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Language and peace: Book by ASU linguist explores the possibilities

September 11, 2007

In a world that grows smaller by the day and where conflict exists in nearly every corner of the globe, Patricia Friedrich is among an exclusive group of sociolinguists who believe language has the potential to foster closer bonds between communities, countries and continents.

Her book, “Language, Negotiation and Peace: the use of English in conflict resolution,” (Continuum Press, 2007) examines the growth of English as a lingua franca and suggests it can be instrumental in the restoration of peace and in the building of social justice. It is the first book-length treatment of “a provocative universal issue,” according to Brazilian English language educator Francisco Gomes de Matos.

“We all use language to communicate, and English is increasingly the language that is used across cultures for communication purposes,” says Friedrich, an assistant professor in Language, Cultures and History at Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. “However, English often times has been seen as the villain, an enemy of linguistic peace because many people associate it with imperialism.

“I wanted to draw a more optimistic picture, one in which we have the responsibility for the uses we make of English. We can choose to engage in pacific and empowering tasks through English, and this is something anyone with a functional command of the language can choose to do.”

Friedrich, whose main research interests are World Englishes and the spread of English throughout the world, notes in her book that since ancient times humans have pursued the ideal that peace could be achieved and maintained if mankind spoke one language. Because of a complex history of spread and power, English has become the lingua franca – a language used for communication purposes among people who otherwise would not speak the same language – impacting international negotiations, commerce, mass communication and education.

Friedrich points to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel and the Greek myth of Hermes as examples of man’s struggle with a common language and moves it forward to UNESCO’s 1996 “Declaration of Linguistic Rights,” that includes rights recognizing behaviors that guide the use of global languages such as English. She also notes it is not uncommon to find multinational firms holding seminars and training programs to help employees understand how their own cultural and linguistic bias affect the way they see the world; bias may prevent successful communication and harmonious business dealing across regional, linguistic, and cultural boundaries.

The book also explores the late-19th century introduction of artificial languages such as Esperanto and Volapük, as well as the alternation of lingua franca such as Latin, Arabic, French and English. Friedrich notes that choice is a defining factor in language spread. In the case of English, she states, the fact that non-native speakers use the language so often and for so many purposes is decisive for its worldwide spread.

“This pioneering work is clear, insightful, and well organized,” writes Gomes de Matos, a professor at Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, in a recent review in Human Language Teaching magazine. “(Friedrich) makes a courageous case for using language, and specifically English, for peaceful purposes internationally, making the book relevant to those researching and teaching languages, psychology, applied linguistics, and peace studies. With the publication of this book, 2007 becomes a landmark in the still-brief history of English for peaceful purposes.”

Friedrich believes her work will appeal to anyone with an interest in peace.

“This book applies to everyone,” she says. “I believe that we have become used to conflict to a point where we are desensitized to it. I also believe many of us think of peace as a distant concern – something to be dealt with by governments and diplomats – and we forget that we build peace everyday in the ways we respond to one another and engage in small gestures of social justice.

“In my view, a language is an instrument. We can use it for good or for evil. We have to claim ownership and the right to use it no matter who we are and choose to empower through it rather than imperialize.”

Friedrich, who specializes in sociolinguistics, received her Ph.D. in English Linguistics from Purdue. She has been published in journals such as World Englishes, International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Today.