Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Language, the Great Communicator

I debated soft power with Joshua Kurlantzick last night at the Core Club in New York City.

One of the things I argued was that the United States is becoming less exceptional relative to other countries in the world. While Americans have seen themselves a part of an exceptional power--a city on a hill, a beacon of freedom--globalization and the international system have in fact empowered rival countries to become relatively more powerful. Fareed Zakaria makes a similar point in his new article "The End of Exceptionalism" in Newsweek.

Here is an excerpt:

"[A new Pew survey on global attitudes] highlights the fact that that the United States is becoming the odd country out. The most striking statistic in the survey has to do with trade. Thumping majorities everywhere said that growing trade ties between countries are "very good" or "somewhat good"—91 percent in China, 85 percent in Germany, 88 percent in Bulgaria, 87 percent in South Africa, 93 percent in Kenya and so on. Of the 47 countries surveyed, the one that came in dead last was … America, at 59 percent. The only country within 10 points of us was Egypt."

Brent Scowcroft makes the point in the National Interest in an article that asks whether the United States is becoming the dispensable nation:

"...we are not indispensable in the sense that those of us in Washington are the only ones who know what needs to be done for the good of the entire human race, and that the rest of the world can either join us or be against us. And we have discovered over the last decade that it is increasingly difficult for us to build together any meaningful sort of coalition acting on that belief. It doesn’t provide leadership and only engenders resistance."

Much of this shift is due to the changing nature of power (toward nonstate actors and to nontraditional combatants), the increasingly globalized nature of problems (climate change, pandemics), and the upside of globalization (states have tapped the global economic growth engine to narrow the gap).

Another question that came up last night was: What role will language play in the emergence of China as a rival power? Clearly, language does matter (this article says English speakers and Chinese speakers look at math problems differently).

But how does language relate to power? In terms of soft power, should we say that when more business is done in Chinese than in English, we have reached some kind of tipping point? Or when Chinese stop learning English and mentioning Western concepts like democracy (Hu mentions democracy 60 times in his speech this week), will we witness a new global order? I am betting it won't happen soon. More likely, we will see a convergence that embraces universal values.

The discussion reminds me of the recent concern about the death of many languages. Every 14 days, a language dies. (Here is a discussion on this trend in Global Voices in which many French speakers weigh in.) I have been following this topic and it seems that the argument for lamenting the disappearance of languages is that thousands of years of knowledge embedded in each language will be lost.

OK. But isn't language's primary function to communicate? When more people speak the same language, more communication is possible. Greater communication, in theory, reduces conflict. It also exposes human rights abuses and other problems word wide--as Nick Gvosdev argued in his excellent piece "Reversing Babel."

Finally, it is curious to note that two of the five hotspots for language disappearance are in North America and four of the five hotspots are in the G8.


Matthew Hennessey said...

Devin -- You make several excellent points here. Left untendered, however, is the question of whether or not their is inherent value in diversity -- a frequently voiced concern of globalization's detractors. Does globalization equate to homogenization (of language, of culture, of cuisine, etc.)? Or does the upside of globalization, (such as the increased ability to communicate and all that entails) outweigh this loss?

Devin Stewart said...

Matthew, there is an inherent robustness that comes from diversity--resistance to disease, financial portfolio risk management, etc. But as you and others have pointed out, while globalization is seen as homogenizing culture, it actually facilitates new ideas, knowledge, and even languages. Moreover, as the Economist magazine famously noted, the most globalized countries are England, Germany, France, Japan, and the United States--five countries that are not melding into one culture.

Evan O'Neil said...

Palenquero is an interesting example of a threatened language. Even those who are trying to preserve it describe the process as evolutionary. Which brings up the point that languages are always in flux, despite the best attempts of dictionaries and academies to freeze them. Is either situation a cause for panic? Aside from several dozen Shakespearean scholars, there's no mass mourning for Early Modern English.

Globalization can even create languages, such as pidgins and creoles, though the extinction rate is far higher due to contact situations of asymmetric power. And sometimes language differences confer tactical hard power advantage—think of the Navajo Code Talkers.

As far as peace and communication are concerned, I think Devin is correct: language as a divider is overshadowed by language as a transmitter of ideas. Haven't we all met the foreigner with whom we speak broken language but agree on principles that other native speakers reject? Linguistic isolation makes it easier to communicate in one's mother tongue—a path of least resistance.

Does diversity have its own value? Diversity is just another way of saying there are niches, to which it's hard to assign moral value. Using biological analogies is always risky—a risk that isn't possible without the creativity of language!

Language as art and philosophy and religion is hard to deny. When the invading Chinese destroyed Tibetan Buddhist scrolls, knowledge was lost. If the entire Internet were to collapse tomorrow people would freak. The U.S. Constitution drops down into a bombproof shelter in emergencies. The Folger Shakespeare Library has nearly 80 copies of the First Folio. People love language, its significance, and the mediums by which it is transmitted—including bodies, each other.

Will these aspects be dominated by the pure practical nature of communication, such as English as the language of science? That's the story we watch unfold.