Dr. Humphrey Tonkin
Language & Identity
sound and image
Make a Difference!
by Stephanie Vaughn
This year is the Department of Foreign
Languages Year of Glory. Through an endowment from the N.E.H., the
Honors Program of Virginia Commonwealth University has granted the Department financial
backing for organizing a series of cultural events entitled Language and Identity:
Word, Sound and Image.
The first of the honored guests to visit VCU was Dr. Humphrey Tonkin. He visited the
university for two days (September 14-15), on which he gave both a seminar and a workshop.
Dr. Tonkin is President Emeritus and Professor of the Humanities at the University of
Hartford. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. His teaching career includes the
University of Pennsylvania, Potsdam College of the State University of New York, Columbia
University and Oxford University (U.K.). He received the Linbach Award for Distinguished
Teaching. Dr. Tonkin chairs the American Forum for Global Education (New York) and is
board member of World Learning, which operates the School for International Training and
the Experiment in International Living. A longtime student of languages, Dr. Tonkin has
also taken a scholarly interest in interlinguistics, sociolinguistics, and international
The seminar on Thursday evening began with discussion of what constitutes a language. The
actual function of a language, according to Dr. Tonkin, is "for being understood and
for understanding". It is a means of persuading, not just delivering a message.
Language is a meritocratic medium. Languages are constructed and put together by the
powerful and influential, and presented to everyone else as standard. A language is simply
"a dialect with an army". It exists only when the rest of the world acknowledges
There was discussion of how the English language came to be dominant. This dates back to
the conference of Versailles, where Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson could not understand
French. Thus, it was decided that half of the conference would be in French, and half in
English. That had to be modified so these two leaders could understand what was being
discussed. From that point on English began to dominate diplomacy. According to Dr.
Tonkin, English has continued to dominate simply because "we shout louder than
everyone else does". Therefore, English is at the top of the language hierarchy. The
more powerful languages, such as French and Spanish, follow behind English. On the other
levels of the hierarchy are the minor languages, that no one outside a confined area
employs. Many of these languages are designed to define an areas independence from a
larger area. Many of them are going to die because they have no status, no power, and no
children to carry them on.
Dr. Tonkin made a very interesting point in both the seminar and the workshop the
following day about linguistic diversity being just as important as bio-diversity. If we
lose a species of animal, do we lose something important? Do we perhaps lose some
knowledge we have yet to discover? Isnt language the same? English is the largest
killer of other languages simply because we expect everyone in the world to speak our
language, and do not, in turn, learn theirs. Many other cultures are required to learn
three or more languages before graduating from high school--their own language, English,
and one of the more powerful languages. According to Dr. Tonkin, English will eventually
die because of its own power. There are more people in the world that speak English as a
second or third language than there are people who speak it as a first language.
Sustainable multi-lingualism should be the responsibility of everyone. This means that we
should all try to preserve other languages, besides our own, so that ultimately we do not
lose any part of our linguistic diversity.
At the seminar Dr. Tonkin shared five reasons to learn another language: (1) to increase
awareness of the complexity of the world; (2) to keep a language and culture alive; (3) to
expand the limits of conventional societies; (4) to promote a better understanding of
one's self and (5) one's own language system. The next morning, Dr. Tonkin added one more
thing to his list of reasons to learn a language--the most important one: to understand
the entire world better.
Dr. Tonkin left VCU with one final thought; if you have the world under control though
learning other languages, then you can truly make a difference in it.