There are approximately 7.5 billion people on the third rock from the Sun. That’s 7,500,000,000 individual names, 15,000,000,000 ears, and 150,000,000,000 phalanges (give or take a couple hundred…million?). Earth has 148,326,000 kilometers squared of land above sea level and is divvied up into 7 continents that house 196 different countries. These 196 countries, with their 7.5 billion citizens, utilize approximately 7,000 languages.
About 6% of these languages account for the native tongue of 94% of the population – 50% of the languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and 25% are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Given the vast complexity of human life spread around the globe, we are actually quite linguistically united. But as we move forward into the 21st century, are we moving closer towards linguistic solidarity? What would it mean if there was one language that every human could understand?
According to the Bible, this has already happened. Long ago, post-Great Flood, humanity was united under a single, common language. Apparently this lead to a huge upshot in productivity, the result of which was to be so magnificent that God himself intervened:
“And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.
Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.
Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”
— Genesis 11:4–9
Without getting caught up in God’s rationale, it’s clear that this story alludes to the possibilities that open up when language is no longer a barrier to communication: Modern man may not want to build a giant, flood-proof tower, but a space elevator might not be out of the question. The idea of a single language allows for the idea of united human collaboration. Without it, not only is getting the work done harder, but so is deciding on the work to do and how to do it.
It’s predicted that by 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth may die out. Along with these languages will disappear unique history, culture, perspective, and identity. There is certainly a price to be paid for a more global society.
However, while these languages fade, the population will not. A recent study estimated that by 2100 the world population could reach as high as 12.3 billion – a 64% increase within the century. All of these people will need a language to speak, whether it’s one that already exists or perhaps a new, secondary tongue created for the future global citizen of Earth.
Let’s break down what the world might look like if we all spoke one language.
According to The Guardian, in one study by Professor James Foreman-Peck of the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, poor language skills cost the economy a £48 billion ($75.6B) a year, or 3.5% of GDP. The inability to communicate globally is particularly damaging to small and medium size exporters who are unable to afford the linguistic specialists that larger firms employ.
A separate survey by the British Chambers of Commerce supports Foreman-Peck’s research, revealing that 62% of non-exporting companies looking for international opportunities saw languages as a significant barrier while 70% of exporters had no foreign-language ability in the countries in which they operate.
Time wasted is another way to consider the economic cost of miscommunication. For instance, in the United States, last year’s GDP was 17.41 trillion dollars.
Going by the previous finding that poor language skills cost 3.5% of the GPD on average, that means the US wasted approximately 600 billion dollars worth of time in 2014 alone. Wow. That is a lot of money. In fact, it’s roughly the same amount of money the US government spends on its military each year: 16% of the national budget.
Language and Identity
One big question is how a common language would affect our diversity as a species. Language is not only how we express ourselves, but it also affects how we view the world.
Economist Keith Chen studied how differences in future tense affected how the speaker thought about the future. He found that languages with a weak future tense were more responsible about planning for the future — they spend less, smoke less, and work out more. An example of how future tense can differ: in Mandarin you might say “I go to the movies this weekend,” (weak future tense) whereas in English you would say “I will go to the movies this weekend” (strong future tense).
As the Atlantic put it in an article about Chen’s paper, “He wondered whether languages with weak future tenses would be more thoughtful about the future because they consider it, grammatically, equivalent to the present.”
eBay Deals created a really cool video summing up the paper:
Of course, no one knows whether people think this way because of their language, or if their language is that way simply because it’s reflecting how people think. But regardless, Chen’s paper shows that language is deeply intertwined with how people view the world, which brings up the question — if we all spoke the same language, would we sacrifice diversity of thought? Would we all begin to see the world in the same way?
Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran once said, “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past. I changed my entire life.” This New York Times article digs into that idea, saying:
“For a writer’s language, far from being a mere means of expression, is above all a mode of subjective existence and a way of experiencing the world. She needs the language not just to describe things, but to see them. The world reveals itself in a certain manner to the Japanese writer, and in quite another to the one who writes in Finnish. A writer’s language is not just something she uses, but a constitutive part of what she is. This is why to abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then to put yourself together again, in a different form.”
The article goes on to say, “To begin with, when changing languages you descend to a zero-point of your existence. There must be even a moment, however brief, when you cease to be.” This is a bit dramatic, but there’s some truth in there. After we learn to talk, language becomes a major aspect of who we are. It’s how we relate to the world, and it’s how we were able to leave the caves and build civilizations. It’s a huge part of our collective identity and our individual identity, and has a very powerful effect on how we think.
When we learn a new language, we are leaving the comfort zone of our native language. Recently, I was in Ecuador visiting family. My Spanish is bad. Very bad. And when communicating with someone who has equally bad English, I noticed that communicating in broken speech strips away a part of who I am. I cannot joke, nor express complex thoughts. I do not sound smart. I say things like, “I go store now.” My personality is largely absent from the conversation.
Something we take for granted — basic communication — ends up causing nervousness, embarrassment, and strips away the confidence that is a part of who we are. When communicating in broken speech, I’ve stripped away everything that makes me, me. Communication is driven by a distinct purpose and nothing more.
What would we sacrifice?
Not only would we sacrifice a part of our core identity, but collectively we would sacrifice a part of our core cultures. As HowStuffWorks said, very poetically, “After all, the English would no sooner give up the language of Shakespeare than the Spanish would forsake the tongue of Cervantes.” Would we create a new language, or would most of the world have to forsake their native tongue — and a large part of who they are as a culture — for the greater good?
The logistics are a nightmare, obviously. As the Wall Street Journal said, “It is difficult, after all, to interrupt something as intimate and spontaneous as what language people speak to their children.” Would people be forced into doing so? How would it begin, and how would it evolve?
Would there be dialects of this language? If this language follows the pattern of languages throughout time, history says yes. And if there are dialects, how long would be it be before those dialects became languages of their own? Or would we enter a whole new world of linguistics, the linguistic pattern themselves changing as we become increasingly globalized (and some would say, homogenized), where there is not enough isolation for dialects to evolve?
What Language Would It Be?
Of course, the big question always comes back to: what language would it be? Would it be English, or Chinese, or Spanish, or a new language? If going by Occam’s Razor, English is a pretty safe guess. Chinese languages are by far the most common, but they are rarely spoken outside of China (except by ex-pats).
English is spoken all over the world, and is used as the common language in many fields — science and technology, international relations (it’s an official language of the UN and EU), aviation and seafaring, and of course, the American pop culture that reaches far and wide, thanks to Hollywood.
But as language is tied to culture, English comes with a rich history, and anyone adopting it as a language begins to adopt that culture. No doubt many people would be resistant to that — they wouldn’t want to be forced to adopt a foreign culture, and who could blame them? Given the history of England and America’s imperialism, there are many people across the world who would feel that English as our sole language is just another form of forcing culture on others who want nothing to do with it.
English has been said to be notoriously hard to learn because it is rife with odd spelling, pronunciation, and many idioms. While English may not be the ideal global language, it may become one simply due to pragmatism – most people require incentive to learn a second language. The opportunities that come with speaking English, despite its difficulties, currently outweigh many other choices.
If we can’t decide on which language “wins,” (and hell would likely freeze over before we did) another option is creating a new language, one meant to be spoken by the entire world, one disconnected from any distinct culture or identity.
An established auxiliary language would allow for many of the benefits of a universal speech without the loss of cultural identity and heritage. Such a language exists. Esperanto is a constructed international language created in 1887. Esperanto was designed to be easy-to-learn and politically neutral – making it an ideal candidate for a secondary language. Esperanto currently has between 100,000 and 2,000,000 fluent speakers and around 1,000 native speakers (it’s even in Google Translate!).
While Esperanto has not caught on like wildfire, it has been growing steadily. If anything, it is a glimpse of the future and reinforcement of the trend of global unification.
Getting Caught Up
When learning a new language, the first step is to achieve linguistic understanding. This is just the beginning. Being able to pronounce and string together words in a coherent manner will only get you so far. Maybe you can ask where the bathroom is or order dinner, but you can’t be understood when talking about more complex ideas. This happens even when two people are speaking the same language, and the issue is exacerbated when there’s a language barrier.
The next step is a cultural understanding. Language is filled with innumerable nuances and cultures are stocked with subject positions that we may not even be aware of. In order to be able to communicate effectively, it is imperative that we are able to separate out intended meanings from hearable meanings.
The time it takes for cultures for blend and languages to grasp a foothold is necessary in order to avoid potentially catastrophic misunderstanding. Going back to Babel and God, we can observe a corollary example from a parallel universe, as represented in the sci-fi classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brainwave matrix.
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this:
“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.
Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys. But this did not stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme for his best selling book, Well That About Wraps It Up for God. Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
(By the way, if you haven’t read this book, we recommend it. It’s quite funny.)
This futuristic example illustrates two things:
God is irrational, which explains his erratic behavior with the people of Babel.
There is a cleft between linguistic understanding and cultural understanding.
In Adams’ fictional world, the Babel Fish allows the host to understand any sentient being. It does not allow the host to speak or communicate back. Only if two beings were to both have a Babel Fish could they understand each other completely. This kind of one-sidedness in communication and understanding is a quick path to conflict, and is common when learning a second language. Often, beginners or even intermediate speakers have fluent understanding of the language, but cannot properly express their thoughts, making for extremely one-sided conversations. For one common language to work, everyone would have to be fluent — and this would likely take a couple generations.
Language is one of the keystones to the human experience. It’s what lets us call ourselves self-aware and conscious. It is deeply rooted in our perception of the world and ourselves. It helps to mold our identity and tells us how we fit in the world.
In the story of Babel, it’s probably safe to assume there were significantly less than 7.5 billion people and they weren’t spread across the globe until God got involved. This kind of solidarity allowed for more than a common language, it allowed a cultural cohesion. Everyone was in agreement on their values and priorities.
While the entire world thinking the same way doesn’t sound like fun, one effect it could have is more harmony between different cultures and countries. We tend to be wary of people who are different from us, and as a result, foreigners seem really, well, foreign.
If we all spoke the same language, we’d have a foundation of understanding across the world, eliminating one of the key difficulties in relating to others. We’d probably have more sympathy for other cultures, because it would seem much more familiar to our own.
Today, we may have 7,000 different languages, but globalization has begun to crystallize some unanimous cultural values. We can see multi-national, cross-cultural efforts everywhere to fight things like disease, malnutrition, and poverty. More than ever, basic human rights are being upheld. Things like music and literature are bringing together people of different cultures and languages as well. We live in the age of the remix and a time where things can ‘go viral’.
We are slowly synthesizing a global culture and a unified set of values. Whether a common language would be the byproduct or the catalyst of a true global community remains to be seen, but trends in language certainly indicate that is the direction we are moving in.