A Modern Babel
Class of 2018
10 July 2018
In Tanzania there is a saying: “No English, no service.” It’s very similar to the American saying “No shirt, no shoes, no service” in the sense that it literally means that those who do not speak English will not be served in many places. However, the reasons for this are a bit more complicated than wanting to exclude hippies – it is a combination of the tyranny of Babel and the tyranny of the British crown.
The Tanzanian education system, for example, is divided into two languages: Swahili and English. Primary school (the equivalent of American elementary and middle school) is taught in Swahili, the most widely spoken language in Tanzania, and secondary school and beyond is taught exclusively in English, to the point where students are punished for speaking other languages.
“Tanzania has sacrificed internal communication for the prestige and power of a foreign language.”
There is a certain merit to this – few people outside of East Africa speak Swahili, so it is absolutely to the advantage of the average Tanzanian to be proficient in an international language. In the world of today, especially for a developing country relatively small in population, isolationism is not a viable economic policy – and therefore, neither is linguistic isolationism.
There is a problem with this, though. English is not spoken on the streets or in the homes of Tanzania. It is not a language of the common person, which is reflected in the lack of proficiency most Tanzanians have in English. This becomes a problem when many important dealings are done in a language that leaves millions behind. Tanzania has sacrificed internal communication for the prestige and power of a foreign language.
English is, without a doubt, the lingua franca of the modern world (ironic, since lingua franca is Latin for “French language,” hinting at two previous lingua franca’s). The reason for this, however, obviously stems from the long history of imperialism by the Anglophone world – both the colonialism of Britain and the new economic imperialism of the United States.
In Tanzania, this shows. English is not just the language of convenience, it is the language of pride. Plenty of things that don’t need to be in English are written in English – everything from official government documents to copy on consumer items is. When items are meant to be consumed domestically, by all rights they should be communicated in the common vernacular. Coca-Cola knows this – every Coke ad I’ve seen here has been in Swahili. But English means more than just easy communication–it also means modernity and sophistication and wealth and prestige.
This is an enduring legacy of imperialism. Far more than just a way to communicate across cultures, English is the language of wealth and success. It is the language spoken by the conquerors as well as the conquered who do not wish to be so. In some ways, this means it has come full circle: many languages were God’s mythic punishment for the pride of those who sought to build a tower to heaven, but today, a single language is both pride and punishment.
“This is an enduring legacy of imperialism. Far more than just a way to communicate across cultures, English is the language of wealth and success ”
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