The Microsoft of Languages

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Thursday, February 23, 2006

We have been driving northward for the past several days and have learned that Argentina is a very long country and that parts of it contain a whole lot of not much. We spent a night in the center of Argentina's oil industry that bills itself as the Houston of Argentina. I think that aspiration tells you all you need to know about the city.

We did spend two nights in the more charming town of Gaiman, which was featured in last year's NY Times travel section. (They have the clipping framed at our hotel.) Gaiman was founded in 1865 by Welsh settlers escaping persecution from those annoying British. They created an extensive network of irrigation canals and built a picturesque farming community in the middle of the desert. (Prior to this, the only Argentine agriculture we saw was scraggly sheep gnawing on thistle.) The locals have also established several tea houses that have become a regular stopover for busloads of tourists on their way to southern Patagonia. A standard 'servicio' consists of a pot of very strong tea with two plates of cakes, pastries and scones. As those of you with small children might expect, we spent the following hour bouncing off walls before collapsing in a post-sugar-and-caffeine coma.

A point of pride for the locals is that many of them continue to converse in Welsh, the language of their forefathers. This strikes me as a very strange decision. Learning a language is quite time consuming. (Those that are forced to attempt to decipher my Spanish would concur.) If you were a parent in Gaiman, what second language would you want your child to learn? English, so they could communicate in international settings with most educated people around the world? Or Welsh, so they speak with the other (10,000?) Welsh speakers, each of whom probably already speaks English or Spanish? I recognize the cultural continuity that learning Welsh might provide, but many of my ancestors probably knew how to slaughter pigs and clean outhouses. I am willing to let go of some of the less useful parts of my heritage.

About 125 years ago a linguist invented a new language, esperanto, that was intended to be a common language for the planet. The objective was to help everyone avoid the time wasting task of learning extra languages and/or being forced to communicate via pointing and a series of grunts. Unfortunately for our well-meaning linguist, very few people were willing to take the plunge to learn a new language that nobody else was speaking yet. (My fellow technogeeks will immediately recognize this as a variation on the network effect. The value of a network is a function of the number of other nodes on the network. The first few nodes have almost no value.)

In my business career, I found that the vast majority of international meetings were conducted in English. Much of global popular culture is originally created in English. As a tourist, I find that most establishments have an English speaker. In Chile, we frequently saw Germans conversing with locals in English. (That was occasionally amusing.) English may or may not be the most common primary language, but it must be the clear leading secondary language.

I titled this entry the Microsoft of Languages, because even though Windows is not a perfect operating system, I use Windows because everyone else is using it. (The network effect.) English is rapidly becoming the standard secondary language around the globe. The French may not like it, but English has already won. Welsh lost many, many years ago.


Two more days of driving until we get to BA. Kia's parents are meeting us there and we are looking forward to seeing some familiar faces.
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