English in the Information Age

“To succeed in the world, to be something, one must abandon the old-hat, traditionalist models of thinking associated with ‘home languages,’ and move into the modern, technological language of the metropolis, which means English.  In this way computers serve one of the most disturbing and the least-considered powers of globalization: the economic power to tell people that their way of doing things is worth less than culture empowered with modern technology” — David Golumbia, p. 123

I definitely find this to be the most striking claim in Golumbia’s article, but I’m not sure that it is at all true.  The central issue at stake is the role of natural languages in the theatre of computer programming.  Golumbia argues that the homogenization of English as the basis of our interaction with computers in a way that mirrors English’s dominance in the process of globalization.

To a certain extend, this is obviously true.  All of the most common programming languages in use now (Java, C++, Python, Visual Basic, etc.) are composed of words derived from English.  For example, the text “System.out.println(“Hello World!”);” in Java contains both standard English words a neologisms based on English words.  As Golumbia argues, a programmer does not fully understand English may be difficult to parse text such as “println”, whose meaning seems obvious to a native speaker (120-21).

However, I simply don’t believe one can sustain the argument that superficial similarities such as this are analogous to the global hegemony of English as a natural language.  It almost feels infantile to cite Saussure’s  maxim that the link between the signifier and the signified is completely arbitrary–the signified of “out” in English has very little to do with the signified of “out” in Java, which has to do with presenting previously stored information to the user.  A programmer who understands the signification of the later and not the former, she will still be able to competently write a fully functional program.

Golumbia also raises the concern that “[t]he extraordinary success of software engineers in India, Russia, Japan, and Hong Kong…maps onto metropolises created and maintained by world empires, and correlates no less with the spread of English-style education and enforced English language and orthography” (120).  I assume he’s referring to the work of people like Spivak, but I don’t think it’s an appropriate connection.  Spivak is more worried about the ways in which the teaching of English was used as a tool to reinforce Western ideologies, specifically by using language education as a pretense to indoctrinate students with ideologically charged literature.  I doubt one could find many similarities between the ideology of imperialism and the ideology of Perl.

I’ll end by pointing out the assumption that using computers and the internet entails accepting English by default is almost completely false.  While it is true the majority of a computer’s operating language consists of “meaningless symbolic abstractions” (123) such as binary, the vast majority of computer users only ever experience it through the mediation of an operating system.  Here the choice of language is much more open; for example, Windows 8 currently supports 109 natural languages.  And while it is true that the majority of the web is in English, the presence of other languages is actually growing, not decreasing.  Golumbia cites Google as the epitome of English’s ubiquity.  While there’s no denying Google’s popularity, it’s far from the only search engine in the world; the Chinese site Baidu.com is the fifth-most popular site on the internet and accounted for 64.02 billion search requests in the fourth quarter of 2010 alone!

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh on this aspect of Golumbia’s argument, which I tend to agree with overall.  What do you think?  Is English really the lingua franca of the digital world in addition to the real world?  If so, is its position set in stone, growing or diminishing?

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