Have you ever read Pushkin in original?
There is a love poem by Alexandr (yes, the ‘e’ should be missing) Sergeyevich Pushkin that I absolutely love. I’ve know it by heart for years and here is the first stanza about a fleeting moment of fascination:
Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.
I know a couple of Polish and English translations (here is a wiki-translation) and none does Pushkin justice. You see, this is a poem which must be read in original, ideally, aloud. This is a poem that sounds well. And yes, I can do it. I can read it, I can understand it. I was reminded of the poem reading a discussion under a post on a Polish academic blog which I follow. And I thought I’d write about it, a knee-jerk reaction of a post.
The latter part of the discussion is about English as the current lingua franca in the Academia and, possibly, beyond. I was particularly interested in the non-academic English – academic English is, whether we like it or not, the modern Latin and if you don’t write in English, you don’t exist. I have written about it before.
But what about English outside Academia? Do we need English to function in today’s world? The arguments were, as you might expect, polarised. One is – absolutely – English is the modern lingua franca and if you want to function in the world of modern business, you must have some English. The other argument acknowledges this, but says, most of the world’s population doesn’t need English in their everyday life. So perhaps it’s more important to learn a language, rather than force people to learn English. You decide where you stand.
Instead of taking sides, I’ll tell you a story. Some years ago, I was invited to a conference at the University of Lagos (the university buildings look like paintings by Mondrian). After the conference, a friend of mine took me to his family home in Kwara state. As I was preparing to go, I was learning some very basic Yoruba. To my delight, after a couple of days, I was able to exchange pleasantries in the language, which, invariably, made people jaws drop. An ‘oyibo’ speaking Yoruba was really quite a rarity or so I was told. After all, we all spoke English, didn’t we?
And here comes the point of my post. English is great – it allowed me to come the UK, to work here, but as English takes over the world, I think it’s more and more important to remind us that English is not the only language worth learning. Moreover, as more and more people speak English, we, English speakers, lose other languages. I used to be fluent in Spanish and Russian, I was fairly fluent in German, but who cares, after all, I speak English, don’t I? I’m embarrassed to say that I get irritated when people don’t speak English! After all, I speak the language of the world and from Peru to Hungary people should speak it, so I can get on either with my touristic or academic life. Swahili? Don’t be silly. The mzungu don’t speak Swahili!
And so, it’s time for a confession. Years ago I met Jacob Mey. Gosh, I was smitten. He even knew my name. Better than that, he knew Tuwim (a Polish poet) and he actually quoted him in Polish! We talked endangered languages. He was adamant that we should preserve the world’s languages from disappearing. I was listening to him and I really didn’t care. If a language disappears, it disappears. Apparently, it was no longer needed.
I hate to admit it, but Jacob was right and I was wrong. I think we should preserve languages. It took me longer, but yes, I think languages are in danger. And no, I don’t think Polish will disappear, it’s too large. But I do fear that in time it will be relegated to the language of the uneducated, unsophisticated, un-whatever. The language of the shopping list.
Learn languages. Speaking a different tongue is great. It takes you to a new world, one of different connotations, values, colours and hues. Not convinced? Believe me, if you want to swear, you want to do it in Polish (or in Russian)! It might not be the best of examples, still, swearing in English is so flat.
Don’t let us all speak English. Let’s preserve the linguistic rainbow of humanity!