Hideo Kojima is the Japanese creator of the 2015 video game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. He evidently chose “phantom pain” as a subtitle because he thought it captured the experience of being exiled, so to speak, from one’s first language. Kojima hints at its importance from the start of the game, with an epigraph from the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran’s 1986 book Anathemas and Admirations: “It is no nation we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland.” At one point, a villain in the game, Skull Face, says of another character, “He doesn’t know the pain of losing his own language—not yet.”
That our native tongue is key to our identity is a plausible claim. Research has revealed the “depth of the relationship all of us have with our native tongues—and how traumatic it can be when that relationship is ruptured,” as psycholinguist Julie Sedivy explained in her Nautilus feature “The Strange Persistence of First Languages.” Her relationship with the Czech language—she was born in Czechoslovakia—ruptured slowly after starting school in East Montreal, in English. “When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history,” Sedivy wrote. “Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it.”
English is not “an infestation.”
Skull Face is radicalized by the notion that the English language is taking over the world and aligning human thought with Anglo-American interests. A few dominant languages do, indeed, seem to be taking over. Every two weeks, a language disappears. By 2100, up to 90 percent of languages might be gone, overtaken by the likes of Spanish, Russian, Mandarin—and English. A headline last year from The Guardian read: “Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet.” For even a fraction of that 90 percent of languages to survive, The Guardian suggests, “we’re going to have to start thinking of smaller languages not as endangered species worth saving, but as equals worth learning.”
But try telling that to children in developing countries. In his 2013 book Does Science Need a Global Language?, the geoscientist Scott Montgomery quotes an Ethiopian boy saying, “It is the language of the world, and I want to know the world.” Montgomery goes on to ask whether “the planetary advance of this tongue [qualifies] as a kind of rising tyranny, threatening to bring Anglo ways of thought and culture to every society, like an invading force?”
Montgomery says no. For one thing, English adapts to the needs of people speaking it more than it shapes those people’s ideas or ideals. “At the spoken level,” he wrote, “the language has become decidedly, inevitably plural.” As a result, linguists no longer discuss “world English” but “World Englishes” and “New Englishes” instead. “Distinct, nativized varieties are found in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh), West Africa (Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Gambia), East Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania), southern Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia), Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Caribbean,” he wrote. They are more than “mere dialects”—all vary from one another in “pronunciation, vocabulary, and, at times, grammar.” In addition, as The Guardian piece pointed out, the “expansive notion that different languages inculcate fundamentally different ways of thinking has not been proven.”
Still, languages do influence the way we think to some extent. The psychologist Daniel Casasanto points out that “...grammatical packaging of information about motion events can direct attention to different aspects of the perceptible world, influencing what people remember about their experiences, at least so long as they can encode these experiences in words.” Also, using “different spoken metaphors can strengthen some implicit associations in memory while weakening others.” A particularly strong difference is observed between languages that include exact number concepts, and those that don’t. In a 2016 paper, Casasanto argues that this seems to have a “dramatic and transformative effect on thought.”
Yet second languages can crowd out first ones, with consequential results. “Losing your native tongue unmoors you not only from your own early life but from the entire culture that shaped you,” Sedivy wrote. The Guardian piece argues that the Englishization of the world causes this to happen all too often: English is “inescapable” and everywhere “leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.” Memoirist Eva Hoffman attested to the effect of feeling alienated from her native Polish while learning English in Canada: “This radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances—its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.”
Montgomery is clear-eyed about this fact, but not despairing: “The stresses and challenges posed by global English cannot be denied, belittled, or dismissed. They can, however, be exaggerated, misinterpreted, and misapplied.” English is not “an infestation,” as Skull Face calls it—rather it represents, Montgomery wrote, the “oldest dream for a better world: the dream of a universal language that allows people everywhere to commune and work together.”
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.
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This classic Facts So Romantic post was originally published in August 2018.