English as a global language

by Dan Dascalescu

Introduction

I am a native Romanian speaker, and English is my second language. Since 2008, I have been advocating for a very simple cause. It has been helping us communicate better, work and play together better, and become a more united mankind:

The world would be a better place if everyone spoke a common language.

What should that language be? English? Chinese? Esperanto? Should people stop learning the language of their country?

Read on.

Why a global language?

I've been studying the topic of a global language since 1998, when I started the complicated process of immigrating into the US. My background includes a professional translator accreditation, two translated books, and six years in the localization/globalization industry, of which four at Yahoo!.

Here are some major advantages of the world using a global language for communication that goes beyond one's immediate surroundings:

  1. Just consider the huge amount of online and offline knowledge that's simply unavailable to you for the silly reason that it's written in a language you don't understand. Should we encourage this status quo by promoting the learning of more languages so that people can generate more knowledge in more languages? Should we keep translating from the most common languages into a myriad of other languages?

    How about instead we focus on one language, and better knowledge, for instance by making it as easy as possible to learn that language, and by translating knowledge into it?

  2. Did straying away from standards ever help in the long run? Aren't you glad all power outlets are the same in your country and hate it when you can't plug your device in an incompatible outlet because you need an adapter? Language is pretty much the same: a vehicle for communicating ideas among humans. I claim that ideas are more important than language itself.

    power plug
    Italian plugs and Chinese outlet. Notice that even the Italian plugs have different prong sizes and distances between them.

  3. Economic studies have shown that for US English speakers, learning Spanish, French or German has a very low return on investment - between 1.5% and 4% annually. Keep in mind that learning a language is a very intensive process - high school students spend about 1/6 of their time learning foreign languages, yet only 1% of Americans claim they speak another language fluently (which suggests the number who actually do, is even smaller). So overall, learning foreign languages is an economic waste.

    Learning English on the other hand, has an annual ROI of 10-20%, according to studies in Russia, Israel and Turkey.

Where we are today

Today, it appears that the language with the best chances of becoming the global language is English:

  • Modern English, sometimes described as the first global lingua franca, is the dominant language or in some instances even the required international language in communications, science, information technology, business, aviation, entertainment, radio and diplomacy. [...] A working knowledge of English has become a requirement in a number of fields, occupations and professions such as medicine and computing; as a consequence over a billion people speak English to at least a basic level. It is one of the six offici languages of the United Nations.
    -- Wikipedia: English language, Significance

  • In the software realm, all programming languages and libraries use English keywords. Any significant software project with globally distributed developers has its comments and documentation written in English. We live in a world more and more driven by software, and the prevalence of English in software development cannot be neglected. An excellent post on this topic was written by Jeff Atwood, one of the founders of famouse programming Q&A site StackOverflow (mirror)

  • Generally speaking, English is the universal language on the Internet [...] The position of English can only be altered by major world-scale political and economical changes, such as increasing importance of the European Union or a coalition between Japan and China.
    -- English - the universal language on the Internet?

  • English is without a doubt the actual universal language. It is the world's second largest native language, the official language in 70 countries, and English-speaking countries are responsible for about 40% of world's total GNP.English can be at least understood almost everywhere among scholars and educated people, as it is the world media language, and the language of cinema, TV, pop music and the computer world. All over the planet people know many English words, their pronunciation and meaning.
    -- English as a Universal Language

  • I am talking in English because it is the modern Latin.
    -- Pope John Paul II reported in the Sunday Telegraph, 1 December, 1985.

  • About nine-in-ten second-generation Hispanic and Asian-American immigrants are proficient English speakers, substantially more than the immigrant generations of these groups.
    -- Pew, 2013

I have presented this argument in numerous public forum entries and collected the feedback. There seems to be a consensus among my opponents that everyone speaking a common language would be beneficial for humanity, but however, that language should not necessarily be English! Therefore, I'll skip expanding on why a common global language would be beneficial. I'll instead challenge my opponents to explain exactly what language should become universal, and how they'd go about teaching it to the whole world.

Criticism

I'll address below several common criticisms my proposal has received; feedback is welcome. Before replying, please read my argument in its entirety, and click hyperlinks when not familiar with the hyperlinked item.

Advocating English as a universal language is ethnocentric

I am not advocating the propagation of English culture (particularly not pop culture). I advocate teaching English purely as a vehicle for worldwide human communication. I don't advocate my native language for this position, and I'm curious which non-English speakers would seriously advocate their own language. So far, the second best candidate would be Mandarin Chinese as a spoken language and Classical Chinese as the written form, but that's thanks to China's huge population. I don't think any Chinese speaker in their right mind would advocate learning tens of thousands of characters. China's own government realized the problem and has issued a number of simplification reforms.

We already have significantly different cultures using English, which shows that culture can be decoupled from language: India (which had to choose English over several mutually unintelligible dialects), the United States (many subcultures), the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand.

The point is that for a universal language you have to either invent one, or make a pick among languages. I'll demonstrate below why I think the best pick would be English.

English is a bad choice for a universal language

English is full of irregularities, its spelling is counter-phonetic (which explains why even native speakers have such a terrible time spelling it), there are all sorts of dialects from Aussie to Ebonics, and it's full of slang. If people prefer to learn Esperanto, I'm very fine with that. Interlingua would be even easier to learn. Work has also been done on simplified and normalized versions of English.

However, English is still a very simple and easy language to learn, compared to Asian languages (with the notable exception of Bahasa Indonesia). Even when compared to major Romance languages, such as French, Spanish and Portuguese, English has simpler grammar, in particular much simpler verb conjugations. English has no gender or number inflection for adjectives, articles and adverbs. More details about how much simpler English grammar really is can be found in this article by Carlos Carrion Torres.

Finally, English is (sadly for some), the most popular candidate, as I indicated in the very beginning of this article. Also,

As a non-native speaker you are always an outsider. [...] If you want to get noticed in your field, you absolutely have to publish in English.
-- from a University of Michigan article.

Dismissing this argument as ad numerum won't help with the reality of how widespread English is.

"it would be boring if everyone understood English"

Consider this: how fun would the cyberspace be, if we still had all the disparate, incompatible networks that couldn't talk to each other, back in the dawn of the Internet? Fortunately, the Internet started using gateways to translate between these networks, until the networks understood it's much more efficient to just speak the same protocol directly.

All I'm asking is that we accelerate skipping the translation stage we're mired in nowadays. There are far more interesting regional aspects than language: culture (which is translatable to a very high degree; and that which is not translatable would not be accessible to non-speakers anyway), geography, society, cuisine, customs etc.

Culture would be lost

Let me tell you why it won't, taking as an example the Chinese culture. Now, Chinese culture that's not translated in English is only accessible to Chinese speakers. For all others, it's as good as lost. If future Chinese speakers keep writing in Chinese, more culture will be lost. If, as I propose, everyone learns English as well, those Chinese writers will realize they can expose their culture to a much larger audience if they write in English.

To clarify my point: I propose mandatory education in a universal language (English, nowadays) starting with every child's general education. After 4 generations, assuming that everyone spoke the same language (be it English or Esperanto):

  • existing works in some language X are lost anyway to those who don't speak language X, regardless of whether everyone speaks (also) English or not
  • which is easier, and propagates culture more: translating from language X into tons of languages A, B, C etc., or translating into just English? Yes, that presupposes that the audience can read English, which is in the interest of the audience anyway, in today's hyper-competitive world.

Learning another language is "fun", a good challenge and helps expand your thinking.

This is something I agree with. However, not all languages are equal. If you're keen on learning a spoken language, it has been demonstrated that Esperanto is about 6 times as beneficial to learn as English:

What Helmar Frank's research at Paderborn and for the San Marino International Academy of Sciences shows is that one year of Esperanto in school, which produces a communication ability equivalent to what the average pupil reaches in other European languages after six to seven years of study, accelerates and improves the learning of other languages after Esperanto.
-- from Propaedeutic value of Esperanto.

But, if you actually want to develop your thinking, then learning a programming language is much more beneficial to one's intellect and rigorous thinking, than learning another human language.

Painful examples of how not using English results in #FAIL

Below are examples I've personally encountered of how not using English is simply foolish.

Asking in some local language for help with software

This wiki is powered by a piece of software called MojoMojo, that I work on, along with other people spread all over the world. We use English in the code and documentation, and to communicate among ourselves.

Recently, a user encountered trouble, and posted his question on his blog, in Russian. How short-sighted is that?

  • he limited the pool of people who could answer the question to those who understood Russian (perhaps one or two people in our team), or who bothered to machine-translate the page
  • assuming he gets an answer, other users who search the web for the same issue, but using English or any other language than Russian, will never find it

As of a week since the user posted the question, he has not received any answers.

Marketing to thousands of computer pros? Consider using English

HAR2009 was an international security and technology conference held in the Netherlands, reuniting thousands of information technology professionals. Yet this particular restaurant advertised their pizza special deal in Dutch:

Life-saving information... in German only

Crash test dummy - impacted areas

Germany's and Europe's largest automobile club, ADAC, has conducted hundreds of crash tests on hundreds of vehicles. For the informed car buyer, the car crash test results are life-saving information... in German! Since this information can be accessed for free anyway, why did ADAC not just publish it in English?

The following are not strong counter-arguments:

  • You can use Google Translate to translate the page anyway. On the same token, you could use Google Translate and have everyone publish in their obscure language, but Google Translate is machine translation, still far from a human translation ("The front crumple zone of the A4 digested the shock [...]"). Also, by keeping the text in German, users websearching for crash tests will never come across this resource.
  • It's ADAC's information and they can do whatever they want with it. Sure, ADAC has no duty to translate their findings, but we're talking about crucial safety information here. They could be considerate to the rest of the world who doesn't speak the superior German language.
  • You can read through the information in German anyway, it's mostly car model names and star-ratings. True, at the first superficial look. But there's interesting information about each crash test, which savvy (German-speaking only!) customers can use.
  • Translation has its costs. But so does crashing luxury cars in order to determine safety ratings. By publishing information in English, other testing agencies worldwide may not need to repeat the same crash tests. Even if safety standards vary from country to country, relative rankings will be the same (e.g. model X is safer at test Y than model Z).

Final thoughts

Ask yourself what the economy would look like if every time companies from different countries tried to work together, they had to go through translation. Would any of the Internet giants exist, if their employees could basically not communicate with one another? Heck, I'm not sure the Internet would have spread outside of the US. Does anyone remember Minitel? It was "one of the world's most successful pre-World Wide Web online services" [1]... in France, and in French.

Let's stop this post-tower-of-Babel language mess. I myself have quit my job as a translator and stopped producing any public content in Romanian. What can you do?

  1. Point out that learning a language takes YEARS. To those who want to learn a foreign language other than English: is your life so in order, and have you accomplished all your other goals, that this is the best thing left to do?

  2. Point out that the huge amounts spent by multi-billion dollar companies on translation would be better spent on educating children in poor countries (if you haven't clicked any link so far, click this one - it's a superb inspirational YouTube music video clip).

  3. If you are a bilingual speaker, write all globally-relevant public content in English (even blogs about your city in Japan - there may be international tourists looking for information about it). This will also help yourself and your readership pick up more English.

  4. When asked to translate something from English, consider imparting some English knowledge to the asker.

  5. Encourage members of discussion groups or forums in languages other than English to join the English group if their topic is universal (e.g. computers). As a successful example, I discouraged Romanian users from discussing JavaScript in Romanian, and at some later point, that forum was closed. For a modern example (2011-Feb), see my post on the German forum of the otherwise excellent Android phone synch software MyPhoneExplorer.

  6. If you are learning a language other than English, double-check your reasons. Learning some basic expressions is always useful, and will earn you the appreciation of the locals, but is it worth embarking on learning the whole language?

  7. If you have the resources, or just want to experience a radically different culture (Peace Corps anyone?) consider teaching English to children:

  8. Spread this idea!

See you in 50 years. I hope you will have made a difference. I trust that natural selection, applied to languages, will.

Thanks!

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