Roberto Selbach

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“¿Por qué están todos hablando inglés?”

I’ve been spending an insalubrious amount of time on Google +. I managed to plump for a pretty good group to follow and as a consequence I’ve been getting consistently interesting content. As for myself, I mostly I post in English. A couple of days ago, I posted something most inconsequential and it would have been an unreservedly unremarkable post wasn’t it for the fact that it was geolocated in Cordoba, Argentina, which caused it to attract the attention of people nearby. In the middle of the comments, someone asked, in Spanish: “why is everyone speaking English?” That was a fair question and it touched something that has bugged me in the past.

Some part of my brain must miss the good old times of hunting and gathering as I ended up as a nomadic man—albeit one who doesn’t hunt and at most gathers food from grocery stores, so there might be a flaw in my theory. My rootless nature made me move a lot. This and the nature of my work caused me to make friends in several places other than my native Brazil[1].

We’ve already established that I communicate in Portuguese. Working at a US-based multinational as well as with open source, I also use English quite a bit—and my aforesaid rootlessness has taken me to inhabit the beautiful state of Oregon in the past. Oh and did I mention I am currently putting in a tour of duty in Argentina?

The Myth of the Tower of Babel

The result of all of this—in blatant contrast with the pre-Tower of Babel times when everybody obviously spoke English—is that I communicate daily in multiple languages. There isn’t a day—well, weekday—I don’t have to speak Spanish, Portuguese, English and French with someone or another. And that is fine and actually quite nice: you do lose languages if you don’t use them. Not like riding a bike, I suppose. Regardless, it is not a problem to communicate 1:1 in those languages. But what about 1:many conversations?

Blogging is a clear example. Should I blog in Portuguese as some keep telling me I should? I cannot reasonably expect my non-Brazilian readers to understand Portuguese. If I write in French, my Quebecer friends will be happy but what about the rest? Nationalistic rants aside, English is an international language nowadays, just as Latin and French once were. Aside from very few people, the vast majority of the people I know can understand English and that’s why I use it most often than any other.

Ideally, one would use their own native language and computer translation would do the rest. Unfortunately we are not there yet. I will admit that computer translation is getting better and better and it is fairly good if you write clear, short sentences. And it will get better. But I am skeptic that we will ever get to the point where the algorithms will be able to deal with subtleties, innuendos and all the puns that make up human interactions.

The way I see, I currently have a few options –

  • I write in Portuguese, as the ever vigilant Brazilian crowd demands it. That would soothe the wrathful nationalists who believe me a Traitor Of The Fatherland™. But it also limits my already limited audience; not good.

  • I write multiple versions of the same thing in each language. That would begin to feel like actual work, not fun. Also, having tried that in the past, I’ve learned that after I was done with the first version, the others never came out naturally.

  • I write in English. Sure it makes me a bootlicking lackey of the imperialist Yankees in the eyes of the insecure, but it also helps me reach pretty much everyone I know.

But using English is not a perfect solution either. For once, I am obviously not a native speaker and thus have an imperfect and narrow vocabulary. As well, I don’t share the cultural experiences that help define the subtleties of English. And finally, there are heaps of topics that just feel wrong in English: such as local—as in Brazilian—topics. It just feels weird.

Back to Google+, I have created Circles for Portuguese and French, but these are not much valuable until Google comes up with some system of set arithmetic that would allow me to say something to the effect of “Post this to members of Circle X who also happen to be members of Circle French.” Until then, English is my best bet.

[1] Experience tells me that I am required to point out that we, cheerful Brazilians, speak Portuguese, not Spanish.

(Image Credit: ThomasThomas, Creative Commons)