Linguistic rainbow

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!


  1. Darek, but this is not because English is better. It is precisely because it has the highest number of second language speakers, so a typical speaker of English is a non-native user. This means that you, as a society, either know English well enough to participate in this global exchange of whatever or you do not and you do not take advantage of this exchange. As I see it, there is no use fighting it. But being aware of this global trend, what we must do is to protect the diversity by both encouraging globalization and at the same time protecting the vernaculars by educating people to treasure them. Quite paradoxically, English, used predominantly as a second language worldwide, can be used as a tool to make people aware of this diversity of humanity.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      No, of course, it’s not because it’s better, but because of such data we construct it as better. And I actually don’t want to fight it – it’s hard to deny results of serious research.

      My argument is that all that has consequences and, I think, we should encourage learning other languages than English. There is nothing good (or bad) about English and it’s not its wonders that made it the global koine. Moreover, people who speak English do not become more civilised, more intelligent, more cool. And I think it’s worth reminidng ourselves of that.

      But I agree that English does enable more awareness of diversity. It is an interesting paradox.

  2. I see your point. The European Council recommendation is that children should be taught two foreign languages from a very early age. There is a lot of practical problems with implementing two foreign languages from a very early age, but then I agree that a second foreign language should be introduced as early as feasible. This would take away some emphasis from English being the “best” language.

  3. Look, I realize it is your blog and I am only a guest here, so I will just recapitulate some of the arguments stated here and elsewhere.

    First, I said that an overwhelming majority of French and German students engage in online activities in English on a regular basis. This has been researched, there is evidence they do. This is passive, receptive use of English in the majority of cases and they do it for recreational purposes. There is no reason whatsoever to expect on the basis of this evidence that English will replace French in France or German in Germany.

    Secondly, I do not have data for Poland, because nobody has conducted such research in Poland. But I do research with Polish students and I do ask them questions on their language knowledge and use, and I can assure you that they all have some English and many use it actively or passively with varying frequencies. Not just English Studies students, but also engineering or law students. Whatever to you is minimal proficiency might be reported by the student as excellent command of English, because he had spent some time working in the UK and managed to survive in English. It does not matter that his vocabulary is limited and his grammar is rather elementary. What matters is that he uses English now online with some degree of regularity for whatever suits his purposes. He is a language user in his own right and he has some language that he can use. Again, no reason to suspect that his English will replace his Polish in any foreseeable future. This is not a diglossia situation.

    Thirdly, as I have been already arguing, a situation where different foreign languages are taught in different primary schools is impractical and actually discriminates against pupils attending small schools in rural areas, because in the educational system that we have right now the pupils have to continue with the foreign language they started in the primary school when they move on to secondary school, so actually the foreign language they had in primary school limits their choice of secondary school. We have been there, done that. English is the best choice when you have to choose one language that all pupils in the primary schools will be doing.

    Fourthly, why are you worrying about the quality of English education in rural areas and not about the quality of maths education? Your worries may have been justified some 20 years ago, but since then huge efforts went into teacher training. English teaching does not require swimming pools and the internet is democratically available everywhere.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      I enjoy our exchange a lot! I also accept the arguments. There is no doubt that English has been, is and will continue to be useful. My point, however, is different. My point is that this commonness and usefulness of English leads to a value judgement placed both on English and English speakers.

      Publications in English are not good because they are in English, but because of the wide international referee net. And yet, somehow, academic in Poland started publishing in English, because it’s in English. And English becomes valued above other languages because it’s English. and this makes no sense. And that’s just about the only point I make. I protest against making English the best language and learning it a better choice than learning Italian or Swahili. I don’t think it is better. For some people (perhaps a majority) it might be more useful, but certainly not for all people.

      And so, finally, the more we place a value on English and on speaking it, the more we imply that speaking a different language is not as good. In my view, it might, only might, have consequences beyond here and now. Who is right, we shall see, of course.

      I am equally worried about the quality of maths education, but, it seems, you can get on with your life without maths, but not without English.

  4. Latin was the only written language for a couple of centuries, available only to the few privileged who could read and write, right? This is not happening with English, wherever you look in Europe. People are using English quite democratically for recreation to read, watch videos or play games. Apart from those who need it to communicate at work, most use English passively and not really for serious stuff, because it is easy if you know the language. You want a tiramisu recipe? Google it out in English. You are interested in flying? There’s an excellent series on plane crashes on youtube in English. I can’t really see this separate tier developing.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Well, history doesn’t just repeat itself and I am not as optimistic as you are. Yes, you can look for a tiramisu recipe in English, but you can also do for one in Polish and, even better, in Italian. But if English is about recipe hunting, it’s not worth talking about it, is it?

      Now, it is people like us who use English democratically (that’s why we can be asked to publish in English). I am no expert, but I would guess that people in Poland who can speak English at a level that allows them to communicate in professional settings are a minority, I’d even risk saying that they are a minute minority. Moreover, I’d suggest that the group is strongly class-related (Bourdieu’s habitus!), with huge inter-generational differences. I think we should be cautious of projecting our world onto the population.

      So, I would guess, the social tiers are already there, reinforcing class inequalities. Can they lead to a more entrenched linguistic tiering? I don’t know. But the fact that you can listen to a TV series on Youtube, has nothing to do with it. Indeed, you can easily argue that, yes, there will be those whose only access will be Youtube, because their active competences in the language will be minimal.

      I understand, of course, that the way out of the issue, it can be argued, is more English for everybody. Except it doesn’t exactly work like that. Polish rural areas will not have decent English education for years to come (just like they haven’t got access to swimming lessons, because there is no swimming pool). And by insisting that English is THE language to learn, we only reinforce the inequalities, as if learning a different language is somehow inferior. No, it’s not and we, linguists, should continue banging on about it!

      Look, I am not arguing for banning English. English is great, people should learn it. For a lot, perhaps most, people it will be the right choice. What I am protesting against is constructing it as the obvious, modern, international choice that will make a really civilised person. It will not.

  5. Darek, these class issues are very important and contribute to language status. The symbolic capital is a sense of identity – national or ethnic. Language is usually part of this identity, but not always.

  6. This is transmission of values and attitudes, not transmission of language to the next generation of speakers, so it is different.

    Positive attitudes towards an L2 do not automatically imply a negative attitude towards an L1. In the 1970s Wallace Lambert distinguished between additive and subtractive environments. Additive environments are conducive to L1 maintenance. Negative environments are those that are not, favouring some kind of L2 monolingualism. There is research evidence that subtractive bilingualism can be detrimental to cognitive development, so it actually pays off to maintain and develop the L1.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      No, they don’t and I am not arguing this. Rather, I am suggesting ‘tierisation’ of languages. One will be for ‘intellectual stuff’, the other for the ‘shopping list’. There are precedents, with Latin being an obvious one. People still talked in their local languages, but when it came to serious stuff…. Latin lost, because of secularisation, English has not got such an obvious ideological handicap.

  7. On second thoughts. I have been thinking of parents’ use of language at home. The other side of the coin is the children. For example, in the case of migrant families it is fairly typical that children are raised speaking their parents language until they go to school. Then, if there is no strong L1 community, the children would very often switch into the language of the school, i.e. the majority language, actually refusing to speak the L1 and loosing it very quickly. This is also a matter of identity – the child identifies with the L2 speaking peers more strongly than with the parents. I have no idea if and to what degree this mechanism is operating in the case of endangered languages, but still it all boils down to language status and identity issues.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Again, I think it’s complex – class is a very important issue. In other words, its easier to retain the parents’ language, if there is much symbolic capital surrounding it. But that’s, again, a slightly different issue from what we’re talking about.

  8. First things first, there is no generational transmission of English in Poland, Sweden, Finland or Germany, so there is absolutely no reason to suspect that English will replace the national languages in these countries.

    I can’t tell you why generational transmission stops. Basically it stops when parents decide what language to speak at home to their children. Colin Baker, a bilingualism researcher, said some time ago that there was a pressure from Welsh parents to evaluate their children on English language tests according to monolingual native speaker standards, and that was at the time when Wales was still reasonably bilingual. The reason they gave was that their children would have to compete on the job market with native speakers of English. So I guess it might have been the same parents who decided not to speak Welsh at home to help their children learn English properly. Or it may have started when Welsh started to be perceived as a country language, spoken by uneducated people, and English as a town language, spoken by educated people. People stop speaking a native language in general when they no longer consider it an important part of their identity.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      I’m not so certain there isn’t generational transmission. Obviously, not in a traditional way. Yet, as people are more and more convinced that English is ‘the thing’, they ‘transmit’ that to the children, who now know that they should learn English or else.

      The market competitiveness, ‘townness’, ‘educatedness’ is exactly my point! English was becoming the good language, the language invested in with only positive things, the local language was becoming the opposite. The language of grandparents. And isn’t it exactly the same arguments that are used with regard to English? You must learn English (and not Italian or Spanish), because English gives you competitiveness, modernness and all the positive things. Mutatis mutandis, we see the mechanism repeated.

      I’m not so certain that your suggestion with identity is as simple. It might well be that the new language maintains the identity, except makes it better.

  9. Bilingualism and multilingualism are basically the same thing. Some researchers argue that multilingualism is a special form of bilingualism, some argue that bilingualism is a special form of multilingualism. Can give you references, if interested.

    Those political issues you are mentioning, hopes of independence, etc., are issues of national, ethnic and language identity which do have a bearing on language status in a given community but there are no simplistic correspondences.

    The issue with disappearing languages is transmission in the home. When generational transmission stops, the language disappears and revival attempts usually bring limited success. This is why the situation of Kashubian and English in Poland is fundamentally different. Polish is to Kashubian as English is to Welsh. English is to Polish as English is to Finnish in Finland or to German in Germany.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Aaaaa. Sorry. We are talking cross-purposes. When I was referring to multilingualism, I was referring to a linguistic situation in a community.

      I completely agree – there are no simple relationships between language and politics. Scotland and Northern Ireland are a good case in point, Gaelic should be much more prominent and it is not.

      We agree with regard to the generational transmission. But the issue is why it stops. And if we answer the question, I am not entirely certain the situation will be so fundamentally different. I’m no expert, but I’d imagine Kashubian and Welsh stopped being useful for ‘modern business purposes’, though I accept it is more than likely to be a multi-factorial process. By the same token, I argue that Polish might become obsolete, except it will be for ‘ultra-modern international business’.

  10. But let us not confuse two entirely different things. English is taught in Polish schools as a foreign language, Kashubian has the status of a minority language. Pupils taking a minority language take a foreign language as well. The status of minority languages in the Polish context is not related to the status of foreign languages. I do not have data on how the number of speakers of Kashubian has been changing. There is some data on how many children are taking minority languages in the school system here for example:,Matura-2014-Jezyki-mniejszosci-narodowych-arkusze It seems that there is a decrease in the number of Kashubian speakers, but an increase in the number of speakers of Belorusian, if these data are in any sense representative.

    And no, languages are not disappearing in areas where multilingualism is a norm. Languages are disappearing in communities that value the majority language more then the minority language, so these are issues of language status, not issues of bi- or multilingualism per se. This is precisely why Catalonia and the Basque country are bilingual, and Irish is basically a language that is taught at school.

    Also fears of diglossia, as in the case of English in Scandinavia, are basically ungrounded. Bilinguals always use their two languages for different purposes, with different interlocutors and in different domains of language use. If English is the company language, people will use it in meetings, but a German or a Pole will always address another German or another Pole in German or Polish, not in English, when people who do not speak any of these languages are not around.

    So, to make a point, these are issues that have been known to bilingualism researchers for some time, but I think that are not very well understood by linguists 😉

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Come on, bilingualism is irrelevant here. Minority/majority language situation is a multilingual situation! Great data about minority languages – but the issue is the trend, basically, how many speakers speak the language. We also disagree about Catalan and Basque – I think it’s much more to do with the political situation. The language helps people keep the hopes of independence, but, again, it would be interesting to see the trend. Also, I am not entirely certain, we are confusing issues. Polish is to Kashubian what English, I think, is to Polish.

      To be completely honest, I do hope you’re right and I am unduly concerned. You seem less concerned about disappearing languages than me. There are two facts, aren’t there? There are languages that disappear and English is becoming more common also outside the ‘traditional’ spheres of international academia and business. For me the trend is worrying. I hope I am wrong.

  11. Ok, Darek, you are worried that young people in Poland are using more and more English? You perceive it as a threat to the national language? Not to worry, this will not happen. There are places in the world where people have always been using more than one language and all the languages are doing fine. Think the Basque country, Catalonia or Singapore, where people use up to five languages on a daily basis.

    It is perfectly normal for people to know more than one language. In this sense, it is not multilingualism but big monolingual nation-states that are an aberration. I value native languages highly, all native languages, because it is the native language that the child learns to make sense of the world in, so I do value diversity, but diversity understood in this way does not preclude multilingualism. After all, what is the value of this diversity if you do not learn other languages and have no way to appreciate it?

    I am not arguing for English as the “only” option. I am arguing for multilingualism with the native language and English being an obligatory part of the whole repertoire of languages a person might have. Not because English is “modern” and “cool”. The reason is that because of its global language status it gives a person opportunities that no other language does. So I am not saying Polish and English should be the languages taught in Poland. What I am saying is Polish + English + other languages, an essentially multilingual position.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Basque and Catalan are not good examples, as these languages are very directly involved in a political fight, very different political context. Think of Welsh or Gaelic which are now just about gone and only serious action from the state make then alive. What about Cornish? In Poland, is the population of Kaszubian (if that’s the name) growing? I doubt it. Hegemonic languages dominate and get rid of other languages.

      But I agree, Polish will not disappear and I am not claiming that. I think Polish will (and I say this with moderate certainty) be relegated to a different set of goals and purposes. And no, it will not happen tomorrow or in 10 years time, but I think it will happen and while we shall not live in a Star Trek reality where English will become ‘human’, it will not be far from this.

      And yes, I agree, multilingualism is a norm, Europe is strange in this respect. But if it all were so hunky-dory, why are languages disappearing? They shouldn’t, should they? And they are disappearing precisely in areas where multilingualism is the norm! They are being pushed out by languages which become dominant. What happens locally, the situation with English is more global.

      What worries me European context, perhaps more in Eastern Europe, is that English has become, as I said before, cool, modern. And if you don’t speak it, you are obsolete. And no matter how we present ‘our’ reasons, this is how English is, I think, perceived. Indeed, our discussion suggests precisely that: if you don’t speak English, you’re not worthy. By making it obligatory in schools, we only underscore this.

      Now, I do understand that English is not homogeneous, as indicated for example by Lynne Murphy on her Separated by a Common Language blog. And so, the pressures that we are discussing here are of course not unique to the relationship between English and not-English.

  12. Dear Professor Galasiński,
    As your discussant from the Polish academic blog, I must say I am not buying your argument. To be actually more precise, as a multilingual person myself, I appreciate linguistic diversity but I think that the argument from linguistic diversity totally misses the point.
    We started this discussion in Polish, we continue it in English. In the meantime I have been reading my twitter timeline which is roughly 50% in English, 30% in Russian, 10% in Polish, and 10% other languages. That’s my personalized choice of the information environment I am in. Oh, and I have a working knowledge of Ukrainian which I learned basically from scratch just to be able to understand the news on the internet. I do not speak any Ukrainian, but I use it fairly regularly to read and view news items. My native Polish is doing fine, as you may have noticed and is not endangered in any sense.
    The point I am making is that the world we live in is getting increasingly multilingual. You may be doing fine using your native language only if you live in a small monolingual community and have no aspirations reaching beyond that community. But this is no longer the way the world is like for many people in Europe. An overwhelming majority of French and German students use English on the internet regularly watching films, series and video clips, reading or listening. This is research evidence. The world has changed. Some of those students have an L1 different than French or German respectively, so English might actually be their third or even fourth language. This is just present-day Europe. As for other stats, 50% of all internet sites are in English, 25% of all internet users use English, globally. So if you want to participate in this global exchange of information, learn English. If you want to better your job prospects, learn English. If you just want to communicate with people who do not speak your native language, learn English.
    So with all due respect to endangered languages, if as applied linguist I were to give informed advice on what languages to learn, it would be: learn your L1 well because it matters , then the language (or languages) of the country you are in if different from the L1, then English because it is the language of global communication and it will most likely come in useful one way or other sooner or later, and then learn any other language that you like.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Hi Anna (I hope we haven’t given up on our first name basis),

      Thanks for your response. I accept your points and, to be honest, I am (a bit) horrified by my own defending of national languages. Especially, that I like describing myself as hard-core non-prescriptivist.

      But it is from this perspective that I reject English as the only option. I want a choice. One I didn’t have as a child, when Russian was imposed on me. Now we do the same with English. And of course your native Polish is fine and of course we can continue in English. But do remember that we are not ‘average’ users of Polish.

      Needless to say, we don’t know what will happen in the future, but, in contrast to you, I am much less optimistic. English is spreading like wild fire and whenever I am in Poland, I am bewildered by how many people use it, for ease, speed, or because there is ‘no Polish equivalent’. There always is, sometimes perhaps a cumbersome one, but it is inevitably rejected, because English becomes an easy shorthand. Moreover, we have now convinced ourselves that it is English, not Russian or Italian, which makes people modern and cool. It doesn’t.

      Given all that, yes, I am still worried that if we let it happen, we might end up with two-tier languages. English will be the language of the ‘elite’, necessarily modern and wondrous, and other languages will serve the more, shall I say, pedestrian purposes.

      And yes, I accept that in Academia and a number of other professional contexts, English is indispensable and thank goodness for it (even if a drastic minority actually need it). But let’s not make English the eighth wonder of the world, the language that finally makes us achieve the final stage of human and civilisational evolution. Let’s accept that it is OK not to speak English and still be cool.

      PS. As for the 50 per cent of websites which are in English, I submit that 99 per cent of them are not worth visiting :))

Comments are closed.

Loading ...