Old Language, New Model: Is There a Community of English Speakers?

Countries where English is an official or de f...

Countries where English is an official or de facto official language (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Saki Miyata

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson discusses the rise of nationalism in Europe through the study of language and the establishment of official or vernacular languages. A “revolution in European ideas about language” (Anderson 1991) evolved right after the discovery of the civilizations other than European, which were thought to be much older than the European civilization.

The “revolution in European ideas about language” included the beginning of the first scientific study of language, including comparing grammar, classifying language into families, reconstructing language by scientific reasoning of “proto-language” (Anderson 1991). These studies of language created new fields of professions, which pushed further increase in printed language including dictionaries. In addition, Anderson states that the so-called middle class population “visualize in a general way the existence of thousands and thousands like themselves through print language” (Anderson 1991). Here, it implies that the population sharing the same vernacular language or readable language were able to imagine a community.

I was particularly interested in the concept that sharing the same language creates communities. Anderson states that “power and print-language mapped different realms” (Anderson, 1991). To give an example, a German speaking population was imagined as a community, including every German speaker meaning both native German speakers and the population who did not come from Germany but was able to speak the German language. Can we apply this to the current English speaking world? The English speaking world includes the United States, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries that use English, as well as immigrant populations. Although their countries may be different, these groups of people all share and understand the same language.

If sharing a common language means to belong to the same community, can ESL (English as a second language) students be included in the “English-speaker’s community” as well? Can accents such as “British-accent”, “American-accent”, and “Australian-accent” all be classified as one community? In order to investigate who belongs to this “English community”, the ownership of English is questioned. Pavlenko and Norton interestingly state that “In many English-speaking context, the ownership of English by white immigrants is contested to a significantly lesser degree than by racialized newcomers” (Palvenco and Norton, 2007). Does this imply that the English language belongs to whites?

Do different language have different degrees of unity? Is it true that the smaller or lesser the population which shares a language, the stronger sense of community? In Japan, one of the criteria to be recognized as Japanese is to be able to speak the Japanese language. In Japanese society, the Japanese language is considered unique and it is true that Japan is the only country that uses Japanese. However, English is used or learned all around the world. For example, in Canada, being able to speak English was not considered important when determining who is Canadian.

Another question is how well do we have to know the language in order to be in the community? If Benedict Anderson’s statement of imagining a community by sharing common language can be applied to the English speaking world, then these members are increasing drastically through the globalization.

For further research I would also like to investigate what for and why these people “wants” or feel necessary to join this community of the English language.

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