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Flattening the Globe

Spring 2011 | By Amy Patterson Neubert. Photo by $photocredit.value.

Professor Margie Berns makes sure she turns on a television set whenever she is traveling internationally, not because she is missing a favorite show, but because it is crucial to her research interests. She wants to see if the local news, syndicated sitcoms, and movies are being broadcast in the country’s native language or in English.

“Just noting if the shows are dubbed in English or subtitled can tell me a lot about the contact each population has with English,” explains Berns, a scholar in world Englishes. “When English is prevalent — through film, TV, or advertising — its presence becomes very natural.”

For example, she explains, a cell phone in Germany is called a “Handy” because of a successful advertising campaign that employed this English term in a new way.

“Other English speakers may not use ‘Handy’ this way, but appropriating the language for local use is normal,” says Berns, who studies Western European teenagers’ access to media and how these influences, such as song lyrics or advertisements, affect the English they learn and how they use it. “Borrowing an English word as a marketing strategy is an example of how non-native speakers are learning English and that they are learning how to use the language in a different way.”

CLA professor Elena Benedicto and a team of Mayangna linguists work on a dictionary as part of a participatory research project. Pictured from left are: Demetrio Antolin, Benedicto, Gloria Fendly, Modesta Dolores, Tomasa Gomez, and Susana Budier. Photo provided.

Preserving linguistic diversity

While some languages are growing, others are in danger of being lost.

Elena Benedicto, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts' Department of English, has a lot to say about endangered languages — and the importance of saving them.

Benedicto, who teaches syntax at the graduate and undergraduate levels, is the director of the Indigenous and Endangered Languages Lab (IELLab) at Purdue.

She has worked on a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored project centered on an “at-risk” indigenous language of the Sumu people living on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and Honduras.

“The Mayangna Project is part of an on-going project to write a grammar of the Misumalpan languages, of which Mayangna is a member,” says Benedicto, who travels to Nicaragua twice a year to support the project and conduct participatory research.

“The project includes collaborating as a team with local institutions to produce lexicographic and other material useful in bilingual schools,” she says. “We also work in collaboration with Mayangna Yulbarangyang Balna, local teachers who have become part of the Mayangna linguists team.”

“Scientific linguistic research can be conducted in a way that actively involves and empowers the community,” she says.

“We have found that when a native speaker is the linguist it helps ensure the language’s survival by increasing the number of active speakers.”

A language is considered to be at risk or endangered when the population of speakers dwindles and fluency in younger generations diminishes. External pressures to conform — economic, military, religious, cultural or educational factors — and the colonization of indigenous people are among the primary culprits that threaten linguistic diversity.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that there are about 6,000 active languages today and that as many as 43 percent of the languages spoken in the world are endangered.

Benedicto believes linguistic diversity is intrinsically worth having and fostering.

“Our mission helps counterbalance the forces endangering languages so they can survive and thrive,” she says. “Language diversity is a treasure chest and each language conveys a unique culture. Just as biological diversity is beneficial, so is linguistic diversity and it is important that this diversity continue.”

With any luck, thanks to Benedicto and her team’s zeal and research, the Mayangna Project will not be the last word on preserving and protecting the world’s endangered languages.

By Grant Flora

Extending internationally
English found its way to places such as India, America, and Hong Kong during the height of British colonialism in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. It is relatively easy to understand why former British colonies now speak English, but what explains its use elsewhere?

Hundreds of other countries are experiencing a proliferation of English. Experts in the field of world Englishes call these “expanding circle countries.” Some governments embrace the language to support tourism in their countries or global businesses, while others challenge it because they want to preserve the native language and national identity.

“While English is taught as a foreign language in hundreds of countries, the reasons why are so different,” explains Berns, who examines attitudes toward English and those who speak the language. “To understand the reasons, we need to go deeper than the language.

“More specifically, I look at the sociolinguistic profile of English in a given country or region, which includes information such as how the language is taught, political issues related to the language, and its use in teacher preparation and textbooks. Other characteristics are language policy, politics, ideology, Internet availability, and education and income levels. It’s fascinating to look at.”

For instance, the countries of China and Turkmenistan have taken completely different approaches to the increase in English in their countries.

“Both are considered to be expanding circle countries,” Berns says, “but China encourages its citizens to learn English, and is introducing it to younger students earlier than ever before. Turkmenistan, on the other hand, does not promote English, fearing cultural and linguistic damage to the native Turkmen language, as well as to the country’s national identity.”

Another expanding circle country is Lebanon, where one of Berns’ graduate students, Fatima Esseili, is studying the spread of English and its influence in this trilingual country. People there speak Lebanese Arabic, French, and English, and the country’s printed materials are mostly in Modern Standard Arabic. Historically, a Lebanese person’s language was reflective of his or her religion, but that is changing.

“Today, French is associated with culture and prestige, while English is the language of science, business, and technology,” says Esseili, who is from Lebanon. “By using a second language in daily communication, other than Lebanese Arabic, a typical Lebanese person may be distancing himself or herself from the Arabic culture and trying to come closer to the West. You are trying to give a certain image of yourself; that could be modernity, education, or refinement.”

Esseili and other young people from her culture are consistently incorporating different variations in their communications as they “Arabize” the English word. For example, Esseili might say, “Sayyavit emailak?” which means, “Did you save your email?” In this example, the last word, “email,” has an Arabic suffix “-ak,” which means “your,” she explains. The first word, “sayyavit,” contains a variation of the English word “save,” but the entire structure of the word is Arabic. “It will be interesting to see 20 years from now what is going to happen to the language,” she says.

Adapting to change
What are the effects of a new language on a civilization? The proliferation of a new language can be destructive. English replaced many of the native languages spoken by American Indians, and in fact many linguists believe that by the end of this century we will have lost half of the languages now in the world.

“Even Irish is being affected by the English syntax so the language moves away from its original monolingual form,” explains Shaun Hughes, professor of English, who studies and teaches colonial literature in areas of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. “There are two perspectives about the global reach and impact of English. One is positive because it enables most of the world to communicate with each other. There is a negative perspective because some argue that expanding English is harmful to linguistic diversity, and some even call it linguistic imperialism.

The research of professor Margie Berns examines the changing attitude toward English and those who speak the language. Photo by Andrew Hancock.

learning berns

“But calling it linguistic imperialism implies that someone is controlling the language, and language can’t be controlled. It is dynamic, self-sufficient, and takes on a life of its own.”

That life is fueled, in part, by technology, especially the Internet, which is one of the biggest challenges to the countries trying to halt the spread of English. Even though Arabic and Chinese are emerging more on the Internet, English has been the primary virtual language to connect the world. YouTube videos, Websites, and e-mail are some of the forces pushing English to more audiences.

When they study the linguistic profile of English in a particular country, Berns and other scholars are interested in knowing the availability of the Internet in that country.

“Because technology is contributing to the spread of English, it underscores that the English language belongs to those who use it,” Berns says. “It’s not our language, no one owns it and no one should tell people how to use it. Other countries, especially those in the expanding circle, don’t have to see themselves under the watchful eye of the native speaker because the native speaker isn’t relevant in terms of setting standards or norms for their use.

“English is in a different place now than any other language has been, and we all need to adopt tolerance and understanding of the differences in our communication. It’s a two-way street: American and British Englishes are no longer the only standard varieties of the language.”

As the language continues to evolve, so too will its speakers’ understanding of the world.

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