Is diversity overrated or perhaps full of unintended consequences? A universal language could solve many of the problems associated with different cultures, including scientific progress, economics and unfair socioeconomic advantages.
Most scholars agree that there are approximately 7,000 different languages spoken by humans. Of these languages, 389 are spoken by more than a million people, accounting for 94 percent of the world population. As of 2009, the top three languages – Mandarin, Spanish and English – were spoken by 1.5 billion people, nearly a quarter of the world population.
Considering China accounts for nearly 20 percent of the world population, this should not be surprising. In comparison, the United States ranks third in world population at less than 5 percent. In between is India at a little less than China. Also worth noting: Hindi is the fourth most spoken language accounting only for native speakers, but ranks third when factoring in Hindi as a second language.
So Mandarin is the most popular language, but only by the numbers. However, that language is concentrated in a relatively small area. Considering the wide adoption of Spanish and English globally, those two languages may be considered a bit more popular or well known. Gathering data to find out exactly how many people understand a language beyond their native tongue is nearly impossible without surveying every human being alive.
With that said arguments can be made for making Mandarin, Spanish or English the universal language. That is an argument that the opposition will never concede to and is the reason (or at the least the main reason) why establishing a universal language is not practical. But never mind practically. Let’s discuss the theoretical merits of a universal language.
Not long ago, if you wanted to study medicine (or any type of science, for that matter), you needed to learn Latin. Nearly everything within the scientific community was taught using the Latin language. Despite your scientific skills, if you couldn’t learn Latin – whether it be because of financial constraints or other practical reasons – then you couldn’t be a doctor.
Not much has changed. Michael Gordin, professor of history at Princeton University, said the following on the Freakonomics podcast:
“Today, there is basically one common language for communication in the elite natural sciences like physics, biology, chemistry, geology, which is overwhelmingly English. By overwhelmingly, I mean over 95 percent of world publication in those sciences is in English, and there’s never been anything quite like that before.”
As Gordin later pointed out, this creates an unfair advantage for people in the
sciences whose native language is English. While non-native speakers are spending valuable time and money learning to read, write and speak English, their native-speaking counterparts are continuing their work.
There is also an economic advantage to learning more than one language across all industries. In countries where the official language is not English, learning the English language can significantly increase potential income earnings, especially if you move to the United States. One study reveals that the difference between an immigrant who speaks English “well” versus “very well” is 30 percent in income.
For Americans, the advantages of a second language are significantly less since English is the most common language. Speaking Spanish yields only a 1.5 percent increase in income. However, learning German can earn you up to 4 percent. Over the long term, that 2.5 percent difference can add up.
In terms of income, non-native English speakers have more potential for increased income if they learn English compared to the reverse. Already, non-native English speaking people have an advantage, if they learn the language.
However, learning a second language is something typically obtained through education and schooling. The higher up the socioeconomic ladder someone is born into, the better access to education they have to learn a second language. The huge advantage of socioeconomics is exacerbated with the access to foreign language education.
To wrap up economic advantages of a universal language, Shlomo Weber, director of the New Economic School, pointed out to Freakonomics the effect on international trade. More specifically, two people from different countries that share a common language can increase their trade by 10 percent. This means that varying languages hinders economic growth when that 10 percent in trade is literally lost in translation.
Another aspect of language is its association to culture, i.e. cultures are often identified through their language. This also applies within the same language, e.g. Southern accents, jargon and lingo. Some argue that adopting a universal language could eradicate all or parts of a culture.
I’ll explain why this is good shortly. Before I do, let’s discuss the issues that arise with language’s association with cultures. More specifically, using language to identify whether or not someone belongs in a certain group.
Language is often times used to ostracize worthy members from a group; a false-negative regarding group inclusion.
Mexican-Americans who do not speak Spanish may experience this. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that fluently speak Spanish may look down on Mexican-Americans that do not. Despite sharing a common heritage, background and sometimes even family, non-Spanish speaking Mexican-Americans may not be accepted by native Mexicans and other Mexican-Americans who do speak the language.
Conversely, there is the potential for false-positives with group inclusion. If people use language to identify other members of their group, all one would need in order to infiltrate a group is to learn the language fluently. Want to gang access into ISIS to collect intel? Learn Arabic fluently and half the battle is done. In fact, the CIA and FBI are constantly looking for applicants who are fluent in certain language for this purpose. Language can be a liability when keeping a group exclusive when the culture of said group is also identified with language.
Long story short: Language allows groups to wrongly ostracize worthy members and wrongly let in those who otherwise would not belong. A universal language would prevent either of these from happening.
With that said, I find the argument of cultural preservation irrelevant. I find reducing the amount of cultural diversity to be a good thing. Generation after generation, we thrive to be more accepting and open to different cultures. While we seem to slowly progress, the progression is nonetheless sluggish and as we’re seeing in 2017, that acceptance can regress. In other words, full acceptance of different cultures by 100 percent of the world’s population is not feasible.
Eliminating the amount or the complexity of cultures will bring human beings one step closer to a homogenous society. Some fear this idea, but a multi-culture civilization has not worked out very well for us, has it?
Barriers between human beings caused by different languages has done more harm than good.
If loss of cultures becomes an unintended consequence of a universal language, I’m fine with that, even if I lose part of my own culture if we decide Mandarin is the way to go.
Tower of Babel
There are several theories about how different languages emerged. Perhaps the most intriguing, and most unlikely, is the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
According to the Old Testament, everyone spoke the same language long ago. Sometime before the era of Christ, the people of the world decided they wanted to build a tower that will reach heaven and God. Apparently, they got pretty damn close and God was none to happy about it, for whatever reason. To prevent the tower from being completed, God split people up with different languages so that they could not communicate with one another to reach a common goal.
Let me repeat:
GOD CREATED DIFFERENT LANGUAGES TO PREVENT HUMANS FROM WORKING WITH ONE ANOTHER AND REACHING A COMMON GOAL.
So if you don’t buy my logical, statistical and educated argument for a universal language, then maybe the fact that God eliminated it as punishment for being over-achievers is good enough.
Although the Tower of Babel is a biblical fairytale, it does serve as a great metaphor for a greater point, like much of the bible was designed to do. In this case, whoever wrote this section of the bible is suggesting that a universal language was better for mankind. The origins of the Tower of Babel stem from the need for an explanation of various languages, and that explanation was simply “We were too damn efficient.”
Agreeing on and establishing a universal language is literally impossible. No one who doesn’t already speak the language will be unwilling to sacrifice a long-held tradition and culture. Hopefully, technology will step in and close the large gap that divides us that was left my language. Whoever invents such a device will do more for globalization than anything before it, including the internet.