Sunday, October 24, 2021

QUID EGO FACEO?: A Case for Latin

If you read my previous post, you can tell I've been thinking a lot about languages lately. 

You have no idea. 

About three years ago I began studying Spanish, or rather picked it up again after decades. Then almost exactly one year ago, I decided on top of that, to take up Italian. And just recently I added a third language to the mix, Latin.

There is a method to my madness, the three languages I'm learning are closely related, the siblings Spanish and Italian both being the children of the mother tongue, Latin. My previous knowledge of Spanish made learning Italian easier, especially the grammar, and taking wobbly beginner's steps in Italian made me a little more confident with my Spanish, While I do from time to time confuse the two, I'd say it's worked out pretty well. 

But why Latin? Who after all would want to learn a dead language?* There's a question that's been pondered about, especially in academic circles for at least a couple generations. 

Here are the standard answers you get from Latinophiles:

  • Latin is the mother tongue of the Romance languages so gaining a knowledge of it, makes learning French, Portuguese, the two languages mentioned above, and a host of other languages much easier.
  • Almost sixty percent of the words in English have Latin origins so leaning Latin helps improve one's English vocabulary. 
  • Learning Latin's complex case structure helps in learning other languages as well such as German and the Slavic languages. 
  • Many terms used in science, medicine and law come directly from Latin so a prior knowledge of the language gives people a heads up when entering those fields.  
  • Much of the collected wisdom of Western Civilization put down in writing from the time of Julius Caesar to the nineteenth century was written in Latin, so knowing the language enables one to come in direct contact with those works as they were written, rather than through the lens of a third party interpreter. 
  • Learning Latin makes you smarter.  

These are all good reasons to learn Latin and there are a host of others. But as many folks point out, quite reasonably I might add, all of these, except the second to the last, are fringe benefits of learning the language, and can all be achieved in other ways without going to the trouble of learning Latin. 

For example:

  • If you're interested in learning Spanish, Italian, German, Czech (as I am), or any other language, just learn those. The truth is, learning a foreign language is a skill and learning ANY foreign language greatly improves your ability to learn others. 
  • If you're looking to improve your vocabulary through Latin, you can simply study the Latin root words relevant to your language, again without learning Latin. I did just that in my high school etymology class which improved my English vocabulary as well as gave me an interest in learning other languages. Yes it took forty years to address that but hey, better late than never.
  • You don't need to take Latin to learn terms used in the profession of your choice, just learn the terms. 
  • And finally studying lots of things can make you smarter, it doesn't have to be Latin. 

But here's the thing, only by learning Latin can you accomplish ALL of those things, and much much more!

OK I know, it's a hard sell, especially in this day and age.

There are a few things going against Latin. For starters, our contemporary values, at least from those who call themselves "progressive" (not sure why that's become such a pejorative term), place an emphasis on learning from a vast array of cultures, not just the culture of Europe and the colonial expansion that culture inspired. 

I get that and champion it. After all let's face it, our culture has been inundated with education focused on Eurocentric themes at the exclusion of all others. It's time for a change. Latin, the paradigm of the "dead white man's language", represents all that. 

On the other hand, I don't believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Over two thousand years of history and wisdom that has greatly influenced our culture and the way we think, both for the better and the worse, should not be discounted. 

Then there's the notion that we should concentrate on teaching our children practical things that will help them get jobs and get through the daily routine of life. If I had a quarter for every time I've been subjected to a meme that said something like "Wouldn't it be better to teach our children how to balance their check book rather than teaching them how factor a quadratic equation?" I'd be, well a lot richer than I am today. 

My ideas on the subject jibe perfectly with those of advocates of liberal education, best expressed by the president of the college my son is currently attending. He said essentially this: "We don't know what the jobs of the next decade or so will be, so instead of teaching your children how to do a job that already exists, we each them how they can learn to do a job that doesn't exist yet, but certainly will."

Learn of course is the key word there, hence the emphasis. I'm a strong believer that schools, especially at the elementary and secondary levels, exist not just to teach our kids stuff, but much more important, to teach and inspire them to learn things on their own, kind of like the biblical passage that says give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for life.  

So I believe there's a good reason to think that the experience we gain from the mental exercises of learning something like Latin  can be applied to a whole range of other things we do in our lives. And it makes us more rounded individuals to boot.

Take speaking our own language. As I recall, my high school etymology class consisted of receiving a new list of root words at the start of every week, the first half of the class, Greek, the second, Latin. We memorized the roots and their English counterparts, then learned the English words that were formed by putting those roots together. Fascinating stuff but here's the deal, one of the least inspiring ways to learn a language, including your own, is to memorize random lists of words. And in this case, it wasn't even words, but parts of words.

For most language learners, it's much better to learn words in context, preferably through sentences, articles and stories geared to the students' level. Not only is it a vastly more interesting process, but it's a way more effective teaching device. 

Consider this passage from the Roman poet of the 1st Century BCE, Horace. I found it in one of the classic Latin textbooks, Wheelock's Latin and it has been edited and adapted into prose for the sake of clarity for newbies such as myself:

Agricola et vitam et fortunam nautae saepe laudat; nauta magnum fortunam et vitam poetae saepe laudat; et poeta vitam et agros agricolae laudat. Sine philosophia avari viri de pecunia semper cogitant: multum pecuniam habent, sed nihil virum avarum satiat. 

Like all the passages in the Wheelock book, it's up to the reader to translate it so I'll do my best:

The farmer often praises both the life and fortune of the sailor; the sailor often praises both the great fortune and life of the poet, and the poet praises the life and the land of the farmer. Without philosophy, greedy men always think of money, they have a lot of money, but no greedy man is satisfied.   

I know this translation leaves a little to be desired (in fact they all do as we'll see in a moment), however it's the best I can do after only about a month. But the moral of the story, which is as old as the ages, is as Dr. Wheelock points out: "The Grass is Always Greener." 

That passage not only transmits wisdom across the millennia, it's also a great lesson in etymology:

  • For starters, the word Philosophia was "borrowed" from the Greeks and is composed of two roots, phil (love) and sophia (wisdom). 
  • Agricola and agros come from the same stem, agr (land). Lots of English words come from that stem, the most obvious being agriculture. 
  • From vitam, and its stem vit (life) we get vital, vitality, vitamin, etc. 
  • From nautam, naut (sailor) we get nautical, etc.
  • From cogitant, cog (think) we get cogent, cognizant, etc. 
  • From pecunia, pecun (money) we get pecuniary, pecunious, etc. 
  • From viri, vir (men) we get virile, virtue, etc. 
  • Fortunam, poeta, laudat and a few others should be self-explanitory. 
  • Oh yes and from et cetera (and the rest), we get etc.        

Maybe it's just me but I think it's vastly more interesting learning these stems in the context of actual words in action, rather than simply as a random list of stems. 

As I mentioned, the one unequivocal reason to learn Latin is to be able to read over two thousand year's worth of thought and expression in its original form. 

Here is another piece by Horace, this time in its unedited form in verse. If you're not already familiar with it, you may recognize a couple of words in the last line: 

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi

finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios

temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!

Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,

quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare              

Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi

spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida

aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

My Latin isn't nearly good enough to translate all of that but here's a link to a page with four, count 'em four different translations.

But did you catch it? "Carpe diem" and the philosophy that inspired those words, have become a pop culture phenomenon since the movie Dead Poets' Society was released in 1989. Here's a link to the scene where an English professor named John Keating, encourages his students to "seize the day." 

In addition to making me realize how much I miss Robin Williams, it is truly a wonderful, dare I say inspiring scene with no stop going un-pulled in the emotive department. 

Like the message of the earlier quote from Horace, I believe the message of this stanza is very clear, life is short, so make the most of every day. 

But according to the Australian philosopher Roman Krznaric, carpe dium has been "hijacked" by a society which has turned it into little more than a marketing gimmick. Krznaric sites the Nike slogan "Just Do It" which in itself is more or less in the spirit of the ancient mantra. However according to Krznaric:

the spirit of "Seize the day" has been surreptitiously hijacked by consumer culture, which has recast it as Black Friday shopping sprees and one-click buying: Just Do It has come to mean Just Buy It.

Writing in JSTOR Daily, Chi Luu takes Krznaric's observations one step further:

Even life experiences have become commodities, in a world where people can no longer afford to buy a place to live. We’re encouraged instead to buy into precarious economic lifestyles celebrated by ad campaigns like freelance startup Fiverr’s “You eat a coffee for lunch… Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.” This is the “carpe diem” aesthetic of a modern world of aggressive action, not all that different from the “work till you drop” mentality of industrialism.

My guess is that "working until you drop" isn't exactly what Horace had in mind when he wrote his poem.

Part of the problem, according to Kznaric and Luu lies in the translation. Luu puts it bluntly when she says that "carpe dium" is a mistranslation because "carpe" does not mean "seize" but rather "pluck", as you might pluck a flower. Obviously according to her, the two English words convey a quite different meaning. 

It's true that had Horace wanted to use an explicitly more forceful metaphor, he could have chosen the very similar word "cape", from which our word "capture" comes. 

But he didn't.

Luu suggests that using the metaphor "seize" rather than "pluck" is... example of one of the more telling ways that we mistranslate metaphors from one language to another, revealing in the process our hidden assumptions about what we really value. Metaphors may map to similar meanings across languages, but their subtle differences can have a profound effect on our understanding of the world.

As Luu suggests, we are a society who values action over passivity, and our metaphors reflect that. So it's only natural that we would choose the aggressive metaphor "seize", over the more passive "pluck".

But wait a minute. Ancient Rome wasn't exactly "pink tea for mollycoddles" either. They meant serious business as we all know, look at what they did to Jesus. So it seems a little silly to assume that an ancient Roman would be any more averse to using a forceful metaphor than we would.

It has to be remembered that except for most nouns, there is rarely a perfect one to one correspondence between words in different languages. An adage I've heard over and over again in my adventures in language learning is that words don't mean words, words evoke ideas. And different languages have different ways to express those ideas. From its appearances in a great variety of texts that survive, it turns out the word carpere (the infinite form of the verb from which the imperative carpe comes) is very flexible, that is, in different contexts it can mean a great deal of things. Indeed, many English words including "pluck", "harvest", "seize", and dozens more can be appropriately used to stand in for it. English has many similar words. 

Take the word "take":

  • We can take a nap.
  • We can take no prisoners.
  • We can take the bus.
  • We can take the car to the garage.
  • We can tell someone to take a hike.
  • We can take off our clothes.
  • We can take off in an airplane.
  • We can take some time off.
  • We can take on a project.
  • We can take the spaghetti.
  • We can take credit cards.
  • We can take something that doesn't belong to us. 
  • We can "take it easy but take it." (Woody Guthrie)
  • We can even take the day.

In each of those examples, the verb "take" performs a different action, and each sentence conveys a different feeling, some mundane, some passive, some defiant, and some aggressive. But even though we're using the same verb, there is no ambiguity in any of those sentences for someone who is fluent in the English language, because it's all about the context. But if we were to translate those sentences into another language, we'd most likely have to use a different verb for each one.  

Of course, Horace didn't write seize the day or pluck the day, he wrote carpe dium. And just the same as those examples of take, anyone with a good knowledge of Latin can understand what Horace meant.

Could it be though, that Horace was being intentionally a little ambiguous in his choice of carpe over cape? 

Much like ourselves, people in Ancient Rome would have had their own interpretation of what it meant for themselves to carpe dium. For some it may have meant stop and smell the roses, for others it may have meant to screw it and spend their life savings on that snazzy new chariot. After all, vita brevis est. 

Given that, it's possible that a long lost ancient Roman version of Roman Kznaric, or maybe even Horace himself might have bemoaned the fact that carpe dium was being hijacked 2,000 years ago, just as it is today.

Because as we learned from the first writing of Horace I mentioned, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For what it's worth, as a translation I prefer "seize the day" by a mile. 

Pluck in my opinion is a terrible word. For starters it rhymes with a common English four-letter word. Imagine someone listening to that passage from Horace being read in English and mishearing the phrase as "fuck the day." Furthermore, every old comic will tell you that words with the letter "K" in them are inherently funny. Had Robin Williams used the line "pluck the day boys" in the movie, people would have thought he was making a joke. 

Most of all, when I think of pluck, I don't think of flowers, I pick those. No, I think "pluck the banjo" or "pluck the chicken".   

Shall I pluck the day like I would pluck a chicken? I don't think so.

Long story short, no matter how good the translation, it's always better in the original.

Of course as Horace reminds us, life is short and most of us mere mortals don't have the time to study the language of every piece of writing that interests us. I'll probably never get around to reading the Old Testament in its original Ancient Hebrew, the Quran in Arabic, or the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, not to mention the classic works of Chinese literature in their original Ancient Chinese, or modern Chinese for that matter. I started to read the Gospel of St. John in Latin, (In principio erat Verbum...) but had to remind myself that it too is a translation from the original Greek. 

All of these ancient languages are well worth learning, especially if you have an interest in the particular culture they are associated with. But since life is short, I'm not going to get too carried away with my bucket list. 

On the other hand:

Τα ελληνικά μπορεί να μην είναι και τόσο κακή ιδέα.

* A "dead" language is defined by linguists as a language that currently has no native speakers. That distinguishes it from an "extinct" language which is lost. Currently, Latin, a dead language by that definition, is still widely studied around the world, but it's difficult to get a reliable number of how many people actually know it, tougher still to get an accurate number of people who speak it fluently. That number ranges from about 200 (ridiculously low I think) to the tens of thousands. That's understandable as most folks study the language purely as an academic exercise, not as one to communicate verbally with other people.  

Here's a guy who definitely speaks Latin fluently. His name is Luke Ranieri and he's a strong advocate not only of learning Latin, oh yes and Ancient Greek as well, but speaking them, truly bringing those ancient languages to life. In the video below, he goes to the Vatican, where the official language is still technically Latin, and tries to find people who actually speak it. He found only a handful and as you can tell, the three priests who agreed to go on camera, speak it quite hesitantly.  

But I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be a resurgence of Latin, Ancient Greek and other ancient languages in the future, thanks to of all things, the internet, and guys like Ranieri.

By the way I kind of cringe whenever I hear Latin described as being a dead language. I think eternal is more like it.


Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Lingua Franca

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

-Genesis 11

While the sequence of events is skewed and the time frame of the biblical account of the birth of the splendid variety of languages we human beings speak may be off by a hundred thousand years, give or take a few millennia, it is very possible that all our languages come from one single, very ancient source, a long-lost proto-language.

Flash forward a thousand centuries to 1870's Bialystock, Poland, (in those days part of the Russian Empire), where L.L. Zamenhof had an idea. Perhaps influenced by this passage from Genesis, especially the part about nothing being impossible for humans, Zamenhof was dismayed that his town was separated by four distinct groups, all speaking different languages and no group particularly fond of any other. He concluded that perhaps the reason for the discord, not only in his home town but around the world, was the lack of a common language.

So he invented one.

Zamenhof's invention, Esperanto, was never intended to replace any language, but rather be a universal second language, simple enough that anyone could learn in a reasonable amount of time. The brilliance of his idea was that people conversing in Esperanto would (theoretically anyway) be on an equal plane with one another as no one would have the disadvantage of speaking a foreign language to another person speaking in their native tongue.

A utopian idea? You bet it was. With the decline of old empires and the dawn of new ones, the old world order was rapidly changing in the nineteenth century and the era was rife with idealistic thoughts about how best to go into the future. 

Esperanto is not at all unique as a language fabricated to become a common second language designed to unite disparate groups of people. Swahili which has been around since the 18th century, is a combination of many of the Bantu dialects and other languages found in East Africa, along with the languages of the colonizers and foreign traders, namely Arabic, Persian, English and Portuguese thrown in for good measure.  As the lingua franca of much of East Africa, there are approximately 98 million speakers of Swahili, making it the 14th most spoken language in the world. It is the official language of Kenya, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania, the latter of which has many people for whom Swahili is their first language.

Bahasa Indonesian is a language that combines mostly Malay with Javanese, the two most widely spoken native tongues in Indonesia, along with several of the hundreds of other languages and/or dialects, depending upon your definition of the words, found in that great archipelago nation. Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1949 and the language was created to unite the incredibly diverse soon-to-be-nation. At nearly 200 million speakers, Indonesian is the 10th most spoken language in the world. 

To encourage their spread, Swahili and Bahasa Indonesian are grammatically speaking, simplified versions of their parent languages. In the case of the latter, modern Indonesian was simplified to the point that many Indonesians avoid it in favor of their mother tongues, as the invented official language of their nation is often found to be insufficiently expressive.

The same cannot be said of Italian

But like Indonesian and Swahili, "Standard Italian" is the lingua franca of the Italian peninsula plus the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, a region with many dozens of local dialect/languages of its own. Also like Swahili and Bahasa, Italian was cultivated, although to a much lesser degree, taking the lion's share of its substance from the Tuscan language that was spoken in Florence in the 13th and 14th centuries, while also paying homage to other regions, from the languages spoken in the Piedmont in the far north of the peninsula, to the island of Sicily in the south, and even extending into present day France and the language of Provence, in Italian, Provinciale.

The person credited with this and who thusly was bestowed with the title: "The Father of the Italian Language" was none other than the poet Dante Alighieri.

The lingua franca of Dante's time, at least in the intellectual and literary world of Europe, was Latin. Like his predecessors and peers,  Dante wrote in Latin. But around the turn of the 14th Century, Dante wrote an essay, also in Latin titled De vulgari eloquentia (On the eloquence of the vernacular), where he extolled the virtues of the language of the people, commonly referred to as "Vulgar Latin", specifically that of the Italian peninsula and Sicily. What impressed Dante, was that the people's language was continuously evolving, speaking both of the people and the time and place in which they lived, while Latin stood still, both literally and figuratively carved in stone. As such the vernacular languages provided a means of expression unthinkable in the ancient language.

While he was still working on De vugari eloquentia, for political reasons Dante became permanently exiled from his home town Florence, which likely forced him to stop work on the project. 

Instead he began putting his ideas into action by writing what would become his magnum opus, the epic poem La comedia, his three stop trip into the afterlife. Written primarily in Dante's native Fiorentino, the verse of the poem is augmented with Siciliano, Piedmontese, Provinciale, and other languages the author felt best expressed his intentions for the poem at any given moment, including Latin and even noelogisms, made up words, when existing words didn't serve his purpose.

La comedia profoundly influenced the work of the subsequent generations of writers in the peninsula, most notably Francesco Petrarca (whom English speakers refer to as Petrarch) and Giovanni Bocaccio, the two of whom along with Dante would become known as the "Three Crowns" of the Italian language. From that point on the language crated by Dante and his successors would become the de facto literary language of the Italian peninsula.

It would be another 400 plus years for the literary language to become the official language of Italy. That took place in name only, in 1861 with the region's unification into one country. It would take nearly another century before the language of Dante would achieve a critical mass of acceptance as the true lingua franca of the country, which came along with the advent of greater mobility and mass media. Dante's Italian is currently the 25th most spoken language in the world with almost 28 million speakers. 

With the creation and implementation of lingua francas. like most linguistic developments, there are two sides to the coin. On the one side, common languages unite people, ideally anyway. On the flip side, once that happens, the old language/dialects they replaced lose much of their relevancy and may in time, be swallowed up by the common language. With that is not just the loss of a language, but also the loss of the culture that created the language. 

This is an issue that has existed for as long as diverse human cultures have come in contact with one another. 

Only recently have there been efforts made on an official level to slow down the wave of disappearing languages. The government of Spain for example officially recognized four languages spoken there as co-official languages of the country, in addition to its official-official language, which with over 500 million speakers, is the fourth most spoken language in the world. 

The co-official languages of Spain are Catalan, Galecian, Basque, and Aranese. This is a good thing because Spain which for decades languished under the repressive dictatorship of Francisco Franco, effectively banned the use of any language other than the lingua franca of the country, Castillian Spanish. On the flip side, there are dozens of other languages spoken in Spain not invited to a seat at the table of languages by the Spanish government, thus are relegated to the kids' table of regional dialects.

So what's the difference between a language and a dialect? That my friend is a loaded question. What it boils down to is that it depends if you're talking in purely linguistic terms, or in Socio/Political/Economic terms. 

The best and most famous distinction I know of comes tongue-in-cheek from the Yiddish linguist Max Wienreich, who attributed the following comment to an audience member at one of his lectures: 

A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot. 
(A language is a dialect with an army and navy.)

In other words, it's a language if the government says it is, otherwise it's merely a dialect, not deserving of any special recognition. 

But in reality in the case of Spain, with the exception of Basque which is an anomaly, linguistically speaking, Castilian Spanish is no different from Catalan, Galecian, and the plethora of other dialect/languages traditionally spoken in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Romania, in that they all derive from Vulgar Latin. So in a pure linguistic sense, all of  these are no more than dialects of Latin. The difference is that the Latin dialects commonly known as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Rumanian, all have the official stamp of approval from their respective governments, the ones with the armies and navies. 

Interestingly enough, many native speakers of the official language of Spain, including some Latin Americans, recognize this reality and address it by claiming that their mother tongue is not español (Spanish), but in fact castellano. 

So anyway, whatever happened to Esperanto?

Well it did get off to a good start, especially after World War I when the international trauma after the so called "war to end all wars" created for a brief period, a universal desire for piece and cooperation. Consequently interest in the language spread worldwide. 

It would be the French who put the kibosh on Esperanto for a brief time anyway, after a resolution was put forward in the League of Nations that the language be adopted for use in the league. Ten member delegations voted in favor of the resolution and only one, the French, voted no, supposedly out of fears that boosting Esperanto would mean the French language would lose its status as you guessed it, a lingua franca.

But the real blow to Esperanto came as a result of the rise of nationalist totalitarianism in Europe in the thirties. Not surprisingly, Hitler was opposed to it, even mentioning Esperanto in his manifesto Mein Kampf, calling the language a conduit for both an international Jewish conspiracy (as Dr. Zamenhof was Jewish), and Bolshevism. But the Bolshevists themselves were not too enthusiastic either, as along with bans of Esperanto in Nazi Germany and Spain under Franco, Stalin also put his heavy boot down on the language in the Soviet Union.

After the Second World War, Esperanto had a revival of sorts on the international stage as the newly formed United Nations gave it its lukewarm support, although it never officially adopted Esperanto as an official language of the organization. 

Today Esperanto is alive and well, some may say even thriving. It is spoken in all corners of the world, although it's a far cry from being the international lingua franca that Dr. Zamenhof dreamed of. It's hard to say exactly how many speakers of the language worldwide there are, estimates range from one hundred thousand to two million. How many of those are actually fluent speakers is even harder to say.

There may not be many of them but the folks in Esperantoland (yes that's a real term), are certainly enthusiastic. Here's a link to a website promoting the language.

But let's get serious, does Esperanto ever stand a chance at being a global lingua franca?

Sadly, even if its advocates can convince about a billion or so people around the world to learn the language, there would still be one major roadblock, English. 

For better or worse, English has a few things going for it that make it an ideal global lingua franca for our day, which is exactly what it is. 

The most obvious is that a LOT of people already speak it. It's estimated that over 1.1 billion people speak English, more than one eighth of the world's population. As such, English is the most spoken language in the world, with Mandarin Chinese a close second. An even more telling number is that only about a third of the number of English speakers, speak it as their native language. That means almost 800 million people have learned English as a second language. 

Secondly, as languages go, unlike Mandarin, English is relatively easy to learn, although not nearly as easy as Esperanto.

Probably the most compelling reason why English is the de facto lingua franca of the world today is that people want to learn it. Why is that so? Well yes, in part because so many people speak it in the first place, knowing the language improves one's chances of success in an increasingly global economy. 

But there's far more to it than that. Not only were the British relentless colonizers who imposed their way of life and their language on much of the world, but they and their former colonies were and continue to be wildly successful exporters of an extremely valuable commodity, popular culture. 

That point was driven home to me recently when I discovered the web site called Radio Garden, which I highly recommend. The site, (it's also available as an app), presents a Google Map 3D image of earth, where you can scroll to any location on the  planet where there are people, and listen to the available streaming radio stations from that city or region. In my humble opinion, this is one of the most delightful applications of the internet I've ever encountered. My hope was to listen to the tremendous variety of cultures and languages the world has to offer. But what became immediately apparent, was how similar radio programming is throughout the world, much of it devoted to the playing of pop music, the vast majority of which is in English. On Radio Garden, you have to make an effort (which is well worth it) to find radio stations that don't sound exactly like the stations we have at home.

To further the point, a couple years ago when we were looking at colleges with our son, we had encounters with students at two different schools who by pure chance were both women from Bangladesh, both of whom came to this country for the first time when they began college a few years earlier. In both cases the young women spoke English with barely a trace of a foreign accent; if someone had told me they were from Chicago, I would have believed it. When I brought that up to my son and posed the question of how these two in such a short time could speak English like native speakers, he had a two word answer for me, "the internet." He didn't have to say out loud the third word, "stupid" but it was implied.   

These young women are by no means unique. They were drawn to this culture and this language because it is everywhere, you simply cannot escape it, wherever you go on the  planet.

By the same token, Esperanto has a few things working against its becoming an international lingua franca. 

For starters as I said, relatively few people speak it. That alone shouldn't discourage advocates as those prospects could change in subsequent generations. But I'm afraid they won't because...

Esperanto has no culture to speak of. Its advocates would argue that I'm wrong, that whenever two or more people get together to speak a common language, there exists a culture, to which I agree. But let's be serious, it's hard, even insulting to compare any of the plethora of world cultures that have existed for centuries or more from the six continents (sorry Antarctica), with a group of enthusiastic people getting together to speak an invented language while playing games, dancing and taking ukulele lessons. Don't get me wrong, I find the idea of a universal second language to be a noble one, compelling in every sense of the word. But as it stands now, Esperantoland is more of a club than a culture. 

Any expert on teaching languages will tell you that the most necessary component in successfully learning a new language is motivation. And the two most important engines behind motivation, as I see it anyway, are necessity and passion. You can have one or the other, preferably both, but I'm afraid without either, forget about learning a new language.

Some examples:

Perhaps the job you love requires you to either become bilingual or hit the road. That's a strong motivator. Or you're a student who has just moved to a foreign country where you don't speak the language and are forced to attend a school where nobody speaks your language. Another painfully strong motivator. People in such situations tend to be very efficient language learners. As for the best language learners in the world, children learning their first language, failure is simply not an option. Unless there is a cognitive issue interfering with the acquisition of language, the success rate for children learning their first language is practically 100 percent.   

For every student studying a foreign language, there may be a different reason to learn that particular language. But one thing is constant, language and the culture that spawned it are inseparable. 

I've mentioned before in this space that I'm studying Spanish. My favorite YouTube Spanish teacher is a guy named Juan Fernandez. Years ago he left his native Spain partly because of the difficult economic situation there, but also because he had a burning desire to learn English. Why? So he could speak the same language as John Lennon. It may sound like a trivial reason, but sometimes that's all it takes. Maybe you have a passion for French cinema which inspires you to learn French. Perhaps you want to read Dostoevsky the way it was written so you learn Russian. Or maybe you fell in love with someone from Beijing and you decide to learn Mandarin. 

The problem with Esperanto is that no one needs to learn it, at least in our day. As for the passion to learn it, well, all I can say is to each her own.

Sadly I'm afraid the only way Esperanto will become the international lingua franca is if one day the world will be taken over by a global dictator who decrees that all the earth shall learn and speak it. Somehow I don't think that is exactly what Dr. Zamenhoff had in mind.

So like it or not, we're stuck with English as the world's de facto lingua franca which it will remain until it's not. 

That's not such a bad thing, after all. given the fact that a large majority of English speakers already are not native speakers, the chances of an encounter between two people for whom English is their second language is very good.

But still, doesn't it give an unfair advantage to native English speakers? 

Well as I said above, like every linguistic event, it's a two edged sword. We native English speakers tend to be notoriously bad at learning other languages. Why? Because we don't need to. That may sound arrogant but it isn't; the necessity to learn other languages as I said above is one of the great motivators to learn other languages.

And for many reasons much too numerous to go into here, being multi-lingual, as the majority of the world is, is a great advantage to everybody.

So no, I would say having our native language being the lingua franca of the world puts us native English speakers at a distinct disadvantage. 

But there is hope for us. It is predicted that in a generation or two, another language will take over as the international lingua franca, probably one of the languages that already is widely spoken around the world. It could be Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic or Russian. Some say even French might make a comeback, putting the franca back into lingua franca so to speak. 

Or I may be wrong and it might turn out to be Esperanto after all.

If you happen to be one of those people who cringe at the thought of learning another language, then you might want to root for Esperanto. Because it's a heck of a lot easier to learn than any of those others.

Nu, mi finis homojn, adiaŭ kaj feliĉa lernado!