It is time for Hollywood to relinquish ownership of the English language

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- you know, the guys who hand out the Oscars -- have decided to disqualify Nigeria’s first-ever official entry for the international feature film category. “Lionheart,” from Nigerian actress-director Genevieve Nnaji, was rejected because, according to the Academy, the film “includes only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue.” 

The decision is in accordance with the rules, which require that foreign films be predominantly in languages other than English. But it has exposed the Academy’s quite comically America-centric view of the world, which is increasingly tone-deaf.

Surely the point of recognizing international feature films separately is because it would not make sense to put them in the same category as movies made by American (or British) producers for the home market of the Academy juries. Nigeria has Africa’s largest film industry; about half its population speaks English. It is, in fact, Nigeria’s official language, as it is one of India’s. Is it the Academy’s belief that a film made in Nigeria for Nigerians doesn’t qualify as international merely because the actors use a language Americans also speak?

This is a problem that goes beyond the Academy. England might perhaps be surprised to discover that it doesn’t have the second- or even the third-largest number of speakers of the language that bears its name. 

India, the Philippines, Nigeria and Pakistan are all home to comparably larger numbers of English speakers. Yes, many of those people speak additional languages and English is not their “first” language. But, even for them, English is often the language of aspiration, the language of cross-cultural communication, the language of the city.

Restricting their national cultural production entirely to their “first” language would be absurdly limiting. English is not an American or British language. It is the language of millions of us elsewhere who use it unselfconsciously to produce work that is entirely “international” as far as the U.S. is concerned.

Many in India, for example, resent the language. But almost everyone wants to learn it. For those who have felt oppressed by traditional Indian hierarchies, such as Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables, English represents freedom from the burdens of the past. In today’s India, Dalits still suffer crippling discrimination and do not wield cultural or economic power proportionate to their numbers. When they do -- hopefully soon -- will some of India’s Dalits want to make movies about and for each other in English? 

And if that’s not enough, English will likely take another odd and unpredictable path as and when Britain finally leaves the European Union. English will likely remain the link language of the European bureaucracy in Brussels and beyond -- at least, the European Commission’s budgets suggest it will, and that’s what really matters. (English-speaking Malta and Ireland will also remain members of the EU, although they register Maltese and Irish Gaelic as their official languages, respectively.)

This raises interesting possibilities. As Europe, without those recalcitrant Brits, folds itself into ever-closer union, will it also develop its own variant of English? Will the next generation’s version of “L’Auberge Espagnole,” the 2002 movie that stands as the purest expression of the European spirit, be filmed in English, without any English characters? 

The Academy may imagine it is natural for Americans and British to own the English language. Eventually, however, demography and globalization will render that position untenable. The number of people worldwide speaking English to each other will only continue to increase. (The number of Americans speaking Spanish might also grow, but that’s another story altogether.) At what point does English become “their” language rather than that of Americans and Britons?

Nationality is not precisely about language; cultural difference and discovery are not merely about language, either. We will retain our diversity, the differences that make life and movies interesting, even if more of us speak in English. The Academy, and the broader Anglosphere, must realize that they benefit hugely from English being the language of the world. But that also means they must finally relinquish ownership of it.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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