In the 20th century, English became the most commonly spoken language (including both native speakers and non-native speakers). This has recently been overtaken by the surge in the number of native speakers of Chinese and Spanish, which in turn begs the question – is the rise in multilingualism something to be welcomed, or rebuked?

Well, some pros to having English as the sole language spoken across the globe are that firstly, it makes trade and communication between countries much simpler. Every person on the planet would understand what another is saying, which could bring about massive social changes. It could affect politics as well (for better or for worse), as nations could be more involved in the inner-state affairs of other countries with ease (and without the help of translators). That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But what exactly do we lose from this so-called “bargain”? Entire cultures, as it turns out.

An assumption shared by most linguists and historians is that different languages have been developed, much like the concept of religion, to make people feel like they’re part of a group. To feel unique, yet not completely isolated. The earth’s Proto-Human population had been gradually increasing, and thus was no longer able to belong to a single group. There had to be a division.

the efforts made by minorities to learn these languages in order partake in the globalisation leave little room for their native tongues

It most probably began with a division of work groups. Some would go hunting, some would build camps, and so forth. And these “co-workers” had to have their own unique way of communication, that separated them from those who had different tasks. So initially, these must have been variations on a commonly-spoken language of that region, but as the population continued to grow, and since no rules were established for these languages,  different words, word orders, and tongues gradually made it harder for groups to communicate. That led to more division within these groups, and new sub-groups were created. These new groups, in the process of separation from their parent-groups, sought new territory. Suddenly, with the expansion of the human populace, tribes and then nations were formed. While the new territories affected human behaviour, skin tone, etc., initially groups were to be identified by the tongues they spoke.

Now, in the 21st century, we have more than 7000 languages – most of which are only spoken by a handful of people, in isolated regions and tribes all across the world. The number has been rapidly declining since the colonisation of Africa and Asia by European countries had began in the 16th century. European languages were forced upon the local population, and native tongues were scarcely taught to the next generations of natives. This led to the “death” of numerous tongues. But while colonisation has virtually ended now, this decline has not stopped. This is due to the globalisation, which enables the sharing of, amongst other things, ideas and culture. It is not a bad concept at heart, but a side-effect of it is people are more exposed to popular Western languages, and the efforts made by minorities to learn these languages in order partake in the globalisation leave little room for their native tongues. But neither is that to say that in ten years’ time, less commonly-spoken languages, such as Thai (relatively speaking), would cease to exist. But should it suit globalisation’s needs, it will certainly play a less important role in Thailand.

multilingualism may truly open doors to a future with less cultural misappropriation, and better worldwide relations

Languages are ever-developing, and the maintenance and vitalisation of language is unanimous with human culture. I believe that the eradication of a unique cultural feature, such as language, is as devastating a blow as the conquest of a group’s land. So the solution, as it seems, is multilingualism. When one travelled abroad before globalisation, they (most likely) had to communicate in the native language of where they had travelled to. Otherwise, they would not have been understood. But the opposite is true in modern times. One travels to Germany – he may communicate in English. One travels to India – he may communicate in English. And so on. Yet it still seems that people are much more comfortable to be talked to in their native tongue. When a Westerner travels to Japan, for example, and speaks with the natives in their own language, it is likely to be a more intimate conversation.

I am adamant that all people should be bi-lingual, at least. If not for themselves, then for the perseverance of culture. Learning foreign languages is enjoyable and interesting, and can also teach people about the culture of the country in which a particular language is spoken. Perhaps it’s too early to know, but multilingualism may truly open doors to a future with less cultural misappropriation, and better worldwide relations.


Image: The University of Louisville

Daniel is an independent composer and orchestral arranger. He is part of a Folk/Neo-Classical duo with Violist Sara Umansky. They have released two albums to date. He writes orchestral arrangements for other artists, and occasionally conducts a chamber orchestra playing his original compositions, as well as arrangements of well-known pieces (most notably, pieces by Maurice Ravel). He is an avid music listener and collector, but when not engaging in any musical activity – he spends his time writing opinion pieces about history, cinema, music and other aspects of culture. An unhealthily-impassioned addict to History Channel, Discovery Channel, and basically everything…

2 replies on “The Perks of Multilingualism

  1. As English becomes more ubiquitous it is simultaneously diverging. It can already be difficult for Indians, South Africans. Australians and Americans to communicate with each other or with native speakers in the British Isles. That divergence can be expected to continue, with the prognosis for English the same as has happened to Mandarin, Latin, Arabic and the Celtic languages in the past- the written language will still be (more or less) comprehensible, but the spoken language will increasingly become mutually impenetrable.

    The worst part of this scenario is that at the end of this “linguistic clear-out” we will have lost a myriad of grammars, vocabulary and expressions in the old languages as they become subsumed into the all-consuming melee that is worldwide English. And then, however long it takes- decades or centuries- when it’s all over, inter-cultural communication will be back to square one- impossible without translation.

    1. Dear Peter,
      thank you for your comment.
      I do agree that the English language, much like Mandarin, Arabic and other languages, is “succumbing”, if you will, to their global exposure. I have mentioned that languages are ever-changing.
      I do predict that English, as we know it today, will most certainly not be the English spoken in hundreds of years.
      However, I disagree with you about one thing: I don’t think we can go back to ‘square one’, as you say. The reasons for that are… languages now have grammatical rules that are defined and recognized (which wasn’t the case with most languages before the 16th century), and both the spoken and written language are incredibly well-documented (due to technology, obviously). The documentation is, of course, relevant to most languages that are spoken by people who’ve access to this technology, and therefore I hardly believe there’d ever be a return to ‘square one’, unless we are ‘disarmed’ of our technological advantage (which, as a History aficionado, I cannot afford to call “impossible”).

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