Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Multilingual World

by Conroy

Language map of the world
There are nearly 7,000 languages spoken in our world. Eighty-five languages have more than 10 million native speakers. At least ten, but probably twelve languages are spoken as a first language by more than 100 million people (see list below). What remarkable linguistic diversity. What a shame that I can communicate in only one.

English as a Global Language
Of course if I'm limited to one language, I guess it's good that it's English. Over the last few hundred years English has grown from a provincial language spoken by a few million people in England, Wales, and lowland Scotland to a de facto global tongue. Today English is the most widely spoken language in the world; it is estimated that over one-quarter of the world's population can communicate in the language to at least a rudimentary level (>1.5 billion people).

English is the official language for aviation and seafaring, an official language of the United Nations, European Union, and the International Olympic Committee, and predominant in diplomacy and international communications, science, computing and the internet, business, and entertainment. The rise of English can be traced to the preeminent international role in economic, cultural, diplomatic, and military affairs played by English speaking nations--Great Britain from the late eighteenth century and the United States since World War II. Review a list of the most popular movies of all time, or the most popular musicians, all are were produced or performed in English. How many of The 2011 Time 100, Time Magazine's list of most influential people in the world (an imperfect measure for sure), are native English speakers or fluent in the language? All but a handful.

The most popular band of all time wrote (almost) entirely in English
In fact, English has been adopted in so many parts of the world for so many purposes that the nature of the language might be changing. There are arguments that English could be in the process of being co-opted from the anglophone world, and is morphing into something considerably different, World English. The end result of this process would leave Modern English as nothing more than a dialect of a larger global language. We'll see, Latin was once thought to be a global language and now it's all but dead. And in an increasingly connected world will English really bifurcate and evolve as substantially as theorized?

Today, the language is the Mother Tongue of a rather short list of nations: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Belize, Guyana, and several Caribbean countries. However, it's an official language spoken widely in many nations that used to be part of the British Empire (or former  American colonies), e.g., South Africa, Nigeria, and India. An English speaker could travel to most places in the world confident of finding locals with a passable understanding of his or her language. Many English speakers may be tempted to think all other languages secondary, and a working fluency in other languages unnecessary. Perhaps Americans, like the present writer, are most guilty of this linguistic chauvinism.

Foreign languages are offered as courses in nearly all American high schools and colleges. I took four years of French in high school, for example. Unfortunately, there seems to be little emphasis in the U.S. on actually mastering another language. My residual knowledge of French is below basic, and my experience is far more typical than atypical. American culture is a powerful assimilating agent. Most immigrants learn English and a common pattern is for their American-born children and grandchildren to lose knowledge of their parents' (or grandparents') native language. I have no argument with American cultural assimilation, but exposure to and understanding of one or more foreign languages would do Americans in particular, and English speakers in general, much good.

Benefits of Multilingualism
I'd love to be able to speak French in Paris
Knowing a second language is valuable in so many respects. First, there's the practical. Knowing another language can be professionally valuable, especially in a globalized world where work can take you beyond national and cultural borders. There are plenty of multinational corporations that pay handsomely for those with bilingual or multilingual skills. Similarly, knowing the local language when traveling makes things simpler, and probably enriches the experience. I was in Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport a couple of years ago, transferring planes. I had injured my shoulder the day before my flight and I was in great pain in the airport. I needed some ibuprofen. How much easier would it have been if I could have communicated in French as I tried to find a shop in the terminal that sold medication? (I was in too much pain to try my poor French and I didn't find a shop.) There's also a courtesy to attempt to communicate to someone in their language when in their country. I know English speakers expect this, it would only be fair to extend this respect to others. Even a smattering of words can make a big difference.

Just as important to me is the potential that fluency in a second language would expand my knowledge and enjoyment of other cultures. I'm happy that I can read Shakespeare and James Joyce in the original (untranslated), but wouldn't it be great to read Proust in French or Tolstoy in Russian? To watch a foreign film without subtitles? Read the news or listen to people speak without a translator? How might that change one's perspective? It could only be good, and maybe it would be deeply enlightening.

I've always thought that our thinking is correlated to words. That the way we think is entwined with the vocabulary we use to articulate our thoughts. Of course we communicate in other ways (body language, emotion, etc.), but the words we use have specific meanings and connotations. This is true in English as in every other language. A certain English word may be the functional equivalent of a certain German word, and would be substituted for that word in translation. However, if the two words are expressing anything complex they probably are not equivalent. They don't mean exactly the same thing, don't have exactly the same connotation. Wouldn't the English speaker and the German speaker be thinking, be communicating, slightly different things? Maybe or maybe not, but it's a subtle reality that only a bilingual person can attempt to understand.

Learning Another Language
I failed at my first opportunity to learn a foreign language (though I received an 'A' all four years in high school - a striking commentary on what is expected in an American foreign language class). However, I think I owe it to myself to try again. I have friends and relatives fluent in foreign languages -- my cousin is even married to a professional translator (from France by way of England and a master of five languages) -- and I know they all value their skills.

Maybe I'll try French, maybe Spanish, maybe something else. There are plenty of classes and learning materials available, and I'm still young enough and determined enough to succeed. It could only serve me well. Maybe more of my compatriots or English speakers could do the same.

One resource for learning a new language (my box would have a different label)


Total Native Speakers (to the nearest 10 million):
1. Mandarin - 850 million
2. English - 330 million
    Spanish - 330 million
4. Hindi - 240 million
5. Arabic - 210 million
6. Bengali - 180 million
    Portuguese - 180 million
8. Russian - 140 million
9. Japanese - 120 million
10. Punjabi - 110 million
11. German - 100 million
      French - 100 million


  1. Any one note second language speakers? No question English number one among non native speakers, some others?

  2. Which languages are most useful to you? Your grandparents, in laws, and then, countries where no one speaks english, also exposure. While west european such as french, italian, spanish, german, portuguese, dutch, scandinavian would probably be the easiest ones for anglophones, many people in those countries speak some english compared to asian countries where even the airports only announce in the local dialect language