Just one language...or many?
With the development of mass communication and the continuing globalization of the world, there is an ever-growing interest in speaking multiple languages. Speaking a range of languages gives people the chance to become independent in a foreign country and more importantly, to expand their vision of the rest of the world, beyond their closed communities. If this is the case, then would it not be easier to have a single global language?
Besides being the language most spoken worldwide, English is also the most universal as it is spoken in 101 countries, making it the language most spread out globally. In addition, it is the official language in 35 countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, and South Africa, and it is the most popular foreign language learned abroad by a landslide, with 1.5 billion people compared to the 82 million people learning French in 2015.
Interestingly enough, English words have also been embedded in many languages. Words such as ‘football’ have been reappropriated into ‘fútbol’ in Spanish, for example, and ‘weekend’ and ‘parking’ are words commonly used in French. Languages such as Italian and German have also developed their modern grammar by adapting from English forms, like placing adjectives before nouns.
What has this achieved?
Some consider English to be a language that leads to societal and economic advancements, and opens doors to the rest of the world, which is what Salva Kiir Mayardit, South Sudanese Minister of Higher Education in 2011, argued when English became South Sudan’s official language in the same year. Yet, the only reason why English has become such a global language and is considered to lead to modernization is because of the United Kingdom’s history of colonization and its imposition of the language on other cultures. Unfortunately, English’s universality and it being the official language of many countries is due to it being embedded in the colonial past of the United Kingdom.
The second most spoken language in the world is Mandarin with 1.12 billion speakers, which is due to its high population in China, with its 1.4 billion people. After the 1911 Revolution, the spoken dialect in Beijing became the official language of the country. Later on, after the dismantling of the Nationalist Party, the People’s Republic of China simplified Mandarin writing even further as a means to reduce the illiteracy rate. Now, more than one billion people speak Mandarin, even though there are 2,000 dialects and subdialects that are still spoken in China. Furthermore, while there might be one official Mandarin, the Mandarin spoken by someone from Beijing differs greatly from the Mandarin spoken by someone from Yangshuo.
Put this into perspective...
Though China cannot be an accurate example of what would happen worldwide if one language became the ‘official’ one, as there are 7.8 billion people worldwide in contrast to the 1.4 billion in China, it does help us imagine what could happen if only one language was to be spoken globally. Yet, even though having one singular language could help with the political balance and unity of a nation, it could be argued that this might be more due to the government’s regime at hand than the use of a single language.
If there was one standard language used in the world, then the world would be more homogenous and there would not be the diversity that makes the world rich in its differences. Because of this, when a nation has regional languages, different traditions emerge in each region, making each of these original within the nation.
In Spain, different languages such as Catalan, Basque and Galician are spoken even though Spanish is the national language. Through this diversity, each region that speaks these distinct languages has gained characteristics that make each of them unique and diverse among each other. Such regional differences have even led some people in Catalonia to want to become an independent state from Spain. Due to the multiple official languages in Spain, it cannot be considered a homogenous country, but instead one rich with diversity and unique cultural facets.
While having many languages promotes diversity within a singular nation, having a singular one hinders cultural identities, as seen with the influence of Spanish in South America. In fact, beyond being spoken in Spain, Spanish is also spoken in most of South America. This is a result of Spain’s colonization in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and its imposition of the language on the various indigenous civilizations, including the Mayan Empire, who were forced to speak Spanish by colonizers such as Francisco de Montejo in 1521.
As a result...
Both the Christian religion and the Spanish language were two of the greatest impositions of the Spanish on the various civilizations in South America including the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas among others. As a result, in the present nations of Mexico and Peru, where these former people resided, Roman Catholicism is the most popular religion and Spanish is the language most commonly spoken. While South American nations are culturally heterogeneous among one another, one does wonder how their cultural identities might have been if they had not been colonized and been forced to speak Spanish.
While there might be a number of languages still spoken worldwide, some are slowly dying as most of them are spoken only by a handful of people such as Udmurt in Russia’s constituent republic of Udmurtia or Kului in India’s Himachal Pradesh region. The possible extinction of languages such as these means that we are moving closer to having more standardized languages spoken by greater populations.
I’ll leave you with a thought: Given economic disparities between countries, unequal levels of income and access to education and infrastructure, do you think adopting a universal language is a feasible solution?