Patricia Ryan: Don’t Insist on English!
Patricia Ryan’s lecture “Don’t Insist on English!” brings up issues that are ongoing in the contemporary world but are often overlooked by critics and the media: the domination of the English language that, coincidentally, is occurring simultaneously with the rapid decimation of other world languages. The lecture highlights multiple angles of the problem, including financial and cultural segregation, the unfair disposition of influences, the role of heredity and tradition, and the validity of certain academic practices, such as the inclusion of the mandatory English test.
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The conclusions reached by the speaker are grim and discouraging, and while she comes short of providing any feasible solution (or even a hint in the right direction), her ideas and suggestions present a tremendous amount of material to ponder, with the possible implications reaching far beyond the domain of linguistics or language-based discrimination.
The starting point chosen by Ryan is that of an emotional variety. Indeed, she sets the direction for further discussion outright by presenting a fact that is easy to comprehend yet difficult to digest: the predicted decimation of 6,000 world languages within 90 years starting from 2010. The simple technique of converting this statement into a daily rate (“A language dies every fourteen days”) further strengthens the audience’s empathy and reveals the speaker’s intentions of linking the dominant position of English in the contemporary world to this disastrous process.
Interestingly, Ryan’s main concern is neither with language preservation efforts nor with the imperial reign of English (not stated explicitly but clearly hinted by visual clues accompanying the lecture). Instead, she offers a compromise: why not create a fairer environment that will encourage the intentions of humankind to improve itself without the need to choose a linguistic affiliation? The intervention, in this case, is the presence of the English proficiency test that is mandatory for students in English-speaking countries.
Ryan’s argument is built around the limiting nature of the test, which leaves a number of capable individuals out of the best educational opportunities in the world and does not provide any tangible benefits. For instance, an advanced knowledge of English, according to her, is not equally necessary for all professions. This is a strong point, as is the assumption that language diversity creates a more interesting and multi-faceted reality.
However, it soon becomes clear that the issue is two-sided: a global language is a necessity in the modern world that requires a simple and reliable means of communication, but such “linguistic monopoly” narrows the scope of scholars and artists alike. Interestingly, Ryan does not suggest a clear solution: she emphasizes the strengths of both sides of the argument but offers no exit from this deadlock, unless a hypothetical mindful and harmonious synergy of both can be perceived as one.
Nevertheless, the lecture offers much more by leaving the question open. The topic of financial restrictions associated with English, the analogies with the political hegemony of the past, and the anecdotal evidence of language serving as a kind of code to solve scientific dilemmas all provide insights for further inquiry. The disappearance of languages may be thought of as an irreversible process, but the social and cultural changes that come with it should not be left unattended. Perhaps it is not English itself that we need to focus on – but rather the inconsistencies that complicate the necessary transformations.
Topic Selection Explanation
The topic of language as a determinant of perception is both interesting because of its implications and important in terms of its inevitability. By the former, I mean the possibilities that open up once the theory of language as a worldview-changing prism is confirmed. Even in its current state, the hypothesis creates many opportunities in different fields, including psychology and ethnography, among others.
By the latter, I mean the inevitability, most brightly illustrated in Patricia Ryan’s lecture, of the global language scene changing massively and rapidly. Thus, if we assume that the value of language goes beyond its communicative capabilities and comprises a unique cultural and cognitive layer, immediate action becomes an absolute necessity. However, the exact direction of such action is unclear, which becomes evident upon closer inquiry.
The video expands and builds upon the ideas of the different ways in which language determines the behavior and cognition of the group that uses it (presented vividly in Boroditsky’s article), as well as the alarming pace at which the situation is changing (exemplified by several Chinese-based cases by Traves). However, I feel that when viewed in separation, both articles misrepresent the actual picture, or at least show only the most basic side of it.
This is especially true about the latter, as the process of change, specifically one involving the disappearance of a certain entity, invokes a feeling of loss and a desire to protect. Coupled with the beauty of the phenomenon of language diversity, as described in Boroditsky’s article, we immediately have an understandable reaction to oppose the destruction, to prevent it at any cost, and to treasure what is still left for future generations. The same effect can be observed in the environmental activist movement: environmental change created by humans involves disappearance – thus, it is malevolent. Unfortunately, in many cases it is, but one does not necessarily lead to another.
Nature, as well as society, is an ever-changing, ever-evolving process rather than a monument to itself that has reached a point of perfection and requires external support to be preserved in its current state. Globalization is one such manifestation of social change and has been treated in a similar way by the public since its negative aspects have become apparent. At this point, the suggestions made by Ryan sound like a paradigm shift, at least from the mainstream standpoint. Interestingly, they align perfectly with the thoughts expressed by Wasserstrom in “A Mickey Mouse Approach to Globalization”: globalization is not evil and is not purely destructive.
At the very least, it is creative destruction or rather a transformation leading to the emergence of the new sequentially with the decline of the old. The same can be said about language: the old meanings are not gone without a trace – in fact, it is impossible not to leave a trace. The same goes for culture; expansion does not lead to complete and faceless uniformity: it is technically impossible. Instead, it creates new entities, which are not necessarily inferior to the original ones.
That is not to say that the negative impacts of either language assimilation or globalization should be tolerated; on the contrary, according to Ryan, they should be understood and addressed – only not in a hurry and without needless panic. The consequences of globalization must be minimized, but the process itself must be used to the fullest – after all, we are its immediate participants.