Muhammad Asad Ullah
David Crystal in his book English as a Global Language says language reflects the speaker’s ideas and view of the world and it gives information about the person who is speaking. Identity, origin, age, heritage, gender, and culture are just some of the details which can be transferred via language.
But the question arises: are those who speak a global language as a mother tongue in a position of power compared with those who have to learn it as an official or foreign language?
Many writers and researchers have discussed the unseen development of hierarchy and racism over a period of time thanks to the language they speak. English language is lingua franca. It is possible that people who write up their research, no matter how significant, in languages other than English will have their work cut out in terms of recognition. There is already hearsay evidence to suggest that these things happen. The pressure to adopt the language and in such context to place yourself on the map of recognition is considerable.
Similarly, in George Bernard Shaw’s Oscar winning picture, My Fair Lady (1964), based on Pygmalion, he asks us to consider the question that if we change our language and appearance, do we really change our nature? The elements that are well emphasised within Pygmalion support the theme of language being the distinction amongst the social classes. The characters prove themselves through their speech as belonging to their appropriate classes.
‘Look where you’re goin’, dear. Look where you’re goin’! You ought to be stuffed with nails, you ought! Here, take the whole bloomin’ basket for a sixpence!’ As the play opens, a pretty looking girl talking in this accent clearly draws a line for us that accent of speaking English does define the social class. Even in today’s time, you cannot expect someone of a social higher status speaking English with such a slang accent. There are certain rules and barriers attached.
In the play, stuffy professor Henry Higgins sets himself a challenge: to pass off Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, as a duchess. The play is really about language, and the idea that, through language, one can raise one’s social status. Many would argue that it still holds.
At first it seems Shaw is suggesting that a person’s identity is wrapped up in how they speak, but he is also exposing just how shallow that definition is. A person like Doolittle, can be taught to speak like the upper class and pass herself off, yet, language alone should not define a person.
Certainly language is not a marker of intelligence or intellectual potential, but a habit or skill that can be altered. The upper class can lay claim to being superior because of their use of language, but literature shows that is is an artificial concept. Shaw’s social satirical play is relatable even today. Or is it?
In the first place, the prospect that lingua franca might be needed for the whole world is something which emerged strongly only in the 20th century, in the United Nations where 190 countries came together in a single meeting. The pressure to adopt a single lingua franca, to facilitate communication in such contexts, is considerable. Do we still require a common language and is knowing English promoting a sort of inferiority at some level? Is English penetration in an Arab country like Qatar transforming its culture in a good way? Is it creating an invisible social barrier between the older generation of Qataris who were taught in Arabic and the millennials of today who speak English language?
Ghanim al-Sulaiti, an expert in vegan wellbeing and health, talks about the role of English language in connecting him with the world. He says, “I think learning the English language has opened so many doors and so many opportunities for me; to be able to connect with other people and cultures and to be able to understand, express, reflect and relate to different people from all over the world.”
“English is an international language and in order to have a better understanding and clear communication with others, English plays a role for a very effective communication,” adds Fahad al-Obaidly, fashion designer, curator and founder of Qatar Fashion Society.
Over half of the global population speak more than one language and that number appears to be on the rise. The ability to switch between languages at the drop of a hat gives one unparalleled social and cognitive ability. As travelling exposes one to new people, and often to new cultures, religions, languages and customs, breaking the communication barrier and hitting common ground with English language is always a plus.
“We live in such a global world that everyone seems to be engaged now, one way or another, where everyone wants to be a part of what’s happening or just wants to say something. We are not divided anymore. We see something happening in the US, and we can talk about it here in Qatar. So being a bilingual definitely helps to cope with all of that, with every sort of communication,” says Fahad in suggesting being bilingual gives him an edge, and Ghanim agrees. “I definitely agree, I wouldn’t have been the same. I can see other people who do not have the English language skills, they do not have as much opportunities as I do. Yes, in this era, the English language is very important as it bridges people together. Of course, having different languages that you’re skilled in is not an edge specifically, but I think it gives you an opportunity, an extra skill you can use to connect with other people.”
Language prominently influences the way people see the world. Charlemagne, King of the Franks from 768, King of the Lombards from 774, and Roman Emperor from 800, proclaimed that ‘to have a second language is to have a second soul.’ Does it affect and contribute to the transforming lifestyles? Ghanim says, “The older generation of Qataris didn’t learn English in their schools or still use English as much as we do. I think there have been lots of changes that have had happened in the last 10 years in Doha where you have seen so many of the older generation being forced to learn English, to even adapt to talk in English in public places; to be able to communicate, connect and be a part of the community. I think this has been a huge transformation in culture in Qatar where people have been compelled to learn English. I agree that Arabic is very important and it is our mother language but I also think that because the world is changing and we have a melting pot of many different people and cultures in Doha, you need to have a language that connects us all.”
Adds Fahad, “Back in the days, wherever one used to go they had to talk or communicate in Arabic. But now, it has all transformed to English. So you need to know basic English for communication. But at the same time, several laws have been enforced now to preserve Arabic language.”
And what about changing cultures?
Ghanim says, “I think language definitely defines the changing culture. Languages have opened up barriers, discussions and debates. We are able to talk about certain subjects that we wouldn’t have been able to talk about. In general, a language can fill in the gaps between cultures and allow us to be more open, have dialogue and speak with confidence. I think English language has given us a platform to be able to share our experiences, our culture and show people what we are doing here in Doha. It’s interesting how language has given us this platform.”
It is quite evident that the older generation tends to differ with the younger one in their use of language. Language barriers tend to affect communication between the young generation and old. There does seem to be some language trends that are particularly favoured by generations born in the 80s and 90s. Each generation develops its own vernacular so it has an identity and so people of its own generation generate a unique vocabulary. But the case of developing communication gaps is even tense, when there’s a shift from one language to another. Speaking about the differences existing between older generation of Qataris and English speaking millennials, Fahad says, “I don’t think English language is creating differences. I think it is inspiring the older generation to adapt and have better communication with the younger one. It’s keeping the two generations interested.”
Adds Ghanim, “We live in a world where English is taking over. I do not like to look at it as a negative thing because, at the end of the day because of English many people are connecting, communicating better and as long as that’s happening, I think the language is very beneficial. I know a lot of people who disagree with me. They don’t like that younger generation is speaking English and some of them don’t even know how to speak Arabic. So I think, as long as you can communicate with your community and deliver your message, you’re on the right track. But, if, in learning another language, you’re giving up your mother language and you’re not able to communicate with your own people, then that’s a problem for sure. But if you can do both and express yourself and be able to use the language at the right time and place, it is a wonderful thing. I think, yes, the gap between the two generations can be bridged with emphasis on both languages and being able for both the generations to sacrifice a little bit for each other and learn the language of the other.”
Shaw discussed in Pygmalian the question of language and how it determines a person’s social standing. He provided a range of characters from a variety of socio-economic levels to show the rigidity in English society, a hierarchy that must not be broken.
But does it still hold?
“You could’ve said that knowing English language is a privilege 15 years ago. But now things have changed. You cannot survive in Doha if you don’t know English and it is very important to engage with the community, to evolve and grow,” says Ghanim.
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