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They don’t all speak English, you know


As the internet comes to dominate the world it’s easy to think your own language is dominant. Apart from a few manifestly misdirected and easily deleted spams, the internet speaks your own language. And if you speak English, you’re likely to be lulled into the impression that the language is your own.

It isn’t. Though it may take a while to realise this. When you venture abroad you’re met by a hospitality industry that has almost always acquired a smattering of English, a language that will communicate equally to Americans, Canadians, Brits and Antipodeans. And also to many other world travellers who rely on English as a lingua franca.

But ‘lingua franca’ is itself a corruption of other European languages, and once it’s been mispronounced in general usage it’s hard to tell which one. It’s not quite French, has a touch of Italian, and maybe a bit of Spanish. It serves as a timely reminder that there are many languages out there and not everyone speaks – or understands – a word of English. If you’re trying to relate to those in Southern France or Argentina on any commercial level you’ll need a professional company to make sure any confusions are avoided.

That language mattes came to me forcefully in Brazil, where 250 million people speak Portuguese. That’s a large enough population to flood out the stream of American-language films with subtitles: in Brazil these will be dubbed, or – more likely – written, presented, performed and perceived in Portuguese. In restaurants and bars I floundered. Outside the tourist areas very few Brazilians had troubled to learn any English and my Portuguese is minimal so I struggled.

The situation is the same in Portugal, which is rather swamped by its biggest neighbour, Spain, that hems it in on every side. But here they’re more open to incoming influences; the American TV series that have so effectively transmitted the English language to Germany and Scandinavia.

This doesn’t mean that all the people of Portugal speak English. Or Spanish. They speak Portuguese, with a few African accents recently added. And if they watch television programmes from Brazil they never mentioned it to me. The language barrier is also cultural.

Communication gets far more complicated in Papua New Guinea, where a 2006 government survey identified 832 living languages (excluding dialects). This is just ridiculous. India has a population of 1.3 billion and survives on 22 official languages (though it also has a few unofficial ones). So why should Papua New Guinea, with 7.6 million residents, need quite so many?

It could be a result of geography. A lot of islands can help with isolation and the fact they are all mountainous with few if any roads adds to the potential of incubating a unique language. If you need to summit a couple of forested peaks and build a boat to talk to your neighbours then it doesn’t much matter if you learn their language in advance. Or ever. Papua New Guineau now functions using three main languages; English, Tok Pisin (a creole) and Hiri Motu (a stripped-down Austronesian Esperanto equivalent). But while the political system tries to simplify the bewildering variety of languages, the languages themselves form a powerful undercurrent that infoms every day life. ‘Wontoks’ form elaborate systems of loyalty through everyday life: those who speak the same language are intensely loyal to the few of their countrymen who understand it. This is particularly important in a country where tribal wars continue apace, and agricultural machetes are equally suited to hacking down enemies as undergrowth.

Most languages have been shaped and influenced by waves of invaders. Take the Philippines, where the national language is Togalog. Numbers are clearly Arabic, descriptive verbs and church terms came from a later wave of invading Spanish, with plenty of practical English words arriving through its many years as a colony – of strategic importance though rarely acknowledged as such – of the USA.

Even in the simpler linguistic environment of Europe, it’s often the case that the reliance on English can cause more problems than solutions. As soon as you stray into important transactions – land transfers, house purchases, even investments – it is vital to make the most of a professional company to help to avoid ambiguities that can sink your investments. Of course lawyers are useful, but a skilled translator means you will be able to understand what is meant by legal documents or articles of sale. And they are likely to be familiar with the most requested services that are required.

Your computer screen and telephone might reflect a world that all speaks English. But this is far from the case. Algorithms make it easy to live in an Anglophone bubble but the vast majority speak a different language entirely – and no English at all. Welcome the linguistic diversity that stratifies the rest of the world.

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