Speakum’ Globish?

During the course of a day you can easily hear a half-dozen languages spoken on Saipan, at least if you’re circulating in the tourism industry. Despite the mix of languages and the fast-moving tempo of the tourism world, I have never encountered an insurmountable language problem in the CNMI. Of course, managing communications in such an environment does have challenges, especially if you have to generate polished marketing copy in foreign languages, but these problems are good ones to have. After all, it sure beats working in the salt mines.

On the linguistic front, a new book has hit the market. It’s called Babel: Around the World In Twenty Languages. The author is Gaston Dorren, and the book (Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pp. in hardback, $25) will probably interest many people in Saipan’s linguistically-diverse environment. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on a copy, but the Australian “news.com.au” website ran an article about it on Jan. 29 (“Language expert says English global dominance could be threatened by technology.”)

The article has some interesting information and ideas. For example, English is the world’s most widely spoken language, with 1.5 billion speakers, compared to Mandarin at 1.3 billion speakers. However, one notion from Gaston Dorren is that technology might eventually allow people to translate languages and thus eliminate much of the incentive to learn a foreign language. This, so the thinking goes, would perhaps knock English from its ruling perch.

Another notion offered is that English has become so widespread that it could evolve into a more simplified version of English that Dorren dubs “Globish.”

I took a look at some marketing copy for the book. Here’s the first chunk of it:

“English is the world language, except that most of the world doesn’t speak it―only one in five people does. Dorren calculates that to speak fluently with half of the world’s 7.4 billion people in their mother tongues, you would need to know no fewer than twenty languages. He sets out to explore these top 20 world languages, which range from the familiar (French, Spanish) to the surprising (Malay, Javanese, Bengali)…”

The book strikes me as a traveling adventure combined with insights on linguistics. That’s a combination that I can’t refuse. I’ll have more to say about that after I read it. In the meantime, if you have something to say about it I look forward to your email.

As far as “Globish” goes, I think we already see such a thing in Saipan, sort of a utilitarian English in business circles that allows a mix of nationalities to get things done. It’s basic language that dispenses with grammatical flourishes. Come to think of it, that’s how I speak anyway. Hey, better Globish than snobbish; ain’t that so?

Of course, business isn’t the only reason we use foreign languages. The polyglot realm is certainly spiced up by social interaction and also by the kissy-faced reality of Cupid’s well-stamped passport. Saipan does not lack for examples. In fact, Saipan is just one continuously-rolling example. And in these realms, just as in business, I’d suggest that the most crucial component of communications is cooperation. I know of many 20- and 30-year marriages rooted in Saipan that demonstrate the point. Cupid’s arrow penetrates linguistic barriers far better than a dictionary does. And, on that note, don’t forget there are only 13 shopping days until Valentine’s Day.

Although I’ve mentioned the statistic that English is currently the world’s most widely spoken language, I am not invested in any pronouncements about what the future holds in this regard. I think that economics will be the key driver of that situation. I also think that economics and language are both very touchy subjects for many people, so I’m going to stay out of any arguments about that stuff. I’ll just sit in my beach chair and mutter to myself as usual.

Anyway, Saipan has seen a number of languages rise and fall over the past few centuries along with the fortunes of a few empires. I think you’ll agree that it’s an interesting show. For one thing, it offers insights that most of the world doesn’t have. And, for another thing, even on the bad days it’s still a lot better than the salt mines.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.
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