Tomasz Poznanski

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Will we eventually have one global language?

Lately, I found myself wondering whether we are slowly sailing towards one global language. If you take a closer look at the current linguistic processes around the world, you will quickly notice that there is a limited number of languages that substantially influence all other languages. Such media like the Internet only intensify this process.

If we assume that English shall continue to spread and make such a tremendous impact worldwide, is it prudent to say that our languages are gradually melting into one? Will they transform overtime to the extent that despite using different languages we will be able to understand each other?

Or are we evolving to bilingualism/multilingualism? Our mother tongue will be retained, but the "overlord" language will be required to fully participate in the global affairs.

Would it make our everyday existence easier, or - on the other hand - would losing other languages trigger a decline in culture-dependent thought diversity?
(see linguistic relativity or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for details)

Please share your thoughts.

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    Nov 17 2013: For the past several months I have been backpacking the world and therefore encountering hundreds of people of numerous languages. My general knowledge of multicultural languages is very limited. And by that I mean almost non existent! I can understand and know the basics in French/Spanish/Portuguese/Japanese (oh and my english is apparently not awful... It's not like I've lived and studied here my whole life! ;p) I originally believed my basic langauage skills would see me through and surely at least someone within maybe 100 yards of wherever I am shall understand something I'm on about. Naive was I. Whilst gallivanting from small town to large city, across boarders and oceans I realised the stretch just one language can have! The utter confusion which can easily be caused if you use a similar word or language or slang you have picked up from a neighbouring location. Something as simple as a border control bridge can be the divide between people fluently understanding you and not even police or taxi drivers making sense of a single word. I think because of this huge diversity amongst the already huge array of languages throughout the world, to have a universal language would be very tricky. HOWEVER; one way or another I have eventually been understood one way or another everywhere I have been, so maybe a universal language would not be the optimum since even then it will be infiltrated with slang, different abbreviations, pronunciations and accents. I found that without the use of language (well an understandable one!) you can still be perfectly understood with body language (by this I mean over the top he's tired and actions haha) and guessing words or pointing at things similar etc. Language doesn't have to be a social barrier. Just improvise and have fun with it :D
  • Nov 16 2013: No, I do not believe that there will ever be a single universal language that all communicate with.
    For two main reasons-

    Language is constantly changing even in the last 20 years so much of the English language has changed. Can you imagine the writers like Dickinson or Shakespeare trying to understand a modern day text message conversation? Yet they were both English speakers. There is no way that even should one language become the common language of all that dialects and variations of that language would not begin.

    Secondly, language is often apart of one's culture and self-definition. Just as people hold to their nationality, with that comes their language.
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    Nov 13 2013: For a person who comes from a country where dialect changes every 40 miles (Gleason et all) and there are are as many as 22 'scheduled' languages and as many as 1576 'classified' mother tongues that idea seems improbable and sad. Everything global may not be good. Consider an epidemic.
    Having a global language of commerce and a global language are two very different realities.
  • Nov 12 2013: I think it could go either way. I think there is a benefit to a global language but also diadvantages. Language is a cornerstone of culture. We are creatures of tradition as much as habit. I think that because we have 7 official languages in the un that we will continue to consolidate toward those languages. Having a common trade language has been the norm for millienia. English is by my estimation the global trade language of the modern age. If you look at star trek the klingons, romulans, and other civilizations all have a unified language although there are dialects. This was not arbitrary. It is founded in social science of in grouping. If we become a global culture/civilization, and I believe it is a natural progression, then yes we will have a global language. Information can travel much faster and with less cost if there is a global language. Look at vietnamese, they are the only asian country that use roman letters influenced by the french.

    There have been as many languages as cultures. In the past it served to protect ideas which was helpful to block the stealing of ideas and technology. Now we are collaborating more and more inter culturally and internationally. In science the common language is latin. In trade it is english. In politics it is the seven un languages.
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      Nov 14 2013: You are right here, the reasons why we kept our languages distinct are no longer valid. It is no longer helpful to be separated from other nations because of these linguistic differences. But if we unified our languages anyhow, would the benetifs outweigh the cons? Languages are windows into human nature and thought, and thanks to this diveristy we gain a lot of different insights, ideas, approaches and so on.
      • Nov 14 2013: there could also be a middle ground where the benefits equal the cons. If anything, bilingualism will be a stepping stone to a universal language. To be clear I think it is very valid to have multiple languages because of the various thought approaches and insights.
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    Nov 12 2013: Most of us in Europe have already evolved to bilingualism or multilingualism.

    As you point out though in your introduction, every language is a culture carrier, and speaking 3 languages I am aware I adopt a different "cultural mind-set" with each language. It would be a shame to lose that.
    It is likely that there will be an "overlord" language'; I would not necessarily bet on it being English, though, despite its current status.

    Languages also have a habit of diverging with geography, as evidenced by the number of American-English dictionaries available, so there is also a pull in the other direction; people are very precious about their national and/or regional distinctiveness.
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      Nov 14 2013: My thoughts exactly. To be a full-fledged citizen of the fast evolving world now, more than one language is required. It is not only about the communicational needs, but also about bringing an entirely new and different world view, values, thinking, approach etc.

      The status of English is not exactly clear, but jugding by its fairly uncomplicated structure at initial levels, it would be within everybody's reach to learn it. Maybe it would not be sufficient for regular communication, but it would add to the bigger picture.
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        Nov 14 2013: Hi Tomasz,
        I think Spanish is also a possibility as an "overlord" language, given its impact already in South America, and increasingly in North America too. It's also fairly simple and is written as it is pronounced - unlike English.
        Some people think Chinese will be the new world language, but I don't think so - "which Chinese?" I usually reply to people who suggest it.
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    Nov 25 2013: Any young person in any country with internet access already speaks a lot of English. Now for the first time in human history we can and do communicate on a global scale. Ergo, (Latin)for the first time in human evolution we need a universal language and, voila (French), it is evolving right before our eyes.
    Terraish, I made that up, will and does encompass pieces and parts of all spoken languages. Watch the internet and you can see it happening every day. By the way, the word "internet" didn't exist before 1968 but nearly everyone on the planet older than 3 knows what it is...evolution in progress.
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    Nov 24 2013: Yes, I think we should and will eventually have one global language, and I think we could accomplish this while preserving native languages all over the world. This would mean that people the world over would be bilingual.
    I'm impressed that European Union has a language goal for its 450 million citizens, which is to learn two languages in addition to one's native language. And it appears that the EU is making progress toward this goal, with the most commonly spoken second language being English. I'd like to see the US adopt a language goal of English+1, meaning that everyone speak English fluently plus one other language of their choice. Moreover, I'd like to see the US become the most diversely bilingual nation, consistent with its heritage as a nation of immigrants.
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    Nov 21 2013: "it does not necessarily have to be english" (no zapewne polski) - we have a global language, which is english, (encompassing whole universe because even aliens can speak english!) ... only pity it wouldn't rule in multiverses because contrary to HARD evidence that they exist, it is probably the greatest illusion of modern science.
    "It is not only about ... , but also about bringing an entirely new and different world view, values, thinking, approach etc" - very nicely and wisely, but the only thing we can do is enter in that world of english and stay... but the richness of our language doesn't have to disappear, we can enrich, improve and develop english as did the great Poles... J. Conrad or J. Bronowski
    my greatest tragedy is that i'm very limited in my ability in using English... inability to learn English at a decent level is my biggest constraint for my mind, my biggest disability... probably i forever remain stupid Pole!
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    Nov 20 2013: I live in Lebanon and it is totally the norm there.
  • Nov 19 2013: I hope so. Communication is a cornerstone to advancement and diversity a hindrance. The more easily people communicate the more efficient they are as a team and the more efficient they are as a team the more efficient they are at accomplishing projects.
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      Nov 19 2013: Hi Chris,
      Welcome to TED conversations.
      Sometimes communication across languages opens up new possibilities for advancement because each language is a carrier of differing values and perspectives. Indeed, in this case diversity is not a hindrance, but a catalyst to creative problem-solving.
      Once one language dominates, so does one mind-set, which increases the danger of dysfunctional group-think. Also, although it's O.K to have a linguistic "like-attracts-like" for a certain set of assumptions of "being on the same page", it does not necessarily mean people understand each other any better, or even are able to resolve differences any better.
      • Nov 20 2013: Joshua,

        Thank you for the welcome.

        I'm curious about your truth statement:
        "Once one language dominates, so does one mind-set, "

        I haven't seen that happen. In my IT "world" the foreign nationals who speak great English have still kept their unique backgrounds and thought processes. I don't see the relationship between how one language affects mind-set. I would think similar regional cultures would affect mindset, but not language.

        As a matter of fact, even in the US, mind-sets are extremely varied depending on which region people hail from.

        Regards,
        Chris
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          Nov 20 2013: Hi Chris,
          You're right. I was using language more in the 'cultural' (and cultural-regional) sense than in the sense purely of language. But embedded in "mere language" is still a host of cultural values and assumptions.
          I'm always aware when speaking other languages (German, Portuguese, French) that words and phraseology and that country's history just how deep embedded assumptions can be, about "how things are", etc. These are very present in the language of any conversation. In this sense one can speak of a "German cultural mind-set" or a "Portuguese cultural mind-set" with a broad sweep of expectations of how things are done.
          Of course, people are people and cosmopolitan professionals of any country probably have more in common around a particular industry than people speaking one language in one country with diverse work experiences - as you have pointed out.
          I think cross-cultural diversity is generally a good thing, and brings new perspectives to the table of creative problem-solving, though of course lack of language skills per se can be hindrance to progressing a specific project.
      • Nov 20 2013: Joshua, thanks for the replies. And I agree that cross-cultural diversity is a good thing as far as bringing new ideas to the table - and it all starts with communication in some form - and a common would go a long way to speeding things up. The story of the tower of Babel springs to mind - the one change that was made was to strip them of a common language thus causing [in their case] an impossible to overcome interruption.
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    Nov 19 2013: Isn't that Esperanto?
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      Nov 19 2013: That was attempted decades ago but never took off. No surprise, why create an artificial language that is new to everybody if there already well accepted natural languages available.
      English seems to have the potential to be a global language, mostly because it's probably one of the easiest to learn. Chinese might be important, but the learning curve would be much steeper I suppose.
  • Nov 18 2013: yes but it will be a shame.
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    Nov 15 2013: Tomasz, what you're asking here is along the lines of a similar thought I've had for a while, not so much targeted at language but rather concerning diversity at large. Indeed, technology has socially connected people and their cultures from all over the world, and I often wonder to myself what will happen when the differences among us become blurred as a single race. I think this connection, exposure, and "blend" of our different cultures through technology is important, and I agree that technology is definitely changing the way we communicate with each other including the way we manipulate language, but I don't think this is a bad thing. Invented acronyms used in mobile texting (such as, lol, :-) , etc., -- what I call "chromatics") help to efficiently express an emotion or set a specific tone, whereas the lack of these chromatics can make a message vulnerable to being misread. In essence, these inventions colour words with an intended affect that couldn't otherwise be as easily evoked unless delivered verbally.

    With all this said, as a supporter for transhumanism, I believe in evolving side by side with technology. Some people say that we (society) have already become cyborgs in the way that our cell phones are attached to us almost constantly, as if they were an extension of our own bodies, and even realities. (You could find some TED talks about this if you're interested.) What I fear though is similar to the very question you're asking, that being, "would losing other languages trigger a decline in culture-dependent though diversity". What I fear is that perhaps technology is not blending our cultures together, but is rather creating a new one through an inflation of self curated personas and thus collective social groups that abandon the classic forms of what we regard as cultural identities . This scares me for a variety of obvious reasons, but also b/c defending the idea of nationalism/culture was one of the primary archetypes explored under WWII conflict
  • Nov 14 2013: Eventually this will happen. And i think it should because if there was to be one global language then we all will be able to communicate easily with individuals from different countries thus creating more equality. I think language is what separates us and causes conflicts among us. Also it will benefit the global economy as the world business would be better able to communicate.
    Although cultures might lose their meaning, i think having one global language is a uniting force.
  • Nov 13 2013: Eventually.
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    Nov 13 2013: I don't think we are evolving to multilingualism--I think we have always had it in our nature. A multitude of languages still exist in use in the world and are being used functionally and productively--especially if we look at the concept of language more broadly as a tool for communication and sense-making. It's hard to imagine all but one disappearing.
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      Nov 19 2013: Hi Marjorie,
      If you lived in Europe, you might well believe that multilingualism could be the norm.
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    Nov 13 2013: Technology will overcome/resolve the language barrier. No need to invent a universal language.
  • Nov 13 2013: When you say 'eventually', i imagine thousands of years into the future. To predict what happens then, it can be helpful to look back at the past few thousand years to see what's happened so far.

    Languages are born, evolve, and die. Just like we do. At one stage, when latin was the dominant language, I'm sure many scholars predicted that it would be the universal language eventually. It's pretty much a dead spoken language now.

    Until recently, there's pretty much only 3 ways a language spreads and becomes dominant- through military dominance and invasion, through economic expansion and trades, and through birth and population growth. These are how most of the current dominant languages came to be. One thing these methods have in common though, is the limited rate of spread. They occur slowly, limited by geographic expansion.

    The reason English is fast becoming the dominant world language now isn't because of the success of the British Empire or the US economy or political power. It's simply because the internet happens to be invented at a time when the English speaking countries are influential. If the internet was popularised a few hundred years back or in the future, when another language, Spanish/Chinese/Hindi is influential, things may well be different.
    The internet breaks geographic barriers instantly, to keep up with this sudden fast paced communication, people need a convenient tool. English happens to step in first to be that tool.

    Back to 1000 yrs in the future. I agree there will be an 'overlord' language and local tongues. I dont imagine the overlord language will be one we recognize now, bound by a particular nation. It may be called 'English' or 'Chinese', but fusion will have occured so much it'll be like trying to identify the race of a child who has great grandparents from 8 different nations. Look at how many foreign words in the English today compared to 100 yrs ago.
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    Nov 13 2013: Defenders of cultural diversity should be able to defend genetical diversity as well, and oppose cross-ethnic mariage.
    • Nov 13 2013: Why?
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        Nov 13 2013: Let me see. I think I was drunk when I wrote that. I don't quite get what I meant either, but if I had to guess, I'd say this ; there is no logic behind the discrimination of genes and memes.
        Whatever that means.
        Ok look, I'd rather live in a world populated by individual diversity than by group diversity, because differenciation of a group is caused by isolation over time. And I believe isolation over time sucks ass in the age of information. We can let the memes get mixed and evolve through rationnal selection, rather than any other selection.
        • Nov 13 2013: I think that the biggest diversity is in our minds. I don't understand what u mean by group diversity.
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        Nov 14 2013: I mean the evolution of groups that are, and identify as, different from other groups.
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        Nov 14 2013: Shame on me if I do, and I'm sure I do.
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    Nov 12 2013: Probably, but not any time soon. At the end we all might very well communicate in "0s" and"1s"
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    Nov 12 2013: Maybe HTML5? ;o)
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    Nov 12 2013: Yep, and it's God's worst nightmare too.
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      Nov 14 2013: Right Gerald ,
      Look at the grief He had to give us the last time.

      :-)
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        Nov 14 2013: - The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

        How do Christians defend that bit? I've always wondered.
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          Nov 18 2013: Don't understand the need to defend. Mankind was instructed to fill the earth. We decided to stay together; God twisted our arm a bit. It worked, now we fill the planet.
          Where do you think the languages came from?

          :-)
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        Nov 18 2013: I'm tempted to reply languages evolved, but doubt that you're a big fan of the E word. You believe languages were God given, all languages different as are every animal species, with no common ancestry?
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          Nov 19 2013: You saying they evolved is just like me saying god did it. Lol. Doesn't really get us anywhere. The origins of language is a bit of a mystery; leaving aside biblical faith; there are many theories, but nothing concrete.
          To the question. The trend is certainly for less languages, but my perspective is that we won't be around long enough, as a species, to reduce it to one language.
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        Nov 19 2013: " You saying they evolved is just like me saying god did it."

        Yes, although it implies that God does things exactly the way evolution would : blindfolded.
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          Nov 19 2013: Evolution would start from simple & defective & improve.
          Creation would start perfect & degenerate.
          If we are on a middle rung, how do you decide whether we're going up or down ?

          :-)
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        Nov 19 2013: Evolution is not synonymous to improvement. And there is no such thing as a middle rung for things with no definite ending.
        However, species as much as languages have been witnessed to come into existence, and the process of how it's done is well understood.
        But never mind science, you've excited my curiosity : if perfect things degenerate over time, does God?
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          Nov 19 2013: Science says very loudly that everything degenerates over time.
          God is a spirit (as are you, but within a body); Mr. Einstien et al will tell you that time only affects items with mass. Therefore God is totally unaffected by time. In fact He created it.
          So, no, He will not degenerate, neither will you; only your material packaging.

          :-)
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        Nov 19 2013: You raise ever more questions!

        1/ What's the difference between my spirit and God, then?

        2/ Are you saying God existed before the existence of time?
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          Nov 19 2013: 1) The bible describes you as being in God's image. You are also described as His child. What exactly that means I'm not sure, but the prospect sure has me animated.

          2) Yes, God made time along with the material universe. Material & time are co-dependant according to current scientific theory.

          God is eternal, He had no beginning, He will have no end. The material universe seems to have both.

          :-)
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        Nov 19 2013: 1/ You seem to take the Bible's word for it. Yet there is no mention that "in God's image" refers to something non-physical such as a spirit, and the distinction of male and female is troubling in this regards. If you could comment on that.
        2/ Are other zero-mass objects eternal, since "time only affects items with mass" ?
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          Nov 19 2013: If we were created "in God's image" then I reckon that's how we remain (ie: spirit beings of consciousness). "I am as God created me"; it is impossible to be anything different.

          In which case the physical world of duality (eg: male/female, etc) is at a completely different "impossible" level and can only "exist" inasmuch as an illusion or a dream "exists" (ie: not at all, it's just an illusion, though at the illusion-level it is full of tragedies, heroic achievements and the whole story of human endeavour).

          And time is one of the greatest illusion-tricks ever.
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          Nov 20 2013: Gerald.
          Seems to me that as God is an eternal, omnipresent, spiritual being the our 'likeness' must refer to similarities in our spiritual makeup. Of course He came to earth in a human body to die for us, but that's another story.
          Male & female only relates to our material body, our spirits are, I think, asexual. It's like whether you drive an auto, or a manual box, car. It's a temporary thing of little relevance.
          You really need to check out relativity elsewhere, I only understand the basics necessary to understand my bible.
          You are right, that I trust the bible. It is demonstrably a message system from a supernatural source, awesome.
          We're getting off topic. If you want to continue go to...
          http://www.ted.com/themes/is_there_a_god.html

          :-)
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    Nov 12 2013: It really depends on how quickly population expands versus how quickly high speed communication spreads. It would require a very tight social network however to prevent sub-populations from keeping their own languages and to prevent new languages from forming in these sub-populations.
  • Nov 12 2013: I had this thought some weeks ago but I imagined what Russia would be like if it converted it's common language
    to American English. I tried to understand what the impact would be on how we see the Russians. What would change. Would we automatically include their industries and business into new trading partnerships etc. Good Question.
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      Nov 14 2013: Russia is a nice example here, but I would be more curious for North Korea or other secluded and unaccessible regions. Well, with such scattering the idea of global language seems moot, but provided that one day we live in one super megalopolis and other lands or uninhabitable, it suddenly becomes real.
  • Nov 12 2013: While the trend is towards fewer central languages (and fewer, central most things with globalization), we're nowhere near a global language, and won't be for the foreseeable future.

    Mandrin Chinese is the most common native language, and it doesn't reach even 20% of the world population, and doesn't seem to be spreading much beyond China (a few businessmen learning it aren't enough to put a dent into the demographics).
    English has more if you count all the people who know it as a second language, but we're still nowhere near a majority of the world population--estimates range from half a billion people, to three times that much, depending on how strict your requirements are (from barely able to ask where the bathroom is, to proficient in both the verbal and written aspects of it). Still less than 25% of the world's population given even the higher estimates.

    A more realistic situation that already exists in large parts of the world, which would still take at least a good few decades to become universal, is a scenario where almost everyone speaks at least basic English, but as a second language which isn't used for day to day communication.
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      Nov 14 2013: Would you be inclined to say that ubiquity of English would facilitate any sphere of our everyday existence? I mean, apart from obvious travelling benefits, what exactly does it provide us with? Does it mean that everybody would become a citizen of the world?
      • Nov 21 2013: Citizen implies government, and a world government is a pipe dream even if we all spoke the same language.

        In terms of practical effects, easier communication and travel, which is always nice. Again though, English probably won't come to replace the other languages, just supplement them.
  • Nov 12 2013: See i doubt other countries will adopt the English language even though many of them have already. other countries like China and Japan are usually traditional with language and such. Look at china and their rules already they are very strict about traditions and keeping them. So even though many countries are converting to English I do not think every country will eventually speak the same language.
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      Nov 14 2013: Well, it does not necessarily have to be English. It would be exceedingly difficult to predict now what language it might be, but in general, do you think it is an inevitable direction to blend all verbal communication systems into one? Or at least they will be densely packed.
  • Nov 12 2013: Yes English is already on the way of becoming the one world language. Other languages will exist for a long time but within the next 50 to 100 years probably the majority of alll people will speak and understand english