By Dom Serafini
In a globalized world, language is important. And I’m not talking about the language or the fine print in sales contracts, but the kind that allows all of us to communicate with each other, especially on the Internet. For better or for worse, English and, in particular, American English (aka Modern English) has become the world’s official language. Even the French, under the Americanized president Nicolas Sarkozy, have created France 24, (strictly pronounced Fr-h-awn-se vahn-katr) a 24/7 world TV news service specifically in the American language. The German international news service from DW-TV even uses the anachronistic American term “soccer” to describe football. Not using the American language can even hinder sales that would otherwise be a shoo-in, like in the case of great German TV dramas that, at times, distributors find difficult to sell because the programs’ scripts are in the German language, instead of English.
Plus, considering the many English-language TV channels available in countries where English is not officially spoken, people can easily familiarize themselves with it. Nowadays, it’s not unusual for publications around the world to have online editions available in English.
This fixation with the English language wasn’t always the case. I remember that, during the Cold War, the Western world was afraid to be taken over by Communist Soviet Union and many people rushed to study the threat. At that time, Russian became the language of choice for politicians, intellectuals, diplomats, journalists like me and even businessmen (at that time, there weren’t yet business people). From those efforts, now only a few words remain in my vocabulary, like phonetically, kahk vahs zah-voot? (what’s your name?), vi gahvahreetyee pah ahngleeyskee? (do you speak English?) and of course, spahssebah (thank you). And that after visiting Soviet Russia a few times.
Just before the Soviet threat was deflated by Polish Pope John Paul II, another threat to civilization came about: Japan and its 100 year world dominance plans. Some of us rushed to learn Japanese, not only the language, but the culture and…the martial arts. Naturally, this kind of threat required a few personal visits to Tokyo.
I was so convinced that Japan would be taking over the world that I even wrote one of my My 2¢ editorials criticizing Bill Emmott, the then-editor of weekly The Economist, for a book he had written about Western culture’s paranoia of Japan.
Truth be told, I considered Emmott a self-centered arriviste and never on par with his predecessor, Rupert Pennant-Rea, with whom I had a better relationship. Emmott considered me insane for criticing his book, but, in my view, when he took over the venerable weekly, it became biased and a weapon for a few politicians that he supported, particularly in Italy. But, he was right about the West’s erroneous fear of Japan.
Now that Japan’s threat has dissipated, what’s left of my Japanese is: sensei (teacher) and domo arigato (thank you very much). Naturally, sa-yo-na-ra is a given.
After Japan came the oil scare, and Arabic became the language to learn, in order to know our “enemy.” I remember that, at the Monte Carlo TV Market in the ’90s, VideoAge even engaged a writer who studied the Arabic language to cover Middle Eastern countries for its market Daily. The only problem was, being Italian, she required five coffee breaks per half day, and therefore she missed too many deadlines to be of any help.
That Arabic interlude didn’t pass fast enough to prevent me from studying the Koran, which (Allah was merciful) I gave up as soon as the next threat surfaced on the horizon: China! Afraid to venture into Mainland China, I orbited Hong Kong, but never found myself able to start a crash course in Mandarin.
A great relief came over me and, possibly, all of Western civilization when it was clear that the Chinese political elite and business people preferred the American language to Mandarin. It was soon discovered that, considering the many dialects (14 language groups) spoken throughout China’s 33 Provinces, some of the one billion Chinese need English to communicate among themselves, since they don’t understand each other outside their regions. This is because Mandarin is a tonal language, and it has been said that, if it were to be written with the Latin alphabet, it could potentially became a universal language: Something too far in the future to be considered a threat, at least for the next century.
So, now that the world has shunned all those local languages and sidestepped Esperanto (the artificial international language), we can go back to basics: English as a universal language, and Spanish (preferably the Mexican and Colombian variety) as an auxiliary one. Indeed, a combination of the two, or as they say, “Spanglish,” could be perfect and, as far as I know, most people in North, Central and South America, are already fluent in it.
Plus, English is natural as a universal language, in the sense that it’s the official language in 70 countries (out of a total of 195 countries worldwide), which makes it the world’s second largest native language.