The world of Language is unique to Humans. Today there are between 6000 and 7000 languages in the world today with about 800 sounds. The last language was discovered as late as 2007. Over half of these languages are expected to die out within this century. One language that has not only survived over the centuries but is growing from strength to strength is the English Language. More than 2 billion people on the planet speak English and it has been rated as having the highest economic value among all the languages in the world.
The big reason is the incredible flexibility that the language has displayed over time to adapt to the changing global situation. As we have move from pre-modern to modern and now the post-modern era, the language has evolved from English as a Foreign Language (EFL) to English as a Second Language (ESL) to English as a Global Language. In its latest avatar it has been adapted to suit the needs of a very widely dispersed global community.
English has become like the Operating System of the Global Business environment and has been changing accordingly. Like the operating system from Microsoft, MS-Dos has changed beyond recognition over the past 30 years into Windows and beyond, so has English evolved to keep pace with the changing times. Consider the Shakespearean times – words like “thine”, “thou”, “canst” which were common would not form part of any narrative today.
A key thing about English Language there is no central institution that says what is right and what is wrong. A word in the language becomes acceptable when a renowned institution like Oxford or Cambridge includes it in its dictionary. This is allowed the language to evolve in a far more flexible and user-led way and prevented it from going down the path of languages like Greek and Latin which became very rigid and insular, resulting in their decline from their pre-eminent positions in the medieval period.
The pace of change in English language has been much slower than the pace of change in technology but the developments in technology are slowly and surely changing the language. There are studies to suggest that the pace of inclusion of words in Oxford or Cambridge dictionaries has been shortening, ie the time elapsed between the time a word was first used and when it was included in the dictionary. Consider the word ‘Podcast’ which became Oxford US dictionaries word of the year in 2005, just a few short years after iPod was launched by Apple. Same is the case of Bitcoin, which first appeared in late 2008 in a research paper and was part of the Oxford shortlist in 2013. Similarly, the words like refollow, resubscribe, hackable, MOOC and BYOD clearly owe their existence to technology. Inclusion of these words has made the language richer and more relevant.
There are some criticisms that are leveled against the growth of technology. It is often said that the young children are not reading enough, not writing enough and are spending too much time glued to their TVs and computers. Some people complain that children are using shorter versions of words in their daily language and messaging and are failing to appreciate the true nature of language.
These criticisms would be valid is the definition of “good” language was static and unchanging. We have seen from above that this is clearly not true. The environment today is hyperactive and everybody is connected through multiple devices. Young people are in the thick of it and they are grappling with a massive explosion in the amount of information and a bewildering array of stimuli – technological and otherwise. They are viewing and writing hundreds of emails, messages and social media posts every day. It is no surprise that they are not using well-constructed, fully spelt out sentences. They are in a world where shifting through mountains of information is more valuable that going into details of a few articles. They are spending more time with technology because their world requires them to do so. They did not make these world choices – they are simply responding to what they see around them.
Now, I don’t mean to belittle the value of deep reading and writing, or articulating correct sentences and of research and reflection. These are and will always be invaluable. There is great learning in books and unparalleled knowledge in many, many documents which need careful reading. A well-written, thoughtful note can go a long way in making our social and business transactions easier. But these things have to evolve and co-opt the unstoppable and massive changes that the technology is bringing in our lives.
Technology is also helping the language in a different way – it is making more people better at English. Consider the Indian situation – 1.25 billion people, out of which perhaps 125 million know some English. But a large part of the balance want to learn the language because of the social and business opportunities that it brings. They only way that such a large number of people can aspire to learn the language is through the use of technology. We will need to leverage the 900 million mobile connections and combine them with the rapid growth of internet and learning software to enable our teachers and students to learn in a high quality way at a place of their choosing and a price they can afford.
Language learning also lends itself extremely well to technology. Somebody who is functioning in a global environment and wants to be able to understand the varied accents can listen to relevant audio and video files. Somebody who wants to practice speaking can practice with a voice recognition engine. A learner who wants to learn only a few words so that he can do her job in a retail shop well can choose to do so. The technology can be leveraged to provide feedback and suggest ways to improve individual areas of weaknesses. For Learning, the future is personalized and technology is the only way that can be delivered.
In sum, therefore, technology is impacting the language in very profound ways. Technology has become both the consumer and the producer – in the sense that it is benefiting from and contributing to the growth in language. There are challenges and concerns but the change is inevitable. We will do well to embrace change rather than resist it. That way we will be able to leverage the world of opportunities that this mixture of language and technology presents.