Cultural Imperialism Aside, English Spans Linguistic Gulfs

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One of the reported causes of the recent air crash in Indonesia was a misunderstanding of the English spoken between an air-traffic controller and the pilot.

I wonder if there is not a metaphor here for future crisis management in a multicultural world. Some need for a better common "language" must exist in all crisis, conflict, and mediation situations. The main candidate as a lingua franca is now English. Its accelerated expansion and growth, both recent and predicted, is one of the most remarkable cultural acts of the late 20th century, and it is happening as much among teenagers around the world as professionals.

One symptom is the insatiable demand for native English speakers as language instructors in high schools from Prague to Kyoto, Beijing to St. Petersburg.

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Yet this is not altogether a peaceful process. English has been the language derived from, or associated with, the West and often global domination. Its recent growth stems from the military power, media, and wealth of the United States. It may threaten other cultures, other languages, even identities.

On the other hand, English is a notoriously fast and promiscuous mongrel; it absorbs worlds and phrases as fast as it grafts them onto others. Indeed, the "globish" of world youth culture is more and more interactive. Non-Western forms of English now are as creative and lively as Chaucerian or Shakespearean or Dickensian English once were. As a recent British Council report shows, the evolution of the language accelerates as it spreads beyond Anglo-Saxism. By overtaking the "middle range" languages, it may actually protect minority languages threatened with extinction.

My own interest in peacekeeping, peace-building, international mediation, and conflict resolution suggests that English may be the most acceptable language of mediation and dialogue in many situations, especially between those who are ethnically and often linguistically different, and where mediators or third parties may not speak the indigenous tongues or depend on interpreted "English."

As we train our election monitors and Peace Corps volunteers, we should continue to encourage linguistic abilities, since working through interpreters is often problematic. But while we should insist on at least one second language for all native English speakers, we should at the same time encourage the evolution of an open, "global English," which may be part of keeping the peace in our increasingly transnational world.

* Nigel Young is professor of sociology and directs the Peace Studies Program at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

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