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English: the lingua franca?


Photo by Frederic Köberl on Unsplash


I’ve seen it countless times when traveling: two non-native English speakers conversing with each other in English. I’ve seen it between Icelanders and Swedes, Germans and Dutch people, Koreans and Chinese people. When I observe this situation as a third party, it doesn’t bother me; each party learned English as another language, and they are using it to understand each other.


Obviously, nobody can learn all of the world’s languages (not even Pete Buttigieg, for those who are familiar with U.S. politics). I’ve touched on this point in my novel; it is useful to have a common international language. However, I feel a modicum of guilt that it’s my language. Koreans have to spend countless hours studying a language that is extremely different from their native tongue. The sentence structure, pronunciation, and grammar are all radically unlike Korean. Some English sounds don’t exist in their language. We Americans, on the other hand, due to several decades of global power, are not forced to learn another language. Like quasi-royals, everywhere that we go, we can find people who speak English. It’s required for hotel staff at any large hotel throughout the world, as well as tourism offices, museums, etc.


I feel guilty in many of these places, walking into stores and belting out English. In some places, it makes sense to ask first if they speak English. However, this year I traveled to Iceland, where it feels pointless, since virtually everyone there speaks English. However, as I mentioned, I have a modicum of guilt that I cannot converse with them in their language (although Icelandic is incredibly challenging to learn due to different sounds and very long words).


Perhaps in the future, technology will allow everyone to be able to communicate with each other. Everyone will walk around with a chip or headset that can translate all languages into our own, in a matter of seconds. Nobody will be required to learn English, unless they have a strong desire to. I would feel far less guilty if this technology existed, but we are not at that point, quite yet.

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©2019 by Brent Robins.