By Brennan Xavier McManus
This post was developed as part of the Columbia University course “Multilingual Technologies and Language Diversity” taught by Smaranda Muresan, PhD and Isabelle Zaugg, PhD. This cross-disciplinary course offering was a joint effort between the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Department of Computer Science, developed through the generous support of the Collaboratory@Columbia.
The more time I spend studying language and language learning, the more impressed I become with those who rely on acquired second languages for their personal, academic, and professional lives. Having felt the struggles of operating in an acquired language firsthand, the challenges faced by those operating in one on a daily basis become all the more apparent, and I am certainly not the only one to marvel at these. In “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English,” John McWhorter expresses a similar sentiment. However, the aspect of his piece that affected me the most strongly was McWhorter’s defense of English as the world’s up-and-coming lingua franca. I do not take my general disagreement with his perspective as an indictment of the validity of his points. Instead, I want to explore the assumptions and implications of English’s current and future status as an internationally used language. It is certainly clear that the seemingly universal presence of English across the world today has its roots in colonial history as opposed to some specific feature of the language itself. As I see it, the fact that English continues to be so widely used is a testament only to the fact that it is functional enough as a common second language, not that it is necessarily the language most intrinsically suited to such a role. And while I don’t propose that humanity can or should adopt one language universally for all aspects of life, I do see the value of a universal second language as a way to overcome practical issues of communication.
Due to the extent to which the internet and related technology have mingled with our daily lives, any lingua franca hopeful would need to be easy to use in an online space. I believe that English’s prominence online is due to many factors, one of which is an aspect of first-mover advantage such that that the entire system has been built primarily using English, for use with English, in the English-speaking world. I believe that individual users should be given more of a choice as to which language they deem appropriate to use online, and that the most widely used language online should not just be decided by default. To this end, it is just as important that the development of technology offer linguistic flexibility as it is for the resulting product to do so. To examine the importance of linguistically flexible software development, it is first important to understand the current status quo and the role of English as the software lingua franca. It is also important to emphasize the personal value of individual languages and the roadblocks that a monolithically English online world presents for non-native speakers. From there, I want to explore paths forward, ranging from the adaptation of English-based programming languages to the implementation of languages implemented using exclusively non-English keywords.
It is no coincidence that the internet today is dominated by text in the English language. The invention of the internet came about when English was already rising as a globally dominant language, and every layer of its infrastructure is built upon technology that uses English as its foundation. This technological head start is analogous to the head start English has enjoyed in areas including “popular culture, scholarship, and international discourse” (McWhorter 66). Anecdotally, in my own experience on the Internet, encountering content that features grammatically perfect prose posted by non-native English speakers is quite commonplace.
The software underlying the internet as it exists today was and continues to be developed with the use of English-centric technologies, programming languages, and textual encoding. Even the adoption of Unicode as a viable international text encoding standard was only possible as a result of the fact that Unicode does not break compatibility with the ASCII set of encodings in its original state. According to Daniel Prado in his piece “Language Presence in the Real World and Cyberspace,” despite many advancements in generalizing and localizing the internet, “English remains the language of programming, markup, coding, communication between servers and most importantly, the bases of computer languages. Computer languages are based on English, and computer scientists are professionally required to know it” (43). This basis on English means that a given piece of code, regardless of the names you give items in your program, will contain English words like for, do, while, if, else, and goto. The fact that computer science as a discipline effectively requires English proficiency leads to a situation in which the population upgrading, maintaining, and expanding the internet is comfortable in English and much less likely to push against the online English monolith.
The notable prominence of English online necessarily brings with it issues of accessibility. Even McWhorter, who offers support of English as the world’s language, notes that “most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with doctors or their children’s schoolteachers” (62). Even if the transition towards some strongly dominant single language is unavoidable, the time such a process takes means that large populations will be left behind as immigrants to the English internet, and some who will never achieve English fluency in their lifetime could find themselves left out entirely. Moreover, the personal languages of each individual carry with them a value that I believe goes beyond the aesthetic, and the internet as a medium of communication would miss out on the unique ways in which people can communicate in the true fluency of their mother tongue. What’s more, the effect of the English monolith on native languages could be one that accelerates the rate of declining usage. In his paper “Digital Language Death,” András Kornai notes, “A language may not be completely dead until the death of its last speaker, but there are three clear signs of imminent death observable well in advance. First, there is loss of function, seen whenever other languages take over entire functional areas such as commerce. Next, there is loss of prestige, especially clearly reflected in the attitudes of the younger generation. Finally, there is loss of competence” (Kornai 1). Due to the increasing role of the internet in our lives, the “functions” of daily life can certainly be taken to include capacity to engage with the online world. As a result of the accessibility issues surrounding non-English languages online, their growth may not just be impeded, but their continued existence threatened. The further the technologies of the internet go down this path, the more at-risk other languages become.
I believe that a potential approach to preventing or at least slowing such a process could be the expansion of software development tools to a wider range of regional languages. In the past, I have noticed a tendency in code written in non-English speaking countries, where the program itself is implemented in English-based programming languages like Python, C, or Java, but the inline comments are in the local language and usually the local script. I have experimented personally with adapting C++ code to use Mandarin keywords using textual preprocessing, but I believe more elegant adaptations from existing English-based languages are possible. More in the spirit of breaking the trend of exclusively English-oriented development would be the implementation of programming languages with no connection to English. I was very happy to learn of the existence of Qalb (قلب, meaning heart), a programming language that uses Arabic exclusively. In Steven R. Loomis, Anshuman Pandey, and Isabelle Zaugg’s “Full Stack Language Enablement,” they describe the idea of programming in one’s mother tongue as “the final frontier for the internationalization/localization of digital technologies.” Languages like Qalb represent an important step in pursuing that goal. While it would be a large paradigm shift from programming today, I think the nature of this problem, and the fact that a programming language is something that can be implemented by a small group or even a single person, serves to emphasize the large impact an individual can have in the world of emerging multilingual technologies.
Kornai, András. “Digital Language Death.” PLoS ONE , vol. 8, no. 10, 22 Oct. 2013, pp. 1-11, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077056.
Loomis, Steven R, et al. “Full Stack Language Enablement.” Steven R. Loomis, 6 June 2017, srl295.github.io/2017/06/06/full-stack-enablement/.
McWhorter, John. “THE COSMOPOLITAN TONGUE: The Universality of English.” World Affairs, vol. 172, no. 2, 2009, pp. 61-68. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20671445 .
Prado, Daniel. “Language Presence in the Real World and Cyberspace,” translated by Laura Kraftowitz. Net.lang: Towards the Multilingual Cyberspace, edited by Laurent Vannini and Hervé Le Crosnier, C & F éditions, 2012, pp. 34-51.