What is to be discussed below is not only of importance to my own language, Swedish, but also applicable to the great majority of the languages of the world. The road to a world with only few languages will be full of strife and social unrest.
The English language is colonizing the world. Political, cultural and technical influences from abroad are not necessarily negative, on the contrary, they can often prove to be enriching. But because of an accelerating influence, the English language has come to be a threat towards our Swedish language and our Swedish culture. Several Swedish linguists already predict that the English language will be the dominating language in Sweden within a few generations. By then, it will not also be the language that is dominating, but also the culture it brings with it.
According to linguists, thousands of languages will disappear within the next hundred years.
It is troubling that English rather than Swedish is now commonly used in Sweden in certain circumstances. Over the past few decades, English has increasingly come to dominate in research and higher education, especially in the natural sciences, medicine and technology.
The spread of English has occasioned warnings against “losses of domain” in Sweden, which means that whole areas within science and culture are more or less lost.
As pertains to the medical sciences, there are several worrying indications that this is indeed taking place:
What happens when a languages withers away and dies? When a language is no longer used in a certain area of expertise, it ceases to develop as a means of communication in this area. For example, no terms for new findings are invented. If we do not use Swedish in for example medical research, it will eventually become difficult to write and speak of new discoveries in Swedish, even in situations in which it for some reasons would be particularly useful to use Swedish. This scenario demonstrates a loss of domain; Swedish has ceased to be a language that can be utilized to describe certain parts of medical science. If the above developments continue, so that medical students are taught exclusively in English, the whole area may be lost to Swedish.
The Swedish language commission (Svenska språknämnden) is concerned about the potential that whole “domains” might be emptied of useable Swedish. There is a lack of Swedish words and expressions in the worlds of banking, finance, computers and IT, as well as in the increasingly internationalized world of politics. It is not uncommon that research and education in Sweden are done in English.
English has gained a larger role in the political domain since Sweden joined the EU. Many Swedish workplaces in industry and trade have English as their corporate language, i.e. the only written language and the dominant spoken language. In such cases, Swedish is only heard when two Swedes meet for a cup of coffee.
I read of a man who had collected 500 employment advertisements form Belgian newspapers, in which it was required that the applicant was a native English speaker. Such advertisements have also been occurred in other European countries, such as Norway.
What happens is that Swedish as a carrier of culture and society is weakened.
Losses of domain from Swedish to English will amongst other things mean that a large part of the population are excluded from a democratic social debate and valuable knowledge. Such losses of domain create difficulties. For instance it will become difficult to spread knowledge outside specialist groups. This reduces the opportunity for insight into scientific research, which decreases the possibility for the necessary general debate on different questions; do we want the scientists of the future to be excluded, with all their knowledge of say environment and health care debates, simply because they are unable to reach out with their knowledge in Swedish?
Communication between experts and non-specialists may become fraught with difficulty if there is no appropriate Swedish terminology to use. It is of great importance that we can debate gene technology and national economics in Swedish. If new findings are not disseminated in Swedish, the possibility for Swedish business to put these into a profitable use will lessen.
There will be large repercussions in society if many areas are lost to Swedish. We may end up in a situation in which English serves as our official language (used in schools, the workplace, administration etc.) whilst Swedish becomes a language for home use and everyday interaction. Such situations with a “high” and a “low” language are not entirely uncommon. For instance, they can be found in many former colonies, in which the old colonial language is generally used in schools etc, although the majority of the population has another mother tongue. Experiences from such countries are not a tempting precedent. On the contrary, they are unquestionably negative, showing poor results in education and social tensions.
You may think that I am exaggerating but unfortunately, I am not.
The ongoing, surreptitious depletion of the Swedish language will in the long term create a division between those who can speak English and those who cannot. Swedish will become an obstacle. It will then no longer function as an independent and rich language of the community. This will threaten our democracy. When this is upon us, it will be too late to introduce Esperanto. Instead, the only reasonable action will be to increase the proportion of students whom are educated in English (a portion that will rise to eventually include all students), to prevent Sweden from losing its edge in this increasingly internationalized and competitive world. We will not be able to retain our highly developed welfare system if we are not able to survive stiff international competition. We will not be able to be competitive in the increasingly technology-based world market if not more of us are able to speak English fluently.
I have heard several language teachers say that parents have told them that it is more important for their children to learn good English than good Swedish. Perhaps it would be an advantage in this growingly anglicized world if our children were to have all their education in English, from the very beginning?
If we were English speaking we would be able to act more forcefully in the EU.
An English speaking EU, together with USA, Canada, Australia and other other English speaking countries would marginalize most other languages and hopefully, in the long run, lead to an English speaking world. I think this would give a better world, since I believe that a world in which everyone can exchange thoughts with each other will be a better world.
Changing language from Swedish to English would during a long period of transition be seriously taxing for Swedish society. Divisions based on class and ethnic background would become deeper. We use language to organize our knowledge and experiences. Changing languages with result in enormous losses of knowledge, making it harder for us to be internationally competitive in the closely foreseeable future.
It is obvious that Swedish scientists must be English speaking if Sweden is to retain her position as a prominent research nation. This does not however entail that Swedish scientists should not be able to speak and write about their subjects in Swedish as well.
Of course English has to be used and even dominate in several domains. The internationalization of science and the labor market often makes English the only feasible working language. The problem arises when it is no longer possible to use Swedish in a certain domain, when we are unable to write about and discuss advanced computer linguistics, gene technology, family law or agricultural economics in Swedish. That is when the stupidification of the population enters together with social division, in proportion to the number of domains that are affected. A language that goes through many losses of domain is eventually restricted to family life, ceremonies and the local museum.
We members of the EU have to choose language today, as tomorrow will be too late. We have to be aware of what is happening and take responsibility for our own destiny. An EU with 24 official languages will work poorly. The costs of interpreters and translators will become unreasonable. It is entirely unrealistic to believe that there will be sufficient economic and human resources to translate all meeting and all documents to all those languages. Saying “yes” to an EU with 24 official languages is in reality an acceptance of an increasingly Anglo-dominated world, and a “no” to a multicultural Europe.
The UN has great language difficulties
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Learning your Mother Tongue
© Hans Malv, 2004