language? global?

June 14th, 2009

So I was sitting under tall, expansive trees with an ice-cold Tsingtao pondering a series of tweets by @pdenlinger. He raised an interesting question:

Friend: “Up till now, anyone could call themselves global if they knew English. Now the language needs to be Chinese. And fluent.” Agree?

And my answer, of course was no. English is still very much number one, Spanish is rapidly growing, and I certainly would not rule out Portuguese, French or even Arabic. Each of those languages is large, growing, and influential over at least one significant part of the globe. But, aside from the obvious question “What, exactly, does “Chinese” mean?”, Mr Denlinger later pointed out:

“Global” is about attitude, not about languages. Sure, they help, but they are not dealbreakers.

Indeed. My brothers speak English, but I suspect they could quite happily go through their lives without ever needing a passport. My parents in law speak Chinese, but I would hardly call them “global”. I guess it is also possible to be a xenophobic polyglot, as weird as that may sound- well, I suppose China does manage to produce quite a few hyper-nationalistic youth with at least some command of the English language, and I don’t think China is the only country with that ability, not by any means. A conversation with a bunch of drunken Vikings late at “night” halfway up a Norwegian mountainside in a house accessible only by tractor when the winter snow piles up (fortunately it was mid-summer, hence the scare quotes around “night”) springs to mind. Everybody present was bilingual, English was the language we all shared, they were swearing to defend Norway to the very last drop of blood.

But my next question is: What on earth is “global”? What is this mysterious attitude? I think we’ve established that it is by no means defined by linguistic ability, nor is it marked by nationalism, so we’re going to have to go looking for new criteria.

Taking myself as an example: I have always been interested in the big, wide world beyond the shores of the island I grew up on, still am. I’ve always loved reading about other countries and other cultures. I’ve always loved reading. I’ve always paid close attention to the world news, still do, and I like to get my news from a variety of sources from around the world- although, of course, I have sources I go to first. Although I do love and am proud of my home country and culture, I don’t feel any particular patriotism, really, and I automatically recoil at the slightest hint of Kiwi nationalism- I mean, Kiwi nationalism seems utterly absurd to me, for starters, but more importantly, to me, all nationalisms reek of fascism, and that’s a stench I can stand least when it’s coming from my homeland. I also like to read and hear a variety of different viewpoints from a variety of cultures, even when such viewpoints are utterly obnoxious to my ears (although, obnoxious viewpoints from fellow Kiwis I found very hard to tolerate). I also firmly believe that genuine leftists (of which there are very few in this world) would fully embrace globalisation. Workers of the world unite, and all that.

Am I “global”?

I don’t think so. For one, I do confine my life to a very small area, that area being for now a small section of southern Chaoyang District, Beijing. I very rarely venture out of this small area. And it’s not just geographic, but social. It’s been a long, long time since I was in any kind of hurry to meet new people, at least in the real world. Secondly, in reading as widely as I do have time and energy for, I’m only following my own interests, not trying to pursue some big “global” agenda.

Also, I’m having real trouble trying to separate “global” from “multi-lingual”. Sure, linguistic ability, in terms either of what languages one speaks or of how many languages one speaks, says nothing about one’s “globalness”. And sure, if one is an English monoglot, then it certainly seems that the world is at one’s feet. But what so many English monoglots (and I should take care to emphasise that by “English” I am referring purely to the language, not to any nationality- I’m referring equally to Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Irish, Scottish, etc who only speak English) don’t realise, in their arrogant complacency, is just how much of the world is closed to them because they don’t speak any other language. And the same applies, of course, to all monoglots regardless of their language. There is only so much that is translated, and the English language, like all other languages, has absorbed terms from every language it has come in contact with and coined many new terms because so many ideas are untranslateable.

No, really: Give me purely Anglo-Saxon words for ‘mana’, ‘mauri’, ‘kayak’ or ‘tea’. Or ‘sport’, for that matter.

And to add points I omitted from that paragraph above exploring my own “globalness”: I majored in French and studied German and Russian for fun. In all three cases, that means both language and literature, and in German and Russian, film, too. And, of course, my entire adult life has been marked by the study of Chinese language, culture, society, history, film and to an admittedly far too limited extent, literature. That does not, by any means, mean that I speak all those languages. In fact, I would say I speak only two: English and Chinese. Those are the two languages I use every day, and the only two I actually speak. I can still make a few utterances of variable degrees of intelligence and intelligibility in French, and can muster up the odd sentence, or more likely word or phrase in German, with the occasional snatch of Russian or perhaps Maori, Norwegian, or a few other languages. But the only two languages I am capable of holding down an at least halfway intelligent conversation in are English and Chinese. Reading is a different story, though: I regularly read in English, French and Chinese, and I suspect I could get my German reading back to a passable level without too much effort.

I say none of this to boast, only to illustrate why I find it so hard to separate “multi-lingual” from “global”. An ability to speak at least one foreign language certainly does not make one “global”, but surely it is a symptom of “globalness”? One symptom among many others, for sure, and not necessarily one that is essential for a diagnosis of “global” to be made, but still, a symptom.

I am, however, no closer to figuring out what “global” might mean, beyond it being the adjective derived from “globe” and generally used to refer to things of a worldwide nature. And given that the world, despite our ever more globe-shrinking technology, is still so immense that no one person could possibly spread themselves so thin as to experience the entire globe while retaining their own coherent identity, how is it possible for a person to be “global”?

I mean, “warming” can be “global” because temperature and temperature variation are natural characteristics of any physical object, and this globe we occupy is a physical object. But how can any one person, given how small even the biggest of us are, be a characteristic of this globe?

So clearly, “global”, when referring to a person, must reflect an attitude or state of mind. It must refer to a person who has risen above petty patriotism to embrace the whole world as home, surely. But can any of us really do that? As I said, I’m not easily moved by appeals to Kiwi patriotism, but that doesn’t change the fact I don’t like to see the All Blacks lose, or Australia win (unless it’s England, or perhaps, depending on my mood, South Africa they’re beating), and although I have mellowed a lot over the years, like all Kiwis I strongly dislike being lumped in with Australia.

[Somehow, though, being assumed to be British- a pretty common assumption given how my accent has mellowed over the years- doesn’t bother me at all, despite the post-colonial chip on the shoulder I share with all most Kiwis. I guess that, aside from history, Britain is so remote from my experience as to be almost meaningless to me.]

So I guess I can see how “global” could describe a certain outlook on life, but I’m struggling to see how anybody could really fit that adjective. I also understand that linguistic ability certainly does not define how “global’ a person is, but I’m still struggling to see how it is not involved in a person’s “globalness”.

2 Responses to “language? global?”

  1. Richard Says:

    Great post, much of it relates obliquely to my own situation. Is “globalness” perhaps a perspective on the world that goes some way to recognising that there are multiple ways to perceive, describe and behave? I’d put natural curiosity above being multilingual, but it sure helps – because language provides the frame in which we describe the world around us.

    In my benevolent dictatorship (population: 1), every university graduate (or even high school grad) would spend at least one full year living + studying in a country where the principle language is not their own… in many European countries this is now the case, thanks to Erasmus and other programmes. But I have particular personal reasons why I believe learning foreign languages is important, especially for monoglot anglo-saxons, and others may not agree with my policy proposal.

    On my course this year I’ve met Chinese students who are definitely learning French and English for nationalistic reasons – I got the strong sense from several (but not all) Chinese classmates that they view their management careers as a means to grow their nations wealth. Mind you I’m possibly guilty of the same belief myself, in terms of wanting to help NZ exporters do well overseas. Sometimes I wish NZTE would give me a job and be done with it.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Excellent comment, Richard. I agree about natural curiosity, it surely must be a prerequisite. And I completely agree with the policy of your benevolent dictatorship.

    I’m not surprised by your Chinese classmates. I’ve encountered plenty with similar attitudes, and I don’t necessarily disagree with them. China is still very underdeveloped and there is a hell of a lot of work to do. I hope, though, that those attitudes are coupled with open minds prepared to at least listen to other points of view.