When native languages are more important than a lingua franca

english-lingua-franca

It’s not often that an editorial is mentioned on a translation news website (yes, those exist).  But this editorial was, and it’s easy to understand why. In it, by Professor C.K. Wrenn reacts to Ghanaian Minister of Education Jane Naana Opoku Agyemang’s recent declaration that children should learn in the language they know best, not in English, which is Ghana’s official language.  But Agyemang, Warren points out, had access to an excellent education in English, not her native Fanti.

In Ghana, Warren writes, English may have unpleasant connotations of colonialism, but none of the country’s myriad languages and dialects are free of controversy.  Akan, a native language that may be spoken by a majority of the population, still wouldn’t be accepted as a lingua franca for all people.  To Warren, English is a necessary evil.

The editorial is a fascinating glimpse into another culture.  It also makes readers think differently about the idea of a common language.  A lingua franca in a country that has so many different native languages and dialects (Ethnologues estimate between seventy-nine and one hundred!) makes sense. And, as Agyemang doubtlessly experienced when she went abroad to continue her education, a common language can go beyond borders.  Today, for example, English is considered the most widespread language in the world, with an estimated one to two billion speakers around the globe.

Sharing a language facilitates things like communication, commerce, and diplomacy.  Still, there are times when a lingua franca isn’t the best choice.  Here some situations where it’s better to deal in a local language or dialect:

– Marketing/advertising.  Believe it or not, some of the most globally recognized and successful brands got that way by knowing how to adapt and address themselves to local markets. For example, check out the advertising and social media for companies like Coca Cola and McDonald’s and you’ll find separate accounts and campaigns in many countries.  Paying attention to local trends, dialects, and wordplay is a big part of these strategies.

– Emergencies. – Not everyone speaks a lingua franca, but anyone can find themselves in an emergency situation.  The existence of organizations like Translators without Borders shows just how important language is in times of crisis.  Translators can help refugees, victims of natural disasters, and others, with things like getting help, finding lost family members, and having access to important instructions about medications and treatments.  Emergency phone lines around the world have also realized how essential is it to provide services for non-native speakers, and luckily, many are able to do this today.

– Healthcare.  From medication labels, to hospital interpreters, countries around the world are increasingly providing ways for non-native speakers to communicate with healthcare providers and get health-related information in their native language.

– Preserving history and culture.  If we can find a language that everyone understands and can use, why even bother holding onto old ones?  Just as almost every language has some untranslateable words, so does each language also encompass major elements of a culture.  You could translate Latin poetry into English – but it won’t have the same sonority or exact significance as it does in its original version.  You could translate a Cherokee joke, but it won’t be exactly the same in any other language.  All languages have a special identity, and learning one is about so much more than grammar and memorizing vocabulary.

by Alysa Salzberg

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