22 February 2012

Guest Post: The Consolidation of Language

Today we have another guest post by Elaine Hirsch, this time on the thorny issue of language consolidation. One the one hand, it's a terrible tragedy that so many languages are going extinct. On the other hand, it's difficult to function as a global society when za nafrur hun tnayr nart nir nils.

The need to learn a commonly-spoken language in today's world has been accelerated by the prevalence of communication technology, which has turned the world into a global community. An increase in the use of the internet throughout the world has resulted in a small set of languages dominating the world population, resulting in the elimination of many others. The consolidation of language has become especially important in industry and business. However, language consolidation has buttressed barriers to a wide range of studies, ranging from marketing to engineering to medical transcription. This is due to the fact that the ability to communicate, regardless of culture, can mean the difference between success and failure.

Alexander International reported that today, English is the universal language on the internet, even though it has no official status. It was felt that countries with English as a primary language wielded political power, imperialism, and economies that influenced others worldwide. It was also reported, however, that the English-only phenomena tended to polarize the world into groups: those that used the internet and those that were internet-illiterate. This has also served to create major changes in education.

As the mobility of goods, people, and information continue to drive the world toward a more universal language and culture, many local languages and traditions have become extinct. However, it is felt by many critics that this may not be a positive change. As reported by the British Academy, 75 percent of the world's population does not speak English, yet there are many benefits to learning a second language. Despite this fact, a significant drop in students electing to take language courses has been noted and solutions to reversing the trend have remained elusive. In educational settings, this has put many language departments, from primary through the post-graduate research level, in jeopardy.

The primary cause of language consolidation, as sited by the British Academy, is the fact that an increase in internet usage has mandated development of reading and writing skills in the dominate language used by that system. The United Nations Cultural Agency, UNESCO, reported that out of the six thousand languages in the world, over one-third is in danger of becoming extinct. They went on to note that when a language dies, the valuable cultural heritage is also lost to the world. As was cited in the BBC article that reported on UNESCO's position, preserving linguistic diversity is critical.

Omniglot: The Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Language perhaps expressed concerns best when they stated that there is a powerful trend toward cultural uniformity. There are many potential causes, but it is felt the internet has more influence than any other media. The resulting influence on education, business, and government is clear. As globalized mass media continues to impact the face of culture worldwide, the number of languages will continue to decline. This is primarily because a common language is important in order to promote commerce. Despite the fact that telecommunications has led to the standardization of language, which is a trend expected to continue, ultimately there is also a great deal that will be lost.


  1. I don't really think that a universal language will be all that bad. It is unfortunate that English, Spanish, and French have been spread at the point of a gun, but in the end, having billions be fluent in either of them will only make the world a closer place.

    this blog is pretty sweet. I will be following regularly.

  2. Thanks!

    There are actually more native speakers of Mandarin than native speakers of all three of those combined. (French isn't even in the top 10 anymore.) Of course, English does have special status as the most common international lingua franca.

    It might be good for everyone to be versed in one global language, but it would be bad if this meant everyone stopped speaking their native language. Every language tells us something about the possibilities of human language and, by extension, something about the human mind. If everyone on Earth only spoke Mandarin, we'd know nothing about more complex grammars (fusional, agglutinative, polysynthetic), conjugation, certain phonemes (clicks, interdentals, etc.), variation in word order, etc. (To say nothing of the possibility of lacking certain features of Mandarin, e.g., tonality.)

    (Plus, sometimes it's handy having a language obscure to the great governments -- ask the Navaho windtalkers of WW2.)

    The question is: can we have a global language while still maintaining regional diversity?