Wednesday, March 8, 2017

English as a virus

My first morning in South Africa is bright and Sunny. Today is to be a relaxing one with a spa treatment and some sunning as I convince my body I should be waking up instead of going to sleep. I just came from breakfast and had the joy of reading a local paper. There was nothing about He who shall not be named in the whole paper except for a reprint from Dallas News of an opinion about the revised travel ban.

The paper was full of news about the economy, budgets cricket teams. It is a vacation. On the back of the first section was the reprint of an article by Braj Kachru from The Financial Times titled English adapts like a virus to any way of life. It is an imagery that so fits what I have seen. A quick summary is that English has spread more widely than any other language in the history (Greek, Latin, Sanscript) of language diffusion with well over 2 Billion speakers, and far more 2nd language speakers.

It seems I have watched this change since I started traveling in the mid 80's. Kachru attributes this not to the desire to communicate with we native English speakers, but to solve the Tower of Babel problem in countries with many native dialects. He also says that the English spoken in all these many countries may not be understandable since people learned it from non native speakers.

I first came to Africa in 2002, to Tanzania and Kenya. The common tongue across the tribes was Swahili. Here in South Africa as it will be in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, it will be English with a twist. As I learned at breakfast this morning, I will have to really listen to understand the words.

This virus that is English is opening up schools with readily available texts and letting the Internet google the world into the most remote corners. The driver who picked me up at the airport was proud of Johannesburg and said he hoped it would become like New York City. I told him it was spread out more like LA. He said he wanted to go to Las Angels and I told him that was Spanish for The Angels. He asked me what languages I spoke and I told him some Spanish, a little French and even less Italian.

I asked him about his English. He said he was from a small town where all the children were taught in English. Things had improved there from when he was little. Now they have running water, electricity, a computer in there home, but still an outhouse.

I wonder if they still speak Swahili in East Africa.

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