How global is English? – Celebrating multilingualism

Written by Santi, our long term ESC Volunteer

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”―Audre Lorde, 1986

“Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself”― Gloria Anzaldúa, 1987

Universidad Autónoma de México, considered one of the best higher educational institutions in Latin America

In their own manner, both Lorde and Anzaldúa contributed to the enrichment of language and culture by expressing their artistic way of being in the world. They count on extensive academic and creative background that is rarely known outside certain intellectual circles.

In fact, they embody numerous categories that are often seen as peripheral. Their valuable contributions to English and Spanish respectively does not echo in our minds when thinking about language, because the latter has been historically politicized and compartmentalized in categories that do not necessarily align with those granted to both authors. Are you familiar with the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movement? Exactly. They come to disrupt the status quo that has prevented us from hearing unique, groundbreaking voices when not represented by someone who is mostly white, heterosexual and/or wealthy.

“Language is part of our multiple identities”

But language is so much more than linguistics. It is community. It is sense of belonging. It is roots. Language is part of our multiple identities. And as such we should honor it by being aware not only of its use, but also the position it takes when relating to others. In doing so, we are expanding our sense of community, our knowledge from the world. In essence, we are growing our ability to empathize to each other.

Some global figures

Tree of Indo-European languages
  • There are over 7.000 known languages in the world.
  • About 1/3 of those languages is considered endangered.
  • 23 languages take more than half the population.
  • 86% of people speak Asian or European-based languages.

(*) Online resources: Ethnologue and UNESCO.

#EnglishLanguageDay and #SpanishLanguageDay are UN international Days celebrated on April 23 to raise awareness on the use of these global languages and, why not, make us think of multilingualism as a powerful tool to being in this world. Remember Lorde and Anzaldúa? They spoke multiple languages including Spanish, English, poetry… isn’t that the perfect example of a well-read person?

By global we must acknowledge the fact that these languages are not granted this status solely based on the richness of their associated culture and history. In truth, their position derives from a colonial past that made it possible to spread across the world throughout centuries. In many cases their current status is associated with cultural appropriation and/or erasure from other local and regional languages. Therefore, we are not discussing richness or language complexity, for all languages entail those attributes inasmuch they represent multiple identities.

“A colonial past […] made it possible to spread across the world throughout centuries”

In Wales, national Welsh language currently coexists with English. Whilst this is not always a harmonious coexistence and it is usually imprinted with political nuance, the use of Welsh is far from being endangered. Once again, we are not merely discussing linguistics, rather something greater that touches on the deepest, most unique part of human being: identity and a sense of belonging.

So, next time we celebrate English and Spanish as global languages, we too must acknowledge that their position does not come in a vacuum. Rather, it is a combination of historical facts whereby other languages were silenced and at times erased. This, to date, has caused disparities in worldwide culture too. In sum, celebrating multilingualism is a way to extend that celebration to every single way of being in the world.

Get inspired

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s narrative is a perfect example of the importance to look beyond the limits of a given community or a lack of multiple perspectives.
A very visual way of understanding multilingualism and its impact on the human brain.
Riz Ahmed embodies a raw, truly magnificent performance on the process of hearing loss and how he opens up to a complete new way of being in the world.