Tuesday, 16 February 2010

In the News Today...

I've been away a bit, with little time to write or plan anything, but I did come across a charming news story today, regarding the good ol' English language. In this case, though, it's all about how it's getting in where it isn't invited. To understand what's going on, let's take a trip to Germany.

Imagine you're German, and you want to get on a train. When you get to the station, all of your signs are in English. If you've never learned to speak the thing, that's going to be pretty confusing. How's someone who doesn't use the language supposed to know what a service point is? At least, so goes the argument of Franz Aschenbrener, a retired head-teacher who'd had enough of "confusing English".

His point, to my mind, is a fair one. English is very much a foreign tongue in Germany, but it's easy to understand why the company's might have done it. What with history and industrialisation being on its side, English is widely regarded as the world's "business language". It's the language used to make deals, and to find a way of communicating between nations on opposite sides of the world. One day plenty of people have reasoned that Mandarin or Cantonese will take over, so get learning. In the meantime, speaking English to some degree is a very convenient thing indeed.

But that's not to say you should speak English. Useful as it may be for international purposes (not getting confused at a foreign train station being one), learning English certainly isn't compulsory for most walks of life. If you want to live and work in Germany, France, or anywhere else on Earth, why should you have to speak an unnecessary language fluently? It's too much hassle for most people, who'll just speak however they like.

In essence, this is one of the major reasons there is no "international language" as such. It's certainly been tried, and it's a topic that needs its own post or twenty, but the sad and simple truth is this: people don't go out of their way to learn a language. If something needs to change in the way they communicate, then it does so slowly and barely forcibly. That's how language works, it's fluid. If there's a big leap, from one language to another, people are bound to object.

That statement in itself is slightly flawed. Even the gradual change isn't always welcomed with open arms. I know for a fact that there are German linguists who are worried about "Denglish", the inextricable melding of the two languages, with speakers adopting pre-existing English words as opposed to new German ones, ultimately resulting in the extinction of German. In France, they have the Acadamie de Francais to decide what can and can't go into the French dictionary. Not that this has any impact on the real world, of course. They can shout from their ivory towers all they like, but too few people listen to change a thing.

What surprises me about this story is the lack of integration. Surely it would have made sense to put the signs in German perhaps with English underneath? That solves a lots of problems, in my mind. I'll give you an example of their English (or rather American) phrases: "kiss-and-ride", or "park-and-ride", to you and me. Now, nobody should expect anyone to make sense of phrases like that in a second language. Imagine if someone took it literally! The place would be littered with spotty 13 year old boys looking to get lucky!

I know this is an ill-planned post, but it needed it. Who ever owns the German railway lines needs to appreciate the difficulties in communicating to locals as wells as tourists, is what I think I'm trying to say. If they're going to put those signs up in one foreign language, let's make it Esperanto, and try to push the thing forward, most certainly a musing for another post.

Happy Pancake Tuesday,


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