English: A Global Language

One of the concepts learned in Linguistic Anthropology Fall 2017 was the idea of a global language which is a language spoken by many people across the world as it holds a significant weight to it in government, education, or other social areas. Currently, the global language is English, more specifically, American English, with hundreds of millions of speakers. It’s not surprising as English is a common means of communication in business and scientific journals but how did it become a global language?

A mini history lesson needs to be said here as British English was the global language for a while. The phrase “The empire on which the sun never sets” was absolutely true given the colonial reach of the British Empire on every continent. Such a global presence and vast amount of resources meant that they were not only a military power but a social power too. Through their own policies they instituted mandatory teaching of English in some parts of the Empire. Since they were also a regional power, people were in a way coerced to learn the language of those who were dominating them.

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Language Death & Dead Languages

In one of our textbooks for Linguistic Anthropology, Language in Society, the author Suzanne Romaine dedicates a part of chapter 2 in exploring the topic of language death. Language death occurs when a language ceases to be spoken and used by people, rendering it non-existent in terms of communication between others.

Language death is a scary concept as it can really happen to any language. What causes this to happen has been debate by linguists, from minority communities being suppressed and overridden by majority force in society, to a phenomenon called “language shift” where a community starts off as bilingual but gradually loses their native tongue.

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Language of the Powerful

One of the most fascinating concepts learned in Linguistic Anthropology Fall 2017 is that of the language of the powerful and the powerless. Powerful language is characterized by being more active, assertive, and commanding while powerless language is more hesitating, unsure, and can be characterized by self-doubting. To give an example, a powerful statement would be “Let’s go to Chili’s this Tuesday” while a statement marked by powerlessness can be characterized as “Uh I guess I’m in the mood for Chili’s but I wouldn’t mind going somewhere else, what do you think?”. Notice the difference? The first sentence is more of a “I will” while the second is more doubtful but it also relates to the way it’s uttered. Tone is all too important, while going over the question part of the statement, did you imagine it being spoken in a higher tone with an unsure inflection? Those are points to be mindful of when detecting whether a person is speaking with a powerful or powerless speech.

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Limitless Language

One of the great advantages of being a part of this research is learning the amount of languages a person knows, understands, speaks, or just able to identify. You learn that your classmates are bilingual, trilingual, or even quadrilingual! The knowledge of being able to communicate in more than one language is a fascinating subject for linguists and was discussed heavily in our Anthropology class. Indeed, this whole research is based on delving into this area and obtaining more information about it.

People who are bilingual though, or others who know more than two languages, aren’t as uncommon as one expects, especially considering a person’s geographical location. The interesting part about gathering data from Seton Hall students is that the campus comprises a mixed ethnic/racial population with students coming from diverse backgrounds. Information on this shows a range of about 45%50% of students identifying as belonging to non-white minority backgrounds! So to discover that the majority of data collected indicates that students are overwhelmingly versed in more than one language is astounding, especially given students understanding languages that aren’t as well-known as others, such as Uzbek as documented from one student.

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The Origin of the Project

In the Fall 2015 Linguistic Anthropology class taught by Dr. Quizon, students were asked to share information about any and all languages that they knew. She gave out note cards and instructed the class to write down one language per card. Underneath the name of the language, they were asked to write down anything they wished to say about this language. They used descriptors of their own design making these cards rich with open-ended qualitative data. On the reverse of each card, they were asked to write their names.

With support from Seton Hall’s Digital Humanities Fellowship initiative, Dr. Quizon and three student interns who completed the course in the previous semester took a closer look at this data and explored ways to visualize the information. Were there intriguing or interactive ways to plot linguistic information? Could the data be mapped? Were there patterns to be discovered when expressed in visual form?

The class of 35 students was surveyed twice: once in the beginning of the semester, and again towards the end of the semester. The Language Maps, Language Clouds research team took these two sets of note cards, devised ways to capture, organize and analyze the information using linguistic concepts, explored ways to visualize the results of our queries, and aimed to share our findings online. Our goal is to share both processes and results as we seek to deepen our understanding of the data an interesting, interactive setting.

Even though we all participated in every aspect of the project, we each had an area of expertise. Ellie learned how to use and troubleshoot Viewshare and later, with Dr. Quizon, explored Tableau. She worked with Anastasia who was in charge of Excel and added knowledge of its features as needed for the project. I was in charge of learning how to build a blog on WordPress.