Another Response to Jim Harries
WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic
August 28, 2017
by Allen Yeh
Let me start with this: I recently presented the plenary talk at the EMS Southeast conference at Columbia International University, about what language to use when self-theologizing in an East Asian context. I pointed to the Africa Bible Commentary and the South Asia Bible Commentary as examples, and wondered if we could write an East Asia Bible Commentary. One of the things I wrote is: One major problem is language. Now that English is the lingua franca of the world, it is self-perpetuating (i.e. the “rich” continue to get richer). Because Africa and South Asia have had a large history of being colonized, ironically English ended up being the commercial language that unifies all their different countries. This also made their Bible commentaries easily readable and accessible to the world. (This is not without biblical precedent—the reason the New Testament was written in Koine Greek rather than the Jewish holy language of Hebrew is because it was the commercial language of the day, and meant to spread to as many people as possible.)
Not so with East Asia: English does not dominate the region as it does Africa or South Asia. At Cape Town 2010, there were almost no mainland Chinese or Korean speakers on the platform which initially seemed baffling. But it probably was the language issue: all the East Asian speakers on the platform were from English-speaking Asian regions like Hong Kong and Singapore and Malaysia. The same was true of the African speakers: almost all were from Anglophone, rather than Francophone, countries in Africa. Universities are the same way. All the top-20 ranking universities worldwide according to the three major ranking systems (QS Shanghai Jiao Tong, The Times, U.S. News & World Report) are English-speaking. No matter how strong Beijing University, or Seoul University, or Tokyo University, become in teaching or research, they will not attract non-Asian-language speakers unless they can somehow learn Chinese or Korean or Japanese, all of which are quite challenging. Whereas, plenty of East Asians will enroll in English-speaking universities in the West. So, ironically, the skill of non-Westerners to be multilingual means that they always end up adapting to the West and the West never has to adapt to them because they just assume everyone will just learn English.
So basically, we are trying to come up with what is the modern-day equivalent to Koine Greek back in the first century—a simple language that is easy enough for widespread use that also can convey non-Western thought. I do think that Chinese has the ability to convey the “excluded middle” in a way that English does not. However, though Chinese is the most dominant mother tongue on earth (in terms of absolute number of people), it is not the most widespread—nor do I ever think it will be—because it is just too hard to learn for non-native speakers, and it is the only non-alphabet system of writing still extant today (which contributes to its difficulty, because it is not phonetic, plus it is tonal when spoken). I think, in order for a language to be universally acceptable by Majority World cultures, it has to have something beyond familiar thought patterns in order to be used universally. The mechanics have to be familiar to people. English, in contrast, is the most dominant secondary (or tertiary) language on earth because it has a simple system of writing and influences from many different cultures (Greek, Romance, Germanic). So here’s my thought: maybe Arabic (aside from its Islamic connotations) would be easier as a lingua franca today, because it already is fairly widespread (northern Africa to the Middle East to South Asia to Southeast Asia) and though it is not the first-most widely spoken tongue today, it is the fourth (after Chinese, English, and Spanish). But of course the Islamic ‘baggage’ that comes with it makes it very difficult for many people to accept. Or maybe something like Swahili which is a hybrid language—part Arabic, part indigenous African languages, and has been a commercial trade language for a long time, just like Koine Greek was.
However, if there is an intent to get rid of colonial language, that is a much more difficult problem. I think of how theologian Robert McAfee Brown famously gave his speech at the 1975 World Council of Churches general assembly in Spanish (rather than English) in order to prove a point: he did not want to be hegemonic. However, I thought with irony, Spanish is just as much a colonial language as English. If he truly wanted to use the language of the people he would’ve spoken in some indigenous tongue like Mayan (but even the Maya subjugated their neighbors, so… where does it end?). I think it’s inevitable that any lingua franca will have colonial implications, because that which dominates is that which spreads, almost by definition.