Lingua Franca

Given that there are hundreds of languages in the world, and much need for communication among people whose mother tongues are not the same, there has been in human history a persistent need for lingua francas, languages that extend their reach beyond one ethnic group to become a common language, a language that can be spoken by many as a least common denominator. In the seventeenth century, one such language was an admixture of Italian and other Mediterranean languages that came to be known as “lingua franca,” which name has grown to become a general term for all such common languages, whether Latin in the Western Mediterranean, Greek in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aramaic in the Levant, Persian in the Near East, Chinese in the Far East or Malay in the Pacific. Lingua francas change over time, often reflecting whatever is the hegemonic force of the era. Now, of course, the world’s lingua franca is indisputably English; English, thanks to global domination by the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century followed by the United States in the twentieth, has become the de facto international language.

It’s quite a boon, really, for people such as myself who speak English as their primary language. Knowing just English, in this day and age, you can at least get by almost anywhere–someone will be able to speak enough English with you eventually. English’s dominance is such that, with some exceptions, if you are traveling somewhere and do not know the local language, you can without shame *expect* that people will speak English with you; it is almost as if those who cannot should feel guilty or embarrassed for not knowing English, despite the fact that you’re the foreigner and they on their home turf. Further evidence of the ubiquity of English is in conversations that you overhear between other travelers: A Frenchman and a German, or a Chinese and a Spaniard, will invariably speak to each other in English, of whatever standard, simply because it is the language that everyone has in common (these ESL-on-both-sides conversations can sometimes be quite amusing). In some countries, as in India, English acts as a lingua franca domestically–a Hindi speaker from North India will likely get by in Kerala in South India with English, given that Keralans speak Malayalam as their native tongue and are likely to speak English better than Hindi. (It’s ironic that American travelers (or would-be travelers) fear so much that they won’t be able to get by in Country X because the people there don’t speak English, given that, to an English speaker, lack of knowledge of foreign languages should almost never act as a bar to travel, to nearly whatever exotic destination. Besides, we’ve found that the ability to communicate verbally isn’t, strictly speaking, essential. There are only a handful of things one really *needs* with any frequency while traveling, and most of these are readily apparent. When you walk into a hotel, what else would you want but a room? In a restaurant, food? The look of somebody in need of a restroom is usually quickly and easily read by most anyone in possession of one. Looking for sights in a city you are not familiar with can be a bit more of a challenge, but even this is often made easy once you get yourself into the right area–people in tourist-frequented neighborhoods seem to think, “10 out of 10 foreigners who have walked in front of my house wanted to go the old cemetery… I will point them the way to the old cemetery!”)

That said, English isn’t dominant absolutely everywhere–not just yet. Traveling in Central Asia, one encounters a fair number of English speakers, especially in the countries that have relatively higher volumes of international tourism, but Russian language ability is far more common. In a land with so many different ethnic groups squeezed into a relatively small area, Russian acted during Soviet times and continues to act now as a linguistic common ground. Two friends of mine, one Tajik-ethnic Uzbek and one Pamiri-ethnic Tajik, have each told me that he speaks Russian first or second best, about as well as his mother tongue (Tajik and Shugni, respectively) and before the “national language” (Uzbek and Tajik, respectively) of the country in which he was raised. Traveling in Tajikistan without Russian can be, at times, a challenge, and it is an unlikely fact, given that we’ve never even been to Russia, that we have gained familiarity with several Russian phrases, thanks to our Central Asian travels.

And, in parts of the old French colonial world, French is still going strong. If I didn’t have my little bit of French, it would be considerably harder to travel in Madagascar or French West Africa–the class of educated person that would in other countries speak some English speaks French instead. For someone in these countries to know English means that they’re trilingual, either highly educated or very well-accustomed to dealing with foreigners. Even those somewhat accustomed to dealing with foreigners are likely to speak only French, given that most of the foreigners in these countries are still French (speaking of which, after Americans, it seems that the French are most likely to fear traveling in places where they might not be understood–and so, often choose to travel in francophone countries). The French, who seem to think of their global cultural and linguistic influence as Americans or Chinese think of their military or economic influence, no doubt work at maintaining the use of the French language in these countries, through institutions such as the widespread Alliance Francaise, present in over 130 countries (in Aleppo we met a Quebecois woman who was attending a French literary conference), although in some cases–as in French Indochina–English has already gained the upper hand.

It’s a bit funny, the ambivalent feelings I have about using English in these French-speaking countries. On one hand, I almost feel like they should get with the program and learn English. It is hard to see how English will give up its position as the international lingua franca. The U.S. is still too dominant, the countries of the European Union are likely to speak more and more English especially as EU membership expands, and the Chinese–perhaps the greatest threat numerically speaking–are extremely busy trying to improve their English skills (although I suppose Mandarin will become a sort of secondary lingua franca in East Asia–I imagine with China’s rise we will return to a world in which a well-educated Korean or Japanese person will know at least a little Mandarin). Not that the average Malian is going to need to work at a truly global level–for now they are realistically probably far better off learning French, in order to access jobs in the local market–but in the future even French language ability might only take you so far. I imagine, to be successful even in France, speaking English is helpful.

On the other hand, I feel guilty. A French-educated man in Madagascar, say, has done his part, by learning a second, global language. Mastering the French language was his way of ensuring that he would be able to communicate with people such as myself, visitors from the outside; when I can’t speak French, that system is thwarted. French, not English, is the lingua franca in Madagacar, and we’re not holding up to our end. I also wonder if French tourists and expats (who seem to outnumber people from all other countries combined in places such as Mali or Madagascar) are glaring at me behind me back when I speak or try to speak English with locals in these countries, because they see me and other English-speakers as messing with the vestiges of French cultural dominance. I mean, when a local person greets me with a “bonjour” I could say “bonjour” back instead of saying “hello,” I can thank them with a “merci” instead of a “thank you,” and I could try harder to make use of my broken French, right? To some extent I choose not to, which is perhaps inconsiderate to the French-speaking local (although I do believe that everyone understands “hello” and “thank you,” and that my pathetic attempts to speak French might end up being more confusing than a combination of English and Derek’s pantomime) and irritating to French tourists and expats witnessing my linguistic transgression.

But, perhaps the French tourists and expats need to get with the program too! I do not think that world peace and a new Tower of Babel will be the result of everyone learning English, and do feel sorry for all of the languages dying around the world, but certainly a world where we can all speak to each other may be a more harmonious one; at the very least, it will facilitate trade, tourism and cultural exchange, leading to greater interdependence and understanding. English, with its relatively high levels of both precision and flexibility, its proven ability to incorporate words from other languages and its relative disassociation from any nationalistic agenda, seems as good a language as any to take this role, and so why not forge ahead?

2 thoughts on “Lingua Franca

  1. I am not a regular blogger, actually not at all. I was just searching through articles linked to lingua franca on the Balkans when I stumbled upon your thoughts on that matter. I have been ‘a foreigner’ for some time now and I often find myself thinking about the way I use language in communication with people from all around the world. I also speak French but I hardly ever approach someone and try to speak in French even if I know they are French. Same thing with people from around my region. a colleague of mine is Serbian and though my first language (Bulgarian) is fairly close to Serbian we have never tried speaking our own languages and tried to communicate. I wonder whether the attitude towards English as the language of prosperity and modernity is the reason for the choice to use English rather than another language. Well, time to continue my search on the situation of lingua franca on the Balkans.

  2. Languages are the most important thing of any nation and you shared information about very unique language and having a very interesting story about this language lingua franca.

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