Louder than words

Like all grand narratives, the one of language is one of falling empires, warring monarchs and conquest.

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Nested in the trend of self-productivity, language apps have achieved significant popularity. Amongst the most popular are Duolingo and Babbel, whose gamified interface has become a trademark of, not only online language apps, but skill learning apps in general.

If you’ve started using a language learning app, pause for a moment to question how that language came to be on your device. As an introductory tool, breaking down complex linguistic systems into bite-size grammatical rules and vocabulary is invaluable to beginners. But normalising this low level commitment and endorsing a schematic pedagogy of language education risks overlooking the socio-cultural dimensions of language and its ever-evolving processes that make it more than just a mode of communication.

Every day new words are created, innovations in grammar  finds its way into common usage and old words are given new meanings. This happens idiosyncratically all around the world, across all languages. How then, might one explain the harmonisation of hundreds upon thousands of distinctive tongues and dialects into a nationalised and standardised language coherent enough to be experienced through a freemium app?

Competing perspectives on this question centres upon history. Like all grand narratives, the one of language is one of falling empires, warring monarchs and conquest.

Consider for example, that today the Institute of Cervantes estimates around 477 million native Spanish speakers worldwide, and unsurprisingly, it is the most learnt language on Duolingo. Yet the naked statistic obscures the diversity of Spanish speakers and ‘variants’ of Spanish spoken globally. For instance, many non-Castilian Spaniards, even those mainly residing outside the nation’s capital Madrid, consider Spanish a second language to the regional dialect which includes Valencian, Andalusian or Aragonese. None of these are available on Duolingo.

These dialects are distinct from Spanish, often with Latin-Romance roots as the only common ground. Their coexistence and autonomy in today’s era defined by the constitution of the centralised nation state, is a situation some 500 years in the making, dating back to the standardisation of Castillian-Spanish in 1492 under Queen Isabella. After centuries of continental war during the crusades, exchanging the peninsula between caliphate and monarch and the fall of the rival Nasrid kingdom of Granada, Queen Isabella well understood the role of language in establishing hegemony. Her gambit in standardising national Spanish proved fortuitous, arming Columbus shortly after with an indispensable tool in the administration of colonialism and provision of genocide in Latin America.

Regional languages in Spain survived, in part from political compromises and in part clandestinely as private resistance to the violence of state-craft. The Catalunyan language today serves as a fulcrum for the Catalonian independence movement, combining diverse groups from Barcelonian urbanites to veteran anti-Franco Anarchists against the overweening conservative Spanish government, Partido Popular. Indeed Catalunya and much of peripheral Spain are still haunted by the memory of Franco’s dictatorship, whose fascistic nationalism and sycophantic Catholicism repressed Spanish cultural and linguistic diversity.

The twentieth century left a legacy of murderous despots who invigorated nationalistic vitriol with the institution of language. More than just a tool for the mediation of communication or culture, language has proven to be a mode of power in itself.

Today its political implications are yet again palpable. Regional and traditional identities, along with their languages, are wielded by people marginalised by globalisation to make sense of an incessantly changing word.