The English Language as Murderer

by March 3, 2009

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas

The other day I went to a lecture on Language, Education and (violations of) Human Rights given by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas.

Tove’s disarmingly small physical stature and calm tone, served as the perfect counterpoint to her radical philosophy. Don’t let the grandma in a field of flowers photo fool you. Here are some of the points from her lecture that resonated:

A killer language is one that is learned subtractively, at the cost of the mother tongues, instead of additively, in addition to mother tongues.

Today, English is the world’s most important killer languages.

This violence even crosses over from spoken languages to sign languages. Tove mentioned meeting Nigerians who thought they didn’t have a sign language before the English sign language. I don’t know why I never considered that English isn’t the only sign language on Earth.

By 2100 95% of the world’s spoken languages will have been killed off by English and its gang of language murderers.

One of the reasons why we should preserve mother tongues is for biodiversity – so that local cultural knowledge of the environment is not lost. e.g.: ‘Whats the name of this town?’ ‘Since ancient times we’ve called it Earthquakeeverytenyearsville.’

While once used as a tool of colonization, English as a lingua franca is now a liability to the citizens of the empire. In this post-American world where multi-lingual ability is becoming requisite for a growing international labor force, a mono-lingual citizen is handicapped. Now just about everybody in the world knows English in addition to their mother language, Americans – not so much.

The competitive advantage of simply being American is gone. Great.