Another look at language via Ted Talks

This post is going to be a conglomerate of Ted Talks I’ve come across in regards to language, power, and globalization. Although these talks do not explicitly reference Kenya and Tanzania, I feel that the underlying arguments are certainly applicable to my research topic.

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In the first talk, English Teacher Patricia Ryan looks at language loss and the globalization of English. She states: “Languages are dying at an unprecedented rate” (cough cough, language of the Hadza). She was brought to teach English in Kuwait, thus her positionality plays a large role. She believes that teaching English has morphed from being a “mutually beneficial practice” to a “massive international business” that it is today. “The best education is to be found in the universities of the UK and US–everybody wants to have an English education, naturally.” She states that English has been connected to intelligence. Ryan discusses the power of discourse and how people believe that the best jobs go to the people who can speak English. Ryan’s argument has Foucault written all over it. We can’t think about the English language without thinking about English-speaking peoples who are the bearers of power! English here, English there, English everywhere!

Next up is Jay Walker! An entrepreneur and inventor focused on mania, Walker addresses the mania for “learning English.” 2 billion people are trying to learn English worldwide. Walker gives a global perspective, but focuses more on China (check out the first minute with the taping of the students rehearsing English phrases). Similar to Ryan, Walker argues that English symbolizes opportunity–opportunity for a job, for success and for a better future. He asks: “Is English a tsunami washing away other language?” “Not Likely.” English allows people to become part of a wider conversation, a global conversation. He argues that the world has other universal languages: Math, the language of sciences. Music, the language of feelings. And English, the language of “problem solving.” “English represents hope for a better future, where the world has a common language to solve its common problems.” I don’t know how I feel about his argument…I think he takes a standard “white man’s approach” to English. Of course English is great! It’s your language, and you’re clearly successful because of it, so now other peoples and cultures should replicate you.

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Lastly, enter Wade Davis, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist. Ben actually posted this early on in the semester. He argues that the world in which we live is just one model of reality–consequence of adaptive choices. Davis states: “A language is a flash of the human spirit….Every language is an old growth forest of the mind.” “What could be more lonely than to be the last of your people to speak your language?” This is reality for certain groups in Kenya and Tanzania. Would the world really be better if we all spoke one language?

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All of these videos look at power, mythology, and meaning. Indeed, these concepts can be applied to the case study of Tanzania and Kenya as English uses its hegemonic linguistic power to infiltrate all segments of life.




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