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Henrik Martenzon

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Choosing the scientifically best language for international use?

This is not meant to be on a individual basis. I encourage everyone to explore their linguistic capabilities.

I have heard several people talking about the greatness of languages and the awe of human language capacity. I agree on language as a great phenomenon and it should be widely studied. However Im certain there are better languages than others (English is as a fact, better than Swedish). How do I know this? English has a more words, more descriptive language, and its spreading like a virus while the native swedish words are replaced progressively with better words such as "Cash, team, topic, share, community, etc.

I have tried to learn Polish and realize that Polish has one fierce enemy: vowels. The polish languages make little use of vowels and therefore it is much harder to learn how to pronounce words when the platform of vowels is to tell the reader which sound to put where. Clearly Polish is not the superior language in this sense.

Some languages such as Greek has been said to be the perfect start for learning all other languages. Mainly because its components matches those of a wide variety of sounds we humans can produce. Its a very rich, sounding, language Ive been told.

My question is, for the sake of uniting mankind, should we perhaps strive to narrow are languages to assert the best ones for international use? I mean English is dominating followed be Spanish. Perhaps we should learn Greek and then English? I am bit disturbed by the use of all nordic languages on warning sign and similar when traveling in northern region. Use english and no confusion will emerge.

Topics: language ranking
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    Nov 18 2011: I really love the idea that we are all citizens of the planet and of humanity first. Even so, I love the diversity of language and I feel that it is somehow crucial to getting at every little insight that could possibly be unique to any particular group of people. With language and interpretation technolgies- even free ones like Google translate, I really think we should focus on using technology and leave the underlying languages thriving.
    Like you, I desperately want us to be united but never whitewashed.
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    Nov 23 2011: It seems to me the only thing making English better than Swedish, to borrow the example, is the number of speakers. More speakers in a more diverse society (or societies) will inevitably equal more words, more descriptions, and more specialized uses. There are simply more people speaking English, and it has gained an inertia that seems unstoppable. Latin was so rich for so long because it was the lingua franca of Europe––it developed an inertia that took over a thousand years to slow down.

    What I'm saying is the "best" language––the most descriptive and adaptable language––is the tongue with the most speakers. English, through accidents of history, is that language. I know Mandarin has more speakers, but they're learning English too. Mandarin is different in that it is spoken by a more or less static group of people of one culture in one place in the world. It can't compare with English in the number of places and number of cultures that use it and influence it as a native language.

    So we have the best language, it's here. Thank the imperialist English of the 16th-19th centuries. I don't think we should stop learning other languages; I find picking up foreign tongues to be incredibly rewarding and enriching. And, for what it's worth, I think Spanish is the far easier language being spoken by many people throughout the world. Pronunciation is easy (compared to English), as is learning to spell and write it.
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    Nov 22 2011: And these gesture/signs are easily distorted by experience from different cultures.
  • Nov 22 2011: There is a liguist named McWhorter who has looked into this, look him up. He's brilliant albeit extraordinarily controversial for some of his comments on race. I think humans are remarkable creatures but we're alos phenomonally irrational. No matter how linguistically perfect a language you create people will fail to use it. English is a grammatical train wreck precisely because it is such a mash up of languages and it changes so rapidly. I found knowing Latin to be extremely helpful in undersanding other languages. I don't know any greek so I cannot speak at all to how well a grenglish would work! (smile) Perhaps you'd need to start with an alphabet. Determine an alphabet and let the language decide itself?
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      Nov 22 2011: Maybe your onto something here but let me give you a hint. Language is primarily built on sound. We mimic sounds from the day we are born. Theres a TEDtalk on this, "the origin of language" I think its called. An MIT guy who records his family with the most advanced home video equipment to date.
      Starting with an alphabet creates to problems; one is the sound before the symbol is the exact opposite of nature, might work, but it sounds contra productive. Two is the separation of associated sound with associated symbol. And A in swedish and A in english gives to different sounds, somewhat similar though. Think of this thought experiment: Look through all languages that contains the sound of A and then all the alphabets that contains a symbol that matches this sound. We will likely match more than two symbols for the same sound. The symbol itself should bear little importance to the sound except for softer softer or more open symbols for vocals.

      However I don't mind stealing from todays all languages and produce a better=)
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    Nov 22 2011: Hi Henrik, my first language is spanish, and I am also fluent in english. Many times I have complained that english does not have as many words, as many inflections, and as a result, some ideas feel lost when translated into english.

    However, I find myself writing in english most of the time, because it is the language that will reach the broadest audience on the internet. I have come to greatly enjoy poetry in english, idioms, humor and sarcasm, things that usually make you fond of a new language and test how deep you have learned it.

    I have to disagree with the proposal of using a single language internationally as a means to unite the world. Maybe because in my view united does not mean homogeneous. A lot would be lost if we start erasing the wonderful diversity in human culture, and a lot of this cultural diversity is supported by using different languages.

    I would instead encourage people to learn several foreign languages. I was lucky to visit China through my job, and while my mandarin is extremely limited, I learned the powerful effect of making the effort to communicate with somebody in their own language. It creates a much closer bond than the one created by only expressing ideas in a language foreign to them.

    Besides, how to define a "better" language? does science really provide a way to determine if there is a "better" one? I think that a language's "superiority" is a very subjective judgement, so i doubt that science can provide any guidance here
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      Nov 22 2011: I can give you a clue to how science can provide better understanding of this. Consider music. In every eurovision contest the songs performed are generally of a certain pattern of chords. The band Axis of Awesome makes fun of this in their "4 chords song". It doesnt take a genius to figure out our brain is wired in some innate kind of way to like this pattern. Just as some words from different languages appears to be more likable than others (amore, bon jour, cash, vino, cuattro, hey,) etc. The problem with people above 15+ of age and their argument of subjective opinion, is that no one has said that you can't distort innate likings. You can be rewired to digest of an object or sound, smell, basically anything, that you originally where wired to like.

      I wouldn't wanna call this subjective because its not a matter of personal preference. Its a matter of distorted experience.

      To answer your question fully we need to define "superior". I laid out some questions in my reply to Shauna, which you can find further down.
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        Nov 22 2011: Hej Henrik, tack för ditt svar. I must clarify my answer too. When I said a language's "superiority" is subjective what i meant is that "superiority" depends on what purpose we are talking about. I have a scientific background, so i know that relativism as a tool to discredit opinions that disagree with my own is a pretty shallow tool. I am certainly above 15+ but i do not intend to take credit from your argument just by saying that mine is equally valid.

        My point was that "superiority" must be defined in the context of a particular language usage. It is true that proto-language (or "mentalese", like Steven Pinker calls it) might be shared between all humans, but we do not use mentalese when we communicate to other humans.

        So we must define the context for "superiority" and maybe we can pick languages that best fit that specific purpose (english for computer programming, italian for opera, portuguese for songs, spanish for poetry, or whatever other combination we can come up with). Even taking this approach we might have a hard time agreeing, but a method (can we really call it scientific?) could be followed to rank them. and the resulting rank will be valid only for that context.

        But if the purpose of calling it a "scientific selection" of a specific language is to try to impose the resulting selection on others, then i think we would be on the wrong track.

        In my view, speaking a different language is not the principal barrier against uniting humankind. Xenophobia follows an innate drive in humans to avoid members of groups that can be identified as "others". It is a very strong drive and only when we are conscious of it we can force ourselves to control and work around it. Popularity of a 4 chord song does not imply that there is a gene for "liking 4 chord songs", i would argue that this is much more likely for our innate xenophobia. And part of the process of figthing it is to be humble and try to approach other humans on their own terms
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          Nov 22 2011: I don't know if there is a gene for it or not. Im very certain there is something wired in our brain to like these specifics tunes in that order. They might be on the same frequency (Im no music major btw) or whatever they call it as something we have an innate response to, and like it. I believe theres an emotional response to it, which I would love to do research on. Later topic however.

          These chords are more than popular. They are like drugs to us. But back to topic.

          I agree with you on the allegeable innate xenophobia, very likely. But I was not saying that we should consider this language ranking as a dominating tool for uniting us. I just figured, when multiple languages are used, one of them is bound to be better than the other. You do make a good point with the context. Its created many fascinating ideas for me. Thank you!

          However, I still stick to my old argument that we can assess a superior language through scientific methods. I have already considered many experiments to rank them. Put the poetry part got to me. A language could be b-ful, descriptive and vague = good for poetry (amateur opinion from me) and would it be possible to have it "direct, adequate and simple"?

          I always give longer answers when Im tired for bed, so pardon me on that. I want to clarify that all my original question was referring to was "if we could choose a lang. based on scientific methods and rank them?". I´m still certain we can rank them according to sc. methods. That way I don't think the context becomes relevant. If we add the use of context to the criteria of an hypothesized ranking system, it would allow for your consideration too. I might be wrong on this, but feel free to debate my logic.

          I´m not sure if you though I was using this shallow tool or you just pointed it out, but I had no intentions of arguing with low means. My apologies if so.
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    Nov 22 2011: What about sign language?
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      Nov 22 2011: Are you referring to body language or signature language used by death people? I looked up the definition and got confused.
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        Nov 22 2011: Sign language used by deaf people.
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          Nov 22 2011: I haven't read anything scientific about it, but I can always speculate. My guess is that certain signs are more directly depicting innate associations in us humans. I do however believe this is too difficult to pursue research on in respect to the gain. Its to easy to create associations to signs as to figure out which gesture is the most easiest linked to the wanted association. Which is exactly what language is built on.
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        Nov 22 2011: Yeah I think you're right about the associations between signs and objects/actions. Definitely a point for sign language to becoming the international language.

        How do you feel about Esperanto? Do you think a construct like that is useful? I think it's not. I feel like language cannot be scientifically designated, but rather it develops organically. We're at a point where English has developed to be the most useful language internationally, and it works! English is (I think) very easy to learn, at least structurally.

        When learning a language what's important is not learning how to use the words, but rather who you are going to use it with. When learning a language, we also learn a vast amount of things unique to the culture the language is attributed to. So really what is important when learning a new language is how it is going to be used, and who it is going to be used for, as opposed to how easy it is to learn it. For example, if you are a French CEO trying to do business with Japan, learning their language (regardless of how hard it is) will help you connect to them culturally, and understand them better.

        Rather than trying to generalize as to what languages are best to learn, this is more of a personal choice, depending on context for each person. I am, however, biased because I am a language aficionado and am fascinated by learning new ones, making connections between them and how they relate to their culture.
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    Nov 22 2011: all of us using the same language still doesnt mean we will all understand each other.
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      Nov 22 2011: Consider language as a mechanical part of the brain. Its likely that we can map the mechanics and figure out a language that is more superior than the other, and put that to international use.
      I agree with your statement.
  • Nov 22 2011: Henrik, May I revisit this? I was pondering the difference between your question as stated in the short version over your last paragraph. I think the scientifically best language will probably assert itself over time. The language of the dominant populace in the area becomes a de facto "lingua Franca" over time. English had asserted itself as the language of science since the late 40's, but our stubborn refusal to switch to metric and our sliding education system have allowed that to begin a strong slide as well. What language do YOU think is the current dominant language? I still think it is English but interesting trends have started peeking out as People from Asian nations are starting to insist that business be conducted in their language as a show of dominance.
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      Nov 22 2011: Im honored! And you understood my question. I was about to delete this post since I realize my failure to communicate in english what I actually was asking about (ironically).

      I haven't decided the master language yet, and Im even curious if we can make a superior language. English is clearly good, but as I mentioned Greek is supposedly a better armor for speech production.

      So I ask myself; what is the most rich language, with well understood, logical grammar, which is easy to learn? Grenglish? The new baby of Greek and English!!!

      Seriously I have no idea, I just thought this was interesting and I would love to speak to a linguistic researcher about exploring ideas. The real question is of course whether its needed. One might explorer it just for the fun of it and we might even get clues to speech production and comprehension through a language adventure!

      I think patriotism and egocentricity is an dominant enemy of such an idea. I understand learning chinese will benefit business and the connection between west and east, but I would not consider a language without "R" a superior language. Its certainly an interesting language.
      • Nov 23 2011: You seem to have forgotten Esperanto which was designed to be an easy to pronounce and use European SECOND language. It has simple standard plurals, regular verbs, regular numbers, takes the dominant forms or commonest word roots for its words and does not use letter combinations that are hard or confusing for those of particular mother tongues. It uses a trick to make learning the vocabulary simply, by using suffixes and affixes added to a root word to express related concepts.

        For example in English we have, kintergarten, primary school, college, university, teacher, pupil, master, student, undergraduate, lecturer, etc etc etc. In Esperanto the method would be like this, take a root like 'learn', then there would be, learnerplace, biglearnerplace, learner, advancedlearner, qualifiedlearner, learnerinstructor, littlelearner. Looks ugly transposed to English, but in Esperanto, where the affixes are short and apply to all other root words it looks and sounds fine. A few core root words and the standard set of add ons, gives a huge vocabulary for a small amount of memorising, When children learn Esperanto at school, it builds confidence in reading, learning other languages, and boosts intelligence, because all the randomness, speculation and uncertainty is removed because all vowel sounds are regular, all pronounciations and spellings are certain, and no plurals or tenses endings can be wrong. The fear of being wrong is removed. No more of the, 'one mouse two mice', 'one sheep two sheep', 'one cow two cows', nonsenses, or 'I am, you are, he is', 'you will be', complexities. Never was introduced for political reasons, but there is a dedicated band of about 6,000,000 speakers worldwide who carry on in hope.
  • Nov 18 2011: If you study the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis you question - which comes first? The language or the reality which it describes. Having all one language does serve some purposes, it could ostensibly make communication much easier and allow for a common world view. But, having said that, there are concepts and images in some languages that are utterly missing in others. Trying to unify all languages into one would eradicate not just the words, but possibly the very concepts they represent.

    The way any language passes on information tells each new generation of learners what ideas underpin their world view. It tells them what parts of the culture are important and which are less important. Since the differences in cultures is an underpinning of growth - one of the reasons humans explore is to learn new things - losing the comparisons allowed in absorbing a new language would defeat the purpose.

    Besides all of that, no matter what you did to secure a single language regional differences would arise in short order. Sub-culutres develop their own lingo to convey information important to them AND to exclude outsiders. You would not be able to stop that.
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      Nov 19 2011: I´m not making a claim to eliminate languages, Im saying narrow the international languages down to the better ones. Not on individual basis.
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      Nov 19 2011: The Sapir Whorf is actually a splendid example of why we have reason to rank languages. Some Japanese words have great conceptual value and has no match in English nor my own native, Swedish.
      The people of Greenland has more than one name for snowflakes and therefore can differentiate more easily between types of snowflakes, than the general population of the world. Their language is more suitable for their environment with respect to this than many other languages.
  • Nov 18 2011: Each language, like customs etc., are generally unique to a given area & that is what enriches us. In the USA, many native American languages have fallen by the way side but there is now a movement to restore them. It's what makes each of us special. I am not of the "cookie cutter" mind set- I want each of us to hold on to being different.
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      Nov 19 2011: I understand the esthetics of language. However I don't look at language as our ancestry or as our uniqueness, when you say that I think of DNA.
      By narrowing down, I refer foremost to guides, signs, instructions etc. I would invite everyone to explore their capabilities in learning languages but as a tool for communicate direct, vital information, I believe in using the best language at hand. and everyone should use it.
  • Nov 18 2011: According to the general level:
    Britain owned their historical reason to have English all around world, and in the other hand, Babel from Bibel had proved that all human being have one language at the very beginning.
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    Nov 18 2011: I should mention that Im not very patriotic since I believe that to be a trap in the pursuit of uniting us a specie, instead of dividing us.