Why can’t everyone just speak English?

Image via zinjixmaggir (Flickr)

It is impossible to deny the importance of communication. Verbal communication in particular plays a colossal part in our day to day lives as humans. How could we continue with life as we know it – business, relationships, entertainment – without this vital tool? We just couldn’t, it’s as simple as that. Today, Globalization continues to bring people from all over the world into contact, making communication between speakers of different mother tongues a day-to-day occurrence. It is common knowledge therefore that learning foreign languages is incredibly helpful if you wish to advance your career, particularly in international business.

Wouldn’t it be easier if we all spoke the same language?

The concept of a Lingua Franca has been around a long time. The term describes a third language used to communicate by two people who don’t share a mother tongue. A Lingua Franca – also called a “bridge language” is often used by business people who don’t speak each other’s language, but do share a common third language.

Do we already have a Lingua Franca?

Although there has never been one language used all over the world, several languages have been used in this way around the world at various points in history. Since the Roman Empire, languages such as Latin, French and Spanish have all taken their turn to dominate global commerce. Today, it is English that is usually chosen as the “bridge language” in Business and Politics. It is thanks largely to the dominance of ex British colonies that English is so widely spread.

As an English person, the foreigner’s attitude to English is apparent within minutes in many non-Anglophone countries. While young Brits rush to drop languages at school, youngsters from countries such as Germany and Sweden spend as many school hours learning English as they do their mother tongue and jump at the chance to chat with a native English speaker. Thanks to its global dominance in Media, Film and Music, English is fashionable and many students dedicate considerable time and energy to learning English, often seeing it as vital if they are to succeed in their chosen profession. In other words, the current importance of English is no secret.

English is particularly dominant in Technology, with a huge 56% of worldwide Internet content written in English. Thanks to the global understanding that learning English is essential, the vast majority of native Anglophones are able to ignore foreign languages altogether – thinking perhaps “of course the receptionist in our tiny Vietnamese village hotel will speak English”. Luckily for such people, most foreigners do appreciate the current value of English – but how long will this last?

Time for a change?

Just as previous Lingua Francas have faded away to give another language its turn, it is unlikely that English will stick around forever. The main language used in Business and Commerce does of course depend on the main players in those areas at the time, so will the emergence of developing countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China affect how businesses communicate? One thing we can be sure of is that Globalization is unlikely to slow down, so international communication will undoubtedly be a necessity for many years to come.

Some people suggest that we should adopt an official universal language to facilitate international communication, but I feel that this idea presents difficulties. Choosing an existing language to use globally would be close to impossible and the creation – not to mention the learning – of a whole new language would require an incredible amount of time and effort. Moreover, would speakers of over 6500 languages worldwide really agree to abandon their language (which many people link closely to their national identity)? It seems unlikely.

A world with just one language would arguably be a far less interesting place. Even without engineering a universal language however, it seems highly unlikely that English will maintain its dominance for long.  Perhaps a new Lingua Franca will soon develop (Mandarin? Hindi? Portuguese?) and Anglophones worldwide will be forced out of their linguistic ignorance. Only time will tell!

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