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Language: the final frontier?

15 November, 2011

In today’s globalized world, nationality, as the traditional definition of identity, is becoming increasingly irrrelevant. What, therefore, still separates us?

Modern communications technology means that physical space is no longer a real barrier; online, we can speak directly with someone thousands of miles away, watch events in far-flung corners of the world as they unfold, and spread revolutions using only social networks. The Occupy movement is a prime example of this: its followers largely belong to the young, connected, globalized generation and the movement’s message has therefore transcended national boundaries to gain support across the globe.

What, therefore, still separates us? With national borders becoming increasingly fuzzy, one of the very few remaining barriers to an entirely globalized world is language. Language, as a shared heritage, connects us with strangers; and language, as an impenetrable barrier, separates us from the rest of the world. To learn a foreign language is to gain access into a new community, and gradually to improve, to feel the fog of confusion lift as you begin to understand what is going on around you, is one of the most rewarding experiences possible.

The role of language in the world has been brilliantly and very beautifully demonstrated by the artist and cartographer Eric Fischer. Using the Twitter API and language recognition software, Fischer has mapped the global use of languages on Twitter. This fascinating map paints a different picture to the standard global map: language boundaries are blurred, and more permeable than poitical boundaries. For instance, spots of Spanish-speaking pink leap across the US-Mexico border with an ease many people in the physical world dream of, demonstrating the strength of the Spanish langage in the Southern states, especially Texas. Particularly relevant to Spain is the dominance of yellow Catalan over pink Castilian in Catalonia, a fact which clearly illustrates Spain’s multilingual nature, and the centrality of language to Catalan identity.

The closeness of the modern world presents a clear motive for language-learning. When we have the means of global communication, why allow language to remain a barrier? As far as this concerns me, I find Fischer’s map genuinely inspirational: comparing the overlapping linguistic boundaries of continental Europe with the linguistically homogenous, grey UK makes me more determined than ever to dedicate myself to learning languages, in order to embrace the modern international identity.

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