Whatever the outcome of this month’s U.S. election and however bad the second wave of COVID-19 hits this winter, our world will continue to become more interconnected and more interdependent. Despite the closing of borders and the imposition of travel restrictions, the pandemic has proven how permeable national borders are to not only disease and disinformation but also cures and creativity. The shared common experience of the world in 2020 only serves to highlight how we are now living in a global village, where our actions or inactions will likely have an effect on people we may never meet and whose languages we may never speak.
School shutdowns and social distancing have accelerated the adoption of online learning systems, many of which have been developed internationally and even more of which are used transnationally. At the same time, kids are communicating and sharing experiences even more through global social media products like Snapchat and TikTok, and gaming through platforms shared across the world. They’re experiencing international cooperation firsthand.
International cooperation is also necessary in the battle against the coronavirus. Despite public protestations against supranational bodies like the World Health Organization, behind the scenes scientists and health officials worldwide are collaborating to limit the spread of infection and share medical advances. Many of these experts have had the opportunity to study abroad and are skilled communicators.
The common language for much of this cooperation, even among kids, is English, often World English, learned as a second or third language by speakers of other languages through the vast English education network of schools, tutors, apps, radio, television, and every other teaching method you can imagine, which has succeeded in establishing English as a global language, providing a valuable catalyst to international cooperation.
However, relying on English alone for international communication may be shortsighted. Along with the pandemic, we are facing two issues of global existential importance—climate change and nuclear proliferation—which will test our capacities for international cooperation and diplomacy to the ultimate degree. To succeed, scientists and negotiators will require fluency in multiple languages and cultural awareness, as well as exceptional interpreters, to understand the details, nuances, and subtleties of international research and argument.
Over the last decade, the number of Spanish speakers has grown by 30% and its number of learners by 60%; now, courts in Africa are struggling to function due to a lack of Chinese interpreters. Both are example of how languages other than English are increasing their international influence.
Many people are naturally resistant to change, but improved communications have revolutionized our world. Globalization is a reality that is here to stay, with consequences good and bad. We can’t turn the clock back, but we can make the most of our advances by cooperating through sharing knowledge and communicating deeply so that together we can work to overcome the common threats to our world. Improving our linguistic skills and cultural awareness will be crucial to the process.