English as a lingua franca

14 07 2010

This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum on Saturday July 10.

Crystal, David,  A Little Book of Language. UNSW. 2010. 260 pages.

McCrum, Robert. Globish. How the English Language Became the World’s Language. Viking.  2010. 310 pages.

Reviewed by Ruth Wajnryb


These two books, A Little Book of Language, and Globish. How the English Language Became the World’s Language, are clearly worthy of being considered in the one review. Each explores language broadly, both vertically (historically) and horizontally (how it pans out today). Yet, they have different emphases and different targeted readers, and while they each do what they set out to do in commendable ways, they’re very different.

First, the Crystal. This renown linguist has penned 100-plus books on language, including an encyclopaedia on the subject. Disparagers might suggest they all roughly say  the same thing, under different covers; but this is spoken from a position of ignorance. Language is such a massive field of inquiry, subdivided into a myriad specialities – you can be a dialectologist and never set eyes on a phonetician. Crystal disseminates insight about a subject that for most people is as (in)visible as the water is to the fish that swim in it. For language is not mythic, God-given, handed down on Mt Sinai, and gifted to homo sapiens. It is an evolving human construction, of infinite variety, built organically over time, that brings with it elements of history, geography, society, culture, politics and everything else that makes us human. Given our infinite variation, as a species, our language(s) could hardly be less so.

Crystal’s book is an introduction to the immensity of language, achieved with clarity and some mirth, and without reducing the subject matter nor patronising the reader. It starts with “Baby-talk” and ends, 40 small chapters later, with where we are today. Crystal uses narrative,  recount, explication, anecdote and illustration to explore topics as varied as accents, dialects, slang, language for feelings, political correctness, sign language, texting and matters of style, amongst many others. At heart, it’s an educative book, a first window on the subject, intended to wet appetites, remove ignorance, and build openness towards matters too often treated with prejudice; or simply not treated at all. Typically, there are no hygienics or didactics; he tells us not what language ought to be, but what it is. At the end, he gets up-close-and-personal with his readers, hoping to infect them with what his passions –   – that World English has endangered many other languages;  that variety, from accents to styles, within a language is rich, telling and worth fostering; that in a globalized world of massive language contact,  monolingualism  is even less appropriate than it ever was; that increasingly, we are everywhere encountering global citizens using English as a lingua franca,  more often a matter of convenience than a statement of cultural affinity.

English as a lingua franca is an apt juncture to bring in Robert McCrum’s Globish. Subtitled How the English Language Became the World’s Language, it is much more in-your-face and provocative, starting with its fire-engine-red cover. To language people, McCrum is known for his The Story of English (with William Cran and Robert MacNeil), originally an absorbing and educational  BBC series. Like Story, Globish takes a journalistic-cum-historical perspective – this time, telling how a small island in the North Atlantic, colonized by Rome, then pillaged for hundreds of years by marauding neighbours, becomes, by virtue of the British Empire,  the dominant world power in the 19th century, and by virtue of the American Empire, remains so through the twentieth.

The term “Globish” was coined about fifteen years ago by Jean-Paul Nerrière, a French former I.B.M. executive, upon noting that a minimal core of utilitarian English vocabulary (1500 words) was enough for non-native speakers to communicate in basic functional terms. Why bother with English if you can get by on Globish? McCrum dates the launch of Globish with the fall of Communism (1989) and the start of a new world order. Capitalism needed a lingua franca, as did the Internet and so Globish was born.

English as a lingua franca is what Globish is all about and it’s what English has become – a medium of communication for people who don’t share a first or other language. Your Japanese businessman doing a deal in Turkey or Singapore; your Russian engineer bridge-building in Bangladesh or Tunisia;  your Israeli family  holidaying in Sweden; your Slovenians in Germany or Holland or Egypt. None of these peoples expects those they encounter abroad to be able to speak their own language; at the same time they do expect them to speak English. It’s so default, now, ten years into the third millennium, that you wonder how people got on in contact situations before they all had English. Well, maybe there was less need in a pre-globalized world; and maybe there were many more interpreters. What’s indisputable is what McCrum presents in a reductionist little formula: English + Microsoft = Globish.

It’s not all yay-and-hurrah. One of the negative impacts of the global spread of English is not only the demise of many other languages, but the broad demise of foreign language learning. If all you “need” (or so goes the thinking) is your first language plus English, why bother with anything else? And when your first language is English, you can supposedly remain resplendently monolingual, knowing that everyone else will make the effort and anyway, you’ll always be at an advantage. This of course ignores all the non-instrumental reasons for learning another language: the cognitive development, the eye-opening nature of exposure to other cultures, the very bulwark against enthnocentrism that is the hallmark of multilingualism.

Will Globish mean that people need not bother with a serious, full-scale attempt to learn English-proper? Or will non-native speakers of English develop multiple literacies to suit multiple purposes – Globish for their basic points of contact (“where is the railway station?”), more serious English for other aspirations, like studying at an English-medium university, publishing in an international English-medium journal, or dare I say it, reading Shakespeare?

What I’m Reading…

14 05 2010

2 new books, on related topics.

1. David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language (UNSW Press) – Crystal’s umpteenth book on the area of his expertise – language. This time a narrative history of language written explcitly for a young audience. It contains 40 short chapters on themes such as “Baby Talk”, “Accents and Dialects”, “Slang”, “Language for Feelings” and “Language Change”. As is typical of Crystal, there are no exaggerated hygienics or didacticism. He doesn’t tell us what language ought to be; rather, what it is. Quintessentially descriptive, and in parts, fun.

2. Robert McCrum’s Globish. How the English Language Became the World’s Language (Penguin, Australia). This is also a work with a historical perspective – this time, telling how “a small island in the North Atlantic, colonized by Rome, then pillaged for hundreds of years by marauding neighbours, becomes the dominant world power in the 19th century”. Then the rise of another power, originally a colony of the tiny island, and later an industrial, military and cultural colossus. Then, into the 21st century,  as the English speaking world begins an economic and political decline, English performs an unprecedented manoevre. In short, English + Microsoft = Globish.

A combined review of these titles will be published in Spectrum, in The Sydney Morning Herald, in the next few weeks.

Tumarkin, M.(2010). Otherland. A Journey with my Daughter. Vintage Books: Sydney.

6 05 2010

All emigrations are traumatic. They all involve some degree of uprooting. “Deracination” is the word for it –  when you’re displaced from your native or accustomed environment  and sent hurtling into an alien space.

Yet all emigrations are differently traumatic. Some are forced, necessitating a violent wrenching of the spirit. Some are precipitated by the wish/dream/belief that life can be better somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a matter of escape, pure life-and-limb stuff, where the past becomes a no-go-zone, and all that matters is looking ahead. Sometimes, the emigration has the tincture of exile, a kind of limbo status, neither here nor there. Sometimes, the exit might begin as a matter of historical circumstance, and later it’s all about a wistful nostalgia, the hope of reunion with loved ones, somewhere, someplace, a life lived in perpetual displacement.

In Maria Tumarkin’s case the past is not just another country, but one that no longer exists. The Soviet Union that she left in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of Communism, changed irrevocably. So when she returns, some twenty years later, she arrives in an entirely different landscape. This journey, which she undertook with her daughter, is the substance of Otherland.

Painfully aware of having been absent, she writes: “I was not there when my generation was cornered by history”. When a supposedly monolithic super-empire imploded, seemingly overnight, its people emerged blinking and shell-shocked in the daylight, then disintegrated  into multiple fractious ethnic enclaves, fully stocked with all the old internecine prejudices and hatreds, among them anti-Semitism. It is into this messy world of upheaval, where the rule book has been tossed out but the new one not yet written, that Tumarkin takes herself, her daughter and her reader.

The literary beauty of Otherland is essentially textual. Multiple layers of memory and reflection, intertwining historical commentary, cultural and literary criticism, and personal reminiscence. At once a road trip of anecdotes peppered with yearning and longing as well as a politico-cultural window on a huge part of twentieth century history  – the Soviet Empire, from the Revolution, to the War, to the post-war proxy satellite wars (Budapest, Prague, Warsaw), to the fall of the Iron Curtain,  to post-Communist Russia, in all its heady lawless turbulence. Somewhere in there was a moment of glasnost.

The reader’s challenge is to stay with the surface narrative while simultaneously being seduced down cultural, historical, political and literary side-roads. Then you realize that the gold is in the off-centre commentaries, the interstitial moments, when a sentence or two, or a phrase in brackets, or a wry aside to the reader, sums up an entire era.  Highly subjective, and unashamedly so, the personal and the political intertwine, just as they do in life, if not always in history books.

Indeed, several stories nest tightly within the larger one. Most immediately, there’s the personal narrative of a woman travelling with her feisty Australian-born, teenage daughter Billie (after Billie Holliday, and defiantly not an Irina or Olga) “back” to the place that once was home to the author-mother. From the outset we enter the tightly constricted world of mother-daughter dialogue where the hopes and expectations of one generation collide with the burgeoning free spirit of the next. The book is suffused in this relationship richness, a hallmark of Tumarkin’s writing.

It’s also an imaginative journey back in time, back to Tumarkin’s mother’s generation, pregnant with multiple heard stories that now find their first dramatic backdrop and dress rehearsal. In refusing to believe, as many children do, that their parents were born old, Tumarkin comes to know them as if for the first time.

For Tumarkin herself, the return trip is yet another story – it’s how she comes to understand, why her parents “took the biggest leap of faith” and left everything behind.  Not for “sausages and whitegoods” (her demeaning expression for the lure of consumerism). “They just wanted someone in our family to [be able to] think of freedom as a birthright”.

Exile has its rewards, but the price is high.

This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 1-2 May, 2010