My journey through South America and Central America* forced me to think about the power of language. My partner and I were constantly struggling to understand who, what, where, even though we spoke Spanish. Each country had its own version of it, its own pacing and speed, its own slang. Soup wasn’t just sopa, it was sometimes caldo or sancocho. We would have brief respite from our Tower of Babel when we chatted with fellow travelers in our hostals. Despite the fact they were from all over the world we were able to put together a conversation in English.
When we sailed from Cartegena, Colombia to Panama there were several nations represented on board including Germany, Holland, and South Korea. But the presence of Australians, Canadians, Brits, New Zealanders and Americans shifted the conversational language to English.
I felt alternately guilty and grateful that my nation and its former master, Great Britain, had so dominated the world that people felt obligated to learn at least a bit of my language. I was sometimes greeted by signs in places like Colombia that heralded English as the road to success. Has English become the International Language?
It is an official language of almost 60 sovereign states. It is the third-most-common native language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It is widely learned as a second language and is one of the official languages of the European Union, many Commonwealth countries and the United Nations, as well as in many world organisations. More than a billion people speak English to at least a basic level.
When I signed up for a Digital Marketing Class taught by Nando Davilla (of EvoCreative and Acentos de Praga) at Prague Entrepreneurs Group I didn’t even think about the language it would be taught in. An international group of entrepreneurs gathered in a room and shared ideas in, wait for it…English. And the second shared language in the room was all things internet. What made it possible for us to run our businesses in Prague when we were from Mexico, and New Zealand, the UK and Hungary was the Global Mobile World. It is no wonder that FACEBOOK is the 3rd largest country in the world,** we were all on it.
It is widely believed that English proficiency is the lever for global economic success. Countries like Chile fear that if they don’t teach their citizens English they will not be able to capitalize on their economic upturn. An annual index let’s countries know how they are doing on their race to the top.
That said I am not arrogant about my English-speaking abilities. That same world being forced to speak English also speaks a native tongue. They are becoming multi-lingual in contrast to my mono-lingual America. Studies have identified multiple benefits to multilingualism. The multi-lingual are simply smarter, better decision-makers who even stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia. So take that America and get out those language flash cards.
I for one dusted off my Spanish during my four months of backpacking, have French lessons on my iPod, and watch a Learn Czech Fast video on YouTube every day.
*I refuse to use the term Latin America as it is a name given by the occupiers and not at all meaningful in the context of who the inhabitants really are – no one speaks Latin.