Some Germans lament, "Our language has never been in worse shape." And some even worry an English invasion will make their language obsolete. What better time to worry than on International Mother Language Day.
Languages are like plants. They die if they're not taken care of. According to UNESCO figures, around half of all spoken languages are at risk of becoming extinct. One indication that this is true is that the estimated 6,000 languages spoken by 90 percent of the world's population cannot be found on search engines. They cannot be found on the net. They simply don't exist in the cyber world. So it's obvious what is meant when UNESCO speaks of an increasing danger to the world's linguistic diversity.
What constitutes this diversity? Let's take an example from today's occasion. "Saturday" in German is "Samstag," "samedi" in French, "sobota" in Polish, "Sávvato" in Greek, "lauantai" in Finnisch, "szombat" in Hungarian, "Cumartesi" in Turkish, "sâmbătă" in Romanian, "zaterdag" in Dutch, "subbota" in Russian, "sestdiena" in Latvian, "lørdag" in Norwegian, "Hari Sabtu" in Indonesian, "sábado" in Spanish, "xīngqíliù" in Chinese, "e shtunë" in Albanian, "Sabota" in Macedonian and "Śanibāra" in Bengali.
Keeping the cultural wealth of humanity
And this is what it's all about on International Mother Language Day: preserving this diversity. Because the diversity of languages is the cultural capital of humanity. If we don't want to turn into a monoculture in the future, we have to preserve our own language. That's the only way to ensure that "Saturday" is not called "Saturday" in every corner of the earth.
But the native language today by itself is not enough. In the modern economy, science and technology, there is an increasing prevalence of the use of the English language. That's why it's important and correct to learn English as a universal second language. Nothing more, nothing less.
But this universal second language is only desirable so long as it doesn't marginalize other native languages. The goal must be to preserve one's own native language, and learn at least one or two foreign languages and not mix English with one's own language (which results in a horrendous "Denglisch" when mixed with German, or "Spanglish" or "Franglais.")
It's all about finding the balance between one's own language and foreign ones. And then only adopting what really makes sense. Because when it comes to languages, those who don't cherish their own identity become lost in the naive overestimation of the "alien."
Love your own
Not everything that sounds modern or exciting in our ears is new. English words that have entered the German language, such as "news," "talk," "fun," and "show," have been used for hundreds of years. Even the word "lover" was used in a poem by Shakespeare around 400 years ago.
These old words are still good enough for Anglophones, who use them to name things in the modern world. The word "chat" has also spread with the use of Internet and now has meaning for lots of people all over the world. Though its original meaning has nothing to do with the digital world, it is still used today to describe something "avant-garde."
What is behind this linguistic self-sufficiency? It's probably love. Love for one's own native language. And in this regard, speakers of German have something to learn from their Anglophone cousins: treating one's own language in an affectionate manner.
So it would make sense, at least today, on International Mother Language Day, to listen to the lovers of language - to listen to their complaints and worries and reflect: how do I use my native language?