
During the Norman invasion of 1066 around10,000 French words were introduced into the British language, and today almost 30% of words that make up the English language are borrowed from French. These words are particularly prominent in the field of Architecture (aisle, arch, vault, façade, terrace), Arts (surrealism, impressionism, fauvism, art nouveau, collage, grisaille), Cuisine (soufflé, croissant, gateux, marmalade, casserole), Feudalism (homage, liege, peasant) and even our everyday vocabulary (money monnaie, bottle bouteille, chair chaise, road route, bicycle bicyclette).
Along with French, many other languages have impacted the development of our vocabulary over the years. In fact, the English language is made up of words, which we call “Loan words”, from over 50 countries around the world. A loan word is taken directly from another language without being altered, and it does not replace another word but is more often used to introduce a new concept or foreign idea. To give a few examples, from the colonial era we have bungalow, cot, shampoo, thug, punch (the drink), khaki and jhodpers from India; then we have mambo, zebra, chimpanzee from Africa; guerilla, galleon and mosquito from Spanish; musical terms such as allegro, tempo, adagio, piano from Italian, and from the 5th century AD bag, die, knife, skirt, husband, want, get, egg, from Danish and Norweigan. These words tend to derive from fields that were of particular interest to that country, therefore philosophy terms tend to derive from Greek, scientific terms derive from Latin (in fact, 60% of English words have Latin origin), Ballet terms from France and as I have previously mentioned, musical terms from Italy.
Though you may think that this would make a translators work much easier, this isn’t always the case. On some occasions these loan words are borrowed by a language but the meaning is changed. So, for example, in Germany the word handy, taken from the English word meaning helpful or useful, means mobile phone.
Wok, which in English is used to refer to a large frying pan actually refers to the stir fry itself in Chinese, and the verb camping in argentinian spanish actually means campsite.
Therefore we can conclude that English is indeed an international language and plays a big part in facilitating commerical trade, but can we say that this international language really belongs to anybody? Nowadays there is more communication through the English language between two non-native speakers than a native speaker and non-native speaker. Moreover, English is not only the official language of the UK but Barbados, Jamaica, Newzealand, America, and is made up of a huge variety of words from other languages.
So to refer back to the original question, perhaps this is why I’m learning languages. Although undoubtedly I will be able to speak English wherever I go in the world, evidently the foreign influence on this language is huge, and it has allowed it to transform and develop and in the process introduce new ideas and concepts. The fact remains that none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the initial contact and global communication with other countries. It reflects how language is not only a way to convey simple information, but it forms a huge part of a country’s culture, of it’s history, and of its social struggles. By learning a language I am not only learning how to communicate with people but it helps me to gain a deeper understanding of the intricacies of an entirely new culture, encompassing not only language but history, art, politics and a whole realm of other subjects.