Monday, 1 November 2010

The Last Lingua Franca?

Yesterday's Observer has an interesting interview with linguist Nicholas Ostler about the future of English. His view is that, while the variety is currently enjoying a wave of popularity as a lingua franca, its eventual decline can already confidently be predicted, not because, as in the past, it is usurped by the emergence of another "empire", but owing to the exponential development of machine translation.

Ostler's prediction may well bring solace to those who feel that other national languages in Europe are losing out and ceding domains to English. The Blether Region once spoke to a German scientist in Heidelberg who explained that he hadn't published a paper in German in ten years — and yet the language was once considered essential for many fields of academia. Whether Ostler's view of the future can engender any hope in supporters of languages spoken in states and territories where most people switched to English generations ago is another matter; the interview fails completely to address the power and attraction of popular culture. It is perhaps relevant, however, that Ostler is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

In recent years, the Internet, Gaelspell, and an Gramadóir have all been useful for those learning or writing in Irish. And although there has yet to be any public-policy breakthrough for Scots, e-mail, message boards and the development of informal means of communication have definitely provided a boost, and there are some very good websites such as those of scots-online and the Scots Language Centre.

Ostler's comments about English as a lingua franca could also be applied to Irish in Ireland, a language learnt, in some cases very well, at school and university, but most of the time not passed on to the next generation.

"[…] since it's not being picked up as a mother tongue, it's not typically being spoken by people to their children. It's not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language."

Food for thought.

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