2019-12-24 18:32 (Tue)
The Universal Language Paradox
The Universal Language Paradox
  • Cris Jericho Goh Cruz Junior Staff Reporter
  • Approved 2019.11.18 16:38
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Wouldn’t life be easier if everybody spoke the same language?

I’ve asked myself this question countless times during my first few weeks in Korea. In restaurants, stores, or taxis, I often have trouble communicating with Koreans. This isn’t the first time I’m dealing with a communication barrier as a student: I went to high school in a different province and had to learn the regional language just to talk with others. Even then, I wondered: can’t we all just speak one language?

Currently, around 7,000 languages are used around the world. Each language is linked with its users’ cultural identity, after evolving to suit different communities’ needs. Nowadays, they still transform to reflect our ever-changing society. Present-day English (and its many different dialects) probably wouldn’t be understood in the 18th century.

Only 10% of known languages are used by more than 100,000 people. Two randomly chosen people would almost certainly have different native languages and therefore have trouble communicating. But that’s if everybody just stuck to their first language. Fortunately, humans’ ingenuity allows for a solution: multilingualism. Up to 60% of the world’s population speaks at least two languages, so their ability to communicate is vastly increased.

However, learning another language takes time and effort, making it difficult to speak with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Thus came the concept of a “universal language”, which can be shared by people of different nationalities as a mutual second language. English is the closest thing to a universal language today, commonly used in diplomatic and academic discourse among different countries. But with barely a billion users worldwide, there’s a long way to go before it can truly be called “universal”.

Once everybody can speak the universal language, everything becomes easier, right? The language barrier is no more. However, by that point, all other languages become redundant. For instance, if all French people can speak English, is there any point in retaining the ability to speak French? Extending this logic,  native languages would become unnecessary, and the universal language would become the dominant language everywhere.

Perhaps this solves the problem of miscommunication. But language cannot be separated from culture. It always changes to fit the needs of its users — that’s why there were multiple languages in the first place. In our hypothetical scenario, one language prevails, but different cultures remain. Language, as always, will evolve everywhere, but not uniformly. Several centuries down the line, these “evolved” languages might end up so different from the original language and from each other that people from different parts of the world would find it hard to understand one another. And at that point, they’ll start asking:

Wouldn’t life be easier if everybody spoke the same language?

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