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Culture

One World, United by English?

Greg Hodges | Oct 17, 2014

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Greg Hodges | Oct 17, 2014

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

This summer my wife and I finished our third and final year teaching English as a foreign language in China. One of our greatest joys has been playing a small part in the emergence of a common language that connects all the peoples of the world.

In early 2011, when my wife and I decided to get married that spring, we still didn’t know what country we would live in after our wedding. At the time, I worked at the Baha’i World Centre in Israel, and she was finishing her final year of university in the United States. It wasn’t possible for her to come to Israel and the American job market looked famously awful at the time. So we considered going somewhere else entirely.

China sounded good. We learned we could get work teaching spoken English in public schools in Shenzhen. Within a span of six months, we went from not being engaged and living on separate continents, to married and settling in at a Chinese secondary school with over 2000 students.

english-lessons-in-chinaIn the three years my wife and I spent in Shenzhen, we had had countless interactions with students and local residents that in many ways illustrate an awareness of the growing interconnectedness of the global community. For some, speaking English enables their curiosity about foreign customs and lifestyles. For others, it becomes a source of frustration at a time when employers look more for brains than brawn from their job applicants. For many, though, learning English helps them discern and synthesize what they think works best in Chinese and western cultures.

Chinese students begin studying English at an early age. A demanding subject in school, English requires the students to internalize grammar, syntax, pronunciation, and vocabulary rules much more complex than those of their native tongue. When they become adults, though, these studies will help them professionally and personally in a world where traditional English-speaking countries have such an impact on international commerce, trade and interchange. But Chinese students aren’t the only ones straining every nerve to learn English. Beyond the countries of the Anglo Bloc, the English language now connects China to Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and Latin America.

When Baha’u’llah taught that the peoples of the world should settle upon one language and teach it to children in schools everywhere, he called for the convening of a special global gathering to consult about it and make an equitable decision. Even though no such meeting was ever held, English has taken the world by storm–and there seems to be no turning back. As the quality and scale of English instruction continues to rise in nations all around the world, we come closer to the era of a universal auxiliary language prophesied by Baha’u’llah over 125 years ago:

The day is approaching when all the peoples of the world will have adopted one universal language and one common script. When this is achieved, to whatsoever city a man may journey, it shall be as if he were entering his own home. These things are obligatory and absolutely essential. It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 166.

In this passage, Baha’u’llah shows what the emergence of a global tongue could accomplish: wherever a person travels in the world, he or she will never feel like a foreigner. That world civilization, which Baha’is believe will one day emerge, will not just be a mere confederation of nations. It will be a single homeland. All of humanity will spontaneously feel the organic unity of its diverse peoples by speaking and hearing a common tongue.

With that said, I think our experience in China taught us something to bear in mind, especially if English does become the universal language. On the global stage, English now seems to represent in large part the language of the entertainment industry, international tourism, Western academic discourse, and Anglo Bloc multinational corporations–no doubt a symptom of the continued dominance of western countries in world affairs.

For example, in China I’ve all too often seen the Chinese word 国际 guójì, meaning “international,” used as a codeword for American or Australian. That tells me we do not yet have a level playing field, with some nations exerting a disproportionate influence on the emerging global culture. English has an organic, reflexive relationship to the Anglo Bloc countries—which means for most nations it is still a foreign tongue.

If English does become the universal world language, the peoples of the world will require some time to make it into a language of their own. Our planet truly needs a universal auxiliary language, and whether English or some other language fills the bill, eventually every human being will use it everywhere. When that day comes, no matter which language spreads around the entire globe, we will all feel at home with it.

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Comments

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  • Mwangi Dennis
    Jul 30, 2017
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    very noble thought.men of all must be united by language and to that very note,by common purpose.
  • Oct 12, 2016
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    But it says 'auxiliary' so it is a supplementary language, and doe not replace a mother toungue.
  • Hooshang S. Afshar
    Jun 6, 2016
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    English is a powerful language as it is vast which makes it good for writing books etc on any subject.
    I would not mind it as an auxiliary world language if its spelling was revised.
    No more: double letters, sc, ei, ie, gh, irregular verbs and so on.
    • William A. Burden
      Jul 30, 2017
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      I think this is an excellent idea. If English is to be the universal auxiliary language it should be modified to remove all the existing inconsistencies. That solves 2 problems - it makes it much easier to learn, and levels the playing field for all world citizens in that virtually everyone would have to learn the language, including those that speak the English in its current form.
  • Nov 2, 2014
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    When the Anglo-American empire sets (or its influence wanes if you prefer) as all empires must, who in China for example will persevere with English given its meager outcomes vis-à-vis tuition? Although the pass rate remains an incredible 99% among English majors at the five Chinese universities where for a decade I was teaching languages until 2006 few students attained even moderate success in spoken English - after years and years of coughing up on the part of their folks who paid my high salary. I know I aint no expert in the field of teaching languages but, alas, my ...professional colleagues noted similarly dismal outcomes. My five trips to Japan indicate the same failure to communicate - even on the Ginza where there's hardly a shortage of desire to learn English nor the wherewithal to foot the bill - despite Japan's love affair a century ago with all things British and with all things American since General MacArthur . What I really loved in China and Japan though was the rare occasion when my interlocutor possessed my knowledge of my mother tongue, especially in regard to humor, poetry and slang. Manchu’s abrupt demise, though for generations a primary language of the Qing dynasty, 1636-1911, is perhaps informative; neither the last emperor (Pu Yi, 1906 – 1967) nor any one else in China can speak it fluently today: in spite of the edicts of his imperial ancestors encouraging, and later, to revive the once mighty Manchu tongue just a few dozen part speakers are found today in Beijing, Shenyang and perhaps in some locations nearer the Bohai sea.
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  • Oct 20, 2014
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    Although English has become an auxiliary language de facto, this issue is still a problem for some people who fear some kind of “cultural colonization”. For these people it may be to soon to say which language could be used as an international auxiliary language. May be the right question is “How can a society preserve its culture if it adopts an international auxiliary language?”
  • Oct 18, 2014
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    Thanks for these thoughts, Greg. I teach ESL in Eloy, Arizona, at Desert Rose Baha'i Institute, and at the Eloy public library, as well as the Casa Grande public library. I have also thought that English may become the universal auxiliary language. Even if not, it is the language I can teach, and it fosters communication among the various people in the United States.
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