Is there an easy answer to this question? Primarily I think I speak and write in English because it has been necessary for my survival. Most people from the Maldives are bilingual because of this reason. Our language, Dhivehi, is only spoken by us. And of us there are not many. You could even argue that Dhivehi as we used to know it is dead. Instead in it’s place we have something you could call Dhinglish. Most Maldivians speak this way; quickly switching between languages on the fly. You could start a sentence off with Dhivehi and end it with English and it would still make perfect sense to most people. Some see this as a bad thing, but I see it as a natural progression of the Dhivehi language. Before we were forced to adapt to the English speaking globalised world, we had to adapt to Arabic after we were forcefully converted to Islam. The amount of Arabic words Maldivians suddenly had to use in their vocabulary made it necessary; even the script was changed almost entirely to accommodate the Arabic language – with Dhives script looking almost nothing like modern Thaana; which is actually based on the characters used for the Arabic counting system.
But I digress. Why do I write in English? If I were to write in Dhivehi, it would certainly help keep the language alive; but who would read it if not for other Maldivians? Is there a point to maintaining such an echo chamber? Many conservative writers publish in Dhivehi exclusively for this very reason as it provides an easy way to conceal their more bizarre ideas from the rest of the world. If I had the time or the riches I would write in both languages. I have neither, so I might as well write in English so that what I write can be understood by most people around the world. Maybe if I spoke French or something like that I could have more vehemently stuck with my mother tongue; but alas I do not. There are simply not enough of us, and our power and influence on the global stage is so negligible that we might as well not exist. Maumoon, for all his faults, recognised this and made it a point to infuse English learning into the education system.
English serves as a kind of bridging language. When I speak with my Indian or Sri Lankan friends, we do not speak in the familiar sounds of a common South Asian language, but in English. Despite our languages sounding similar and having a similar root, if we were both to stick to the language of our ancestors, we wouldn’t understand what was being said at all. It’s the same situation with almost every bilingual person I’ve ever met. The common bridge between us, what lets us understand one another, is English.
But does that answer the whole story? In the future when another language has become the global bridging language perhaps these words will also be translated to a more accessible tongue. But for now, what gave English so much power? Why do I write in English?
I believe a part of the answer would lie in the current dominance of English language media. America rules the world, not through it’s army, but through Hollywood and their entertainment industry. Their hold on the global psyche is immense. Kids from my hometown call each other “nigger” just to sound cool. Many people comment on my accent and say that it sounds American. How strange is that? In 2015, Game of Thrones was the most pirated TV show in the entire world. There isn’t enough of a market to justify translating such popular shows into languages like Dhivehi, so what do we do? We watch the English versions.
This makes me wonder if the American dominance of such media is because of it’s quality or because of the fact that it’s in English makes it readily consumable by a global audience. I say this because even if I’m watching something in another language altogether like Japanese, it’s because of the English subtitles that I am able to comprehend it at all. These English subtitles exist because there is a significant market for English speakers; and for people such as myself, it is much easier to just rely on these subtitles rather than learn yet another language. Thus, rather ironically, the key to disrupting the dominance of English media might actually be to increase the accessibility of content in other languages by making sure English subtitles are always available.
There are no programs that automatically translate English captions to Dhivehi or vice versa; but Dhivehi media captioned in English can potentially be translated to a variety of languages with relative ease – instantly making Dhivehi language media accessible to a global audience. For example here is an excellent short documentary about a Maldivian icon called Nasira by Hulhevi media. If they had chosen not to subtitle their work the audience for it would have been severely restricted to just the half a million or so people in the world who speak Dhivehi.
Even the internet itself, and indeed many computer languages, is built upon an understanding of English and Latin characters. I am not sure if it would even be technically possible to have a URL in Dhivehi because of the marks we use around letters to signify vowels. My point being, if I didn’t know English, would I even be able to use computers? Or the internet? Or my phone? Once again, a lack of a market means that there have never been any operating systems etc that have a Dhivehi language interface.
The Maldives is at extreme risk of global factors such as climate change. If I don’t understand English, how would I even begin to understand and comprehend the research and dialogue around the issue? Like I said earlier, learning and being fluent in English for me is a matter of survival. One of the first things some people have said to me, especially within a university environment, has been “oh you speak SUCH good English!”. I know they mean no wrong, but for some reason the statement never fails to annoy me. Of course I speak good English! Why are you so surprised? Is it because you thought your language too challenging for someone in my skin? Maybe I find it so annoying because it makes me feel constantly judged; and makes me wonder what people who say such things think about people who don’t speak “such good English”.
When Mohamed Nasheed made his plea on the global stage for the world to be more mindful of how it’s excesses affect small island nations such as the Maldives; do you think they would have listened if he did not speak “such good English”? The plight of nations such as the Maldives makes me incredibly suspicious of people who want to do things like leave uncontacted tribes forever in the dark. Are we really that naive as to think they will truly be unaffected by our actions simply because we have not directly interacted with them? Will they not see the effects of the world in their immediate surroundings? Will they not notice the lack of food once, say the forestry industry, has encircled their entire ancestral homeland? Do they not deserve to be told what’s happening to the world that is as much theirs as it is ours? And once they speak on a global stage, how would we understand them, if not through translations or subtitles in English?
So ultimately, I think the reason I write in English is because I have no other choice.