Audrey Misiano

French and Spanish Teacher, Life-long learner, Teacher - high school

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Mark Pagel asks: Can we really afford to have all these different languages in this modern globalized world?

As a teacher of French and Spanish, and lover of world languages and cultures, what does this mean for my profession and my passion for language learning? I believe learning more than one language is beneficial in many ways for our brains and for our overall literacy. I understand the economic and cooperative advantages that speaking only one language would afford us...but at what cost to multicultural awareness?

What if we all learned our native language and a common language starting at birth or in the first year of school? Or if we all were multilingual?

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    Aug 17 2011: language is primordially sound. going to a one langage is taking instrument away from our planetary orchestra.
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      Aug 17 2011: Michel,
      Thank you for sharing this beautiful way of thought. I agree 100%. Makes me sad to also know that along with cuts in World Languages, my state has made cuts to the arts in public schools (including music).
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    Aug 9 2011: I live in Canada, a country which is officially bilingual and has placed cultural diversity as a cornerstone of our culture. This does not mean that I am required to be fluent in both English and French. It does mean that if I wish to have a conversation with a Francophone, I shouldn't expect it to be in English. We are a predominantly English speaking society, yet our largest province (Quebec) is fiercely Francophone and has enacted laws to protect it's language and culture. Despite that focus, and a long history clashes based on language and culture here; when I take my limited command of French to Quebec, I have never experienced even the slightest problem or prejudice. I make an honest effort, they make an honest effort, and we work it out.

    Would everything be easier if we all spoke one language? Absolutely. Would our lives be as rich, interesting and enjoyable? Probably not.

    Having said all that, I do believe that in the context of a transnational organization such as the EU mentioned above, it makes sense to settle on a common language. It would then be up to the delegates member states to either ensure their delegates speak that language or provide their own translator. The choice of language is irrelevant. It can be English, French, Esperanto or Hindi for that matter. All that is required, is that it make sense in context of the group.

    It is important for all of us to preserve and celebrate our languages and cultures. It is just as important to be able to step beyond that to build a global commonality of language and culture. As we move into a future increasingly free of the myth of cultural superiority, we are beginning to realize that the best way strengthen our culture is by understanding others.

    Cheers, Winston
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    Aug 9 2011: A really interesting question. Personally I believe we can indeed afford to have these languages but we should also embrace it. Mark Pagel's analysis of the European Union translation system is only partial, you do not need 250 translators for a meeting with all 23 languages...This analysis is based on an ever-increasing drive to cut down costs wherever possible (Indeed, translation for the EU does cost more than 1 billion euros a year). However this analysis lacks the understanding that our linguistic diversity is an integral part of our Union and is necessary for better communication. Indeed, even though our politicians may all by now speak English, they certainly don't all master it at the level needed for such complex talks and debates, hence the need for translators to accurately deliver messages. Moreover, public servants of all countries are encouraged by their administration to express themselves in their native tongue, as a way of defending and promoting it on an international scale.
    Languages should not become a question of "affording" or "cutting costs", as if we go that way we may also ask "can we really afford to have all this art" or all these museums, etc.
    Languages are part of our History and our stories, and each one has its unique way of expressing its thoughts, hence why it is important for people to keep learning more than one language, including in English-speaking countries. True enough, English has become the international and this should be accepted, and is by most non English-speaking nations. But this does not mean native English speakers should not learn another language. On the contrary, it is a much needed step to better understand the world outside their borders, and an incentive to travel, and discover other ways of living, and other ways of expressing oneself. I believe a lot more schools should be bilingual, from kindergarten all the way through to high school, no matter the country.
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        Aug 10 2011: Air crashes are an argument FOR one global language, which everyone who needs to communicate across the national boundaries will master. Not against it.

        Should it be English? The deficiencies are many and well known - but no better candidate was found.

        Read this essay on Global English http://goo.gl/uZHj9

        Languages resist 'should'. In the near future. everyone will know International English and most people will know traditional languages of their land. Some people, as today, will know several languages, few many.

        I consider that a satisfactory development.
  • Aug 21 2011: I am always for diversity, over-reliance on one language would only shrink our human base of knowledge.
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    Aug 17 2011: by the way, the world is neither modern nor global for many. entire cities and villages can't speak english.
    in fact most of humanity doesn't speak english, and don't need to.
  • Aug 17 2011: Why does everyone take this question in such a binary manner? Either we all speak the same language and the rest dies out, or we don't. Why can't we just have all languages we have now and a language common to everyone (let's say English because that would be the most practical for now)?

    If you raise your children in an environment where they're confronted with both languages, they'll pick up both and become fluent in both. It's more of a matter of mentality than anything else. For a large part, this is already happening on the internet, except there are always some people who lock themselves up in some corner. If we could just agree upon a language that everyone is supposed to learn when he's young, we could have the best of both worlds.
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    Aug 10 2011: I do not know a second language but have had deep ties with those that have and born in a different culture where English was not their 1st language. I believe languages should stay for the sheer reason that there are words in the English languae that cannot fit or fully express some words spoken in a different language. Why is this important...well, I saw the emotional ties of the language through poetry or spiritual writings where the expressions are so beautiful that I will never knows its full capacity. That language is deeply rooted in that culture as well, and their form of communication and expression. it breathes life into who they are and where they come from in ways that another country differs. i do not believe sameness is what we learn from, but rather the richness in diversity.

    I fully agree about your idea of being multilingural. I feel that is what most are doing now, as English seems to be the primary second language of non-english speaking countries.

    I just have to live with that disappointment of never truly getting that poetry or word or group of words that my primary language could not translate adaquately.
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      Aug 15 2011: Learn another language, Leila. You already know you desire this. You don''t have to live with disappointments you can change into satisfaction.
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    Aug 8 2011: I listened to his talk again yesterday, and found myself wondering about this as well.

    I love this talk - and feel a little differently. It's my projection that technology will ensure languages remain intact.
    Recent improvements in translation online lead me to believe people will soon read everything that crosses their screen in whatever language they choose. As a result, the pressure to communicate in one language will be lessened. I do agree it may happen eventually but as globalization continues, I hope the need and desire to preserve cultural integrity will increase. That said, I'm an optimist and have a deep desire for the richness of our cultural diversity to be as important to us as our inherent desire to be successful and global.
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      Aug 8 2011: Linda,
      Thank you for sharing your sunny take on this topic. I, too, believe that technological advances are going to provide the means for excellent translations/communications AND for linguistic/cultural diversity to thrive...and with that, hopefully peace! :o)
  • Aug 17 2011: Yes, we can afford to have different languages in our ‘modern’ world. I would venture to say that we can’t afford to lose the ones we currently possess. Each language is a specialized tool to express a cultures ambitions and desires. To lose a language is akin to losing a culture with all of its inherent strengths and weaknesses. In the U.S. we have the unfortunate tendency to be mono-lingual and expect others to share this value. Most other countries do not have the luxury (and I use that term lightly) of being so ethnocentric. Indeed, it may not be necessary to develop a common language, considering the development of emergent language technologies. For instance, services such as ‘google translate’ already are closing the gap between languages(and such technologies are only in their infancy!).
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    Aug 12 2011: Language is the communication technology evolution came up with in the first place. it is totally bron from, dependent on and linked to culture. Cultural diversity is our most precious treasure. There's a proverb that says that when and old person dies, it's a library burning, now put that on the level of a whole culture.
    We love eating exotic food, Think for a minute whant it would be if the only food you could ever put in your mouth was blancmange....
  • Aug 12 2011: I think its a horrible idea to put all our linguistic eggs in one basket and decrease the richness and diversity of the human tapestry simply because our current economic strategy is globalization. I personally think economic globalization is a horrible idea for exactly the same reason. Culturally, politically, and economically, we are reducing diversity as well. While that has obvious benefits for some few, (in the short run, anyway) I think its a very bad decision for the species. We are much better served by having various competing strategies so that they dont all collapse like dominoes if something goes wrong.
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      Aug 15 2011: Is it really a decision?
      • Aug 18 2011: It is definitively a decision on the part of some. It is a conscious decision, being implemented consciously, deliberately. If its not a decision we (the worlds common people) approve of, we need to inform ourselves on the issues, and the players, and exercise democracy to block it.

        http://www.iie.com/publications/papers/paper.cfm?ResearchID=377

        The problem is, that even the people pushing for economic globalization dont understand fully the implications of it. These are the same people, with the same economic theories that have led America to economic disaster. But look at a key argument in this speech FOR globalization. "If we dont move forward, we will fall over." (Bicycle theory)

        Years ago, I argued that that was ridiculous logic, and I do again today. If you are on a bicycle, yes, sometimes it is painful to fall over. But it isnt always in your best interests to press forward to avoid falling over. Particularly when you are heading full speed towards the edge of a cliff.

        An economic system that requires growth to stay viable in a closed system like the Earth, is a bicycle speeding towards a cliff edge. Its impossible to maintain growth indefinitely, and we are nearer to the edge of that cliff than most people want to know.
  • Aug 11 2011: The variety of languages is a reflection of variety in general: if you believe in Evolution, it is a healtlhy thing. At least since "Semantics" was discovered, it has become known that languages reflect culture, and influences Thought. The Western Judeo-Christian world view clearly seems to reflect the language structure of the societies that developed it. In our time, the shortcomings of this view are becoming obvious. For contrast, consider the Chinese classic world view. How different!. And in important ways, a much more scientific, therefore Modern, mode . So to answer the question about different languages, it would be a big mistake to try to eliminate them; I don't see much of a cost in keeping the status quo, since many languages are dying out from lack of use anyway. And the idea that there is ONE which is totally suitable for everyone is an invitation not only to mistakes, but also endless conflict for no very good reasonl. And note well, the idea that people have some basic Universal concept , about God, Cosmography, scuebce or much else is a very large delusion. That doesn't justify mistreating anyone, of course.
  • Aug 10 2011: I remember hearing a lecture by artist Ester Parada quite a few years ago... She did an installation about Oak Park, Illinois, a city that lost all it's trees because they were all the same species. (When one tree became diseased they all died.) It's always seemed to me that diversity is incredibly valuable. Languages and cultures carry a variety of "memes" that can be both creative and destructive, depending on the pools they're in...

    In any case, envisioning a mono-lingual culture seems tantamount to fantasizing about the death of the human race.
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    Aug 9 2011: I am convinced that we cannot afford to lose what is held in any language. Preserving them and their usage is very important. Technology can bridge the gap between language users. While Google translate is often primative, it is sufficient for many of the conversations here on TED to include the insights of people around the world who are not proficient in English. I love having access to these people, their thoughts and Google translate.
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    Aug 9 2011: Audrey, it looks like our diversity would need us to be multilingual. Our systemic progress is usually English but a more effective and efficient one should be considered like Esperanto.


    How is Esperanto easier to learn than other languages - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zn2W0GBX-kU

    The language challenge -- facing up to reality - http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=_YHALnLV9XU

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto
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    Aug 8 2011: Can we really afford to have all these different languages in this modern globalized world?

    Yes. We just need an auxiliary language like Esperanto for international comunication.
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    Aug 17 2011: Dear, a common language do exist in our world which is body language. You can communicate with it. So why do you need to have a common spoken language with you. The spoken languages are the reflection of our culture, diversity, richness of tradition and above all a respect to the ancestors who have developed it. The different languages makes us a different entity and community altogether. Human race is a tree with multiple branches and leaves of language, culture, caste, creed ,etc but we are one... in all ways...
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    Aug 15 2011: If you think of a plant as having leaves interspersed at equivalent intervals, you may see an algorithm forming spontaneously in nature. This step, then this step, then this step, and repeat. Another example is the geometric shape of cauliflower or broccoli which are algorithms occurring in nature, manifesting through the observable phenomenon of fractals. If you take those rules and let a human interact with the variables, you get something like the Mandelbrot Set.

    If you think of black box trading or algo trading as they have occurred by nature in the human invention of the stock market, you have algorithms again which are causing humans to use/alter real, physical space to incorporate these algorithms within their own machine to maximize it's efficiency (see Kevin Slavin's talk on algorithms).

    What does this have to do with language or culture?

    I speculate that this shows us a mathematical proof that human behavior is bound to biological rules (epigenetic rules) and ultimately hitherto ungovernable nature. Given this "bypass" of freewill in the human race and based on the fact that more languages die every year than are being created, we can observe that nature's course is to achieve unification of the human race, maybe to amplify cooperation and improve the fluidity of network building. This pattern points directly to the death of diversity in a cultural, linguistic and even genetic way. Monoculture seems inevitable.

    In the spirit of memetic, a subject that ironically has spread like wildfire in the past few years, I might paraphrase Susan Blackmore when she exclaims "We are the meme-machines!" Geneticists' work illustrates that humans are bound to those epigenetic rules that guide/conduct behavior, and memetic illustrate that our ideas are basically governing themselves through our living fleshy brains.

    My conclusion is that industrialization will continue to bottleneck diversity in culture forever, that we have become the tools of this process.
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    Aug 9 2011: Dear Brian, I got the information that English is AN international language (among others I agree) but certainly one of the most used one by the fact it is spoken by more than 500 million people in the world in the lowest estimates, in many many different countries, as a first, second, or third language. Not everyone speaks English, I agree, and I never argued this case. But you have to admit a lot of people do, in many different parts of the world. As for Esperanto, I believe the numbers to be at 10 million in the best estimates. That is a sizable amount of speakers, but nowhere close to that of English, or other languages for that matter. It is therefore harder to find someone who speaks Esperanto than someone who speaks English.
    As for your example of the aircrash, many more could be found where a failure of English (or a lack of understanding of it) could be found I'm sure. This does not change the fact it is widely spoken around the world, and does not make it a wrong choice of language to learn.

    My purpose was not to look down on Esperanto, I respect it and the effort behind it and believe it a great endeavour, but English shouldn't be demonized either, it is a useful language that can be very precise and easily learnt, and is widely spoken, for historical and political reasons as I said before.