One thing that truly impressed me during our recent “Return to Ethiopia” visit was how widespread the English language has become in the country. I got to the point I did not ask my usual, “Do you speak English?” question before addressing someone in a foreign land. Everyone seemed to know at least a bit of the language. Granted most English spoken would have made my grandfather´s rustic English sound like pure poetry, but it worked for most everyday uses.
The widespread use of English in Ethiopia is in large part, if not mainly, due to the presence of the Peace Corps in the country. Amazing how a relatively small group, some 3500 over the last 50 years in a land that now has 80 million people, had such widespread influence, but we did. And English is used not so much to talk to foreigners, as to talk to each other in Ethiopia, where 84 languages are spoken.
It brought to mind my three years in Finland where everyone speaks a second language by sheer necessity. Damn few people outside Finland speak that rare and exotic language so the Finns have to learn foreign languages, usually English, in order to spread their wings beyond their 5 million countrymen. And contrary to popular belief, Finnish, like Basque, has no similar language, they are both totally different from other tongues. I had a Finnish friend, actually what they called a “Swedo-Finn,” since his mother tongue was Swedish, who was the country´s top movie star. He played the lead in the first, and as far as I know, the only Finnish-Hungarian film. He said that the experience taught him that Finnish has nothing in common with Hungarian in spite of popular beliefs.
My second home is Spain where there are five official languages and several offshoots such as Mallorquin spoken where I live. And guess what, all students must learn English as well as their local language and Spanish.
I once had the opportunity to visit the King of Spain´s home. OK, OK I was delivering a diplomatic message so was not invited in for tea. The queen is Greek and the king speaks Greek as well as several other languages. Guess what, in the family they often speak English, since all learned this from an early age and that is what I heard during my brief visit.
I wholeheartedly welcome all languages in the world to flourish and grow in usage. I speak five. But an increasingly polyglot world insures that all will have to learn English to communicate with others. And life will be simpler for me.