Lingua franca

05 Feb 2020

The tales of communication and miscommunication are probably as old as humanity itself. (Or, biblically speaking, allegedly at least as old as the late construction phase of the Tower of Babel.) Saying what you actually mean can be tough business, even if two people speak the same language — yet alone if they don’t. Which, in an interconnected world like ours, happens all the time.

Having spent multiple holidays among my boyfriend’s extended Italian family without speaking a word of Italian myself, I can assure you that elaborate limb movements can only get you so far when it comes to indicate what you want for breakfast. We would be lost without a shared language to talk in. And, thus, ultimately needed is a lingua franca.

The primarily lingua franca of the 21st century is English. The Swiss army knife of international communication and the reason why one can theoretically study in the Netherlands without ever advancing beyond the ability to order a coffee in Dutch. One convenient tool, this lingua franca. But language is never just a convenient tool. It is a major aspect of culture and that, for a lot of reasons, is something notable.

English became the lingua franca of our times, because of the vast influence British and especially American culture had on the rest of the world. But by using it as the lingua franca, it reinforces the culture it is part of. We pay attention to the Grammys, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards when judging music and movies and, for some reason, we now also pay attention to the goddamn Superbowl. Why would anyone in Europe care about the Superbowl? And yet, here we are. People care. We have adapted to the culture of the lingua franca of our times.

That’s neither a shocking revelation nor a new one. Before English, there was German, before German there was French, and way before French, there was Latin. Historically speaking, there have always been lingua francas accompanied by their cultures being a la mode. But we should be aware that adapting to a second culture through the use of a lingua franca is not equal to internationalisation. It’s cultural monotony disguised as it.

We are animals of convenience. It’s convenient to share a language and the culture that comes with it. And it’s a nice thought that we can find common ground in it. But while doing that, the larger picture is ignored. Like the western mainstream largely ignores international k-pop sensations like BTS who have reached a level of success in the U.S. (of all countries) that has been last channelled by a foreign band called the Beatles. While singing in Korean which, even in the widest sense of the concept, is not a lingua franca.

There will most likely always be one mainstream language and one mainstream culture and there is no problem by default in that. A lingua franca is a great concept. But we should be cautious not to confuse communicating with making a connection — something rarely achieved by only following a path of convenience.

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