Article for Sterling

There are more multilingual people in the world than there are monolingual. In the UK, English is the only language spoken by more than 70% of the population. What does this say about British people?

In terms of how many countries it is an official language of (53), English is the most-spoken language in the world. It is also the most commonly-taught language in the world (as a second language). Despite all of this, English is only spoken by a maximum of a quarter of the world’s population, meaning that those who only speak English will only be able to communicate linguistically with one in four people in the world. If you speak the top three most widely-spoken languages (again, by how many countries they are the official language of), English, French and Arabic, you will still only be able to talk to one in three people in the world.

But what is it that makes language such an important part of communication? Language is a sign of self-awareness, and not only does it mean that it allows for self-expression and gives one the ability to put forth a part of themselves into the world, but it represents on a very fundamental level the human desire to be understood and empathised with. Language is separate from more basic emotional communication, such as laughing or crying, or kissing or physically hurting someone, in that it is fluid, and constantly changing and developing. It is also ineffably more specific, thus bringing about a far deeper understanding between humans- instead of being an emotional outlet which can be interpreted in many ways (crying could be caused by happiness or sadness, laughing could be caused by humour or embarrassment &c.), a human can actually elaborate verbally on their thoughts and emotions until they are understood fully.

If language is so important to us, then why do 70% of British people only speak English? With all of the information available to us through libraries, the internet and television, all of the opportunities are there to learn another language. I must conclude that we are satisfied with only being able to talk to a quarter of the world’s population. If this is true, then I must ask the question- why is this? There is so much to be gained from speaking more than one language. Even if one in four humans speak a level of English, this doesn’t mean in any way that in turn English-only speakers will understand a quarter of all verbal information given to them (English is a foreign language to far more than 75% of the world, more like 94%), and so it follows that to communicate best with humanity, one should strive to be able to talk to as many people as possible, i.e., to learn foreign languages.

I believe that the reason British people are less inclined to learn foreign language is that the importance of being able to talk to people of other nationalities and cultures is not stressed enough. The American film and music industries are the most powerful in the world, and so English-language media is the most prevalent in the Western world. In Sweden, over 85% of people can speak English, and you will find that Swedish television shows many English-language films and programs, with subtitles in Swedish. The Swedes are surrounded by the English language and so it is far easier for Swedish children to pick it up, however in the UK it is astoundingly uncommon to find television broadcast in foreign language, or even to hear music with non-English vocals on the radio- the benefits of speaking more than one language are far less apparent.

Many of the greatest artists, writers and academics recognise the importance of not only being a polyglot, but having the best command possible of one’s own first language. James Joyce, one of the most celebrated linguists in the history of literature, used his mastery of language to translate his often culturally-specific works into the minds of readers from every background and nationality. The writer Vladimir Nabokov, particularly lauded for his proficient skill with wordplay and language, wrote with such lexicographical prowess that one needs to have a grasp of certain foreign languages in order to receive the full communications of his works. Both of these writers demonstrate the power that words can have in terms of a person’s fate- both were publicly ostracised for their controversial works, yet paradoxically, due to the multi-lingual nature of their works, they also married different cultures, creating links between peoples who would otherwise be separated by their cultural differences.

Biblically, the importance of language is recognised eminently through the story of the Tower of Babel, where all of humanity spoke a single unified language. Having recognised the awesome power of this unification, they grew too big for their boots and built a tower as high as the heavens which so insulted God that He “confused their language” so that none could communicate, the ultimate punishment (and coincidentally the origin of the world “to babble”), causing the people to be scattered upon the face of the Earth, alienated in their discord. Written at least 2,500 years ago, this demonstrates how profoundly important the ability to talk to other humans is, and how it was recognised as so long before our own language developed.

I believe that communication breeds empathy, and what stronger communication is there amongst humans than speech? Speech is an exclusively human device, and so accordingly, to understand a person’s speech is to acknowledge their humanity. Conversely, to deny a person of their language or to repudiate their communication denies them their humanity and is akin to dehumanisation, an atrocious blow to civilisation.

The urge to talk is a fundamental hallmark of humanity, without which our growth as a species would be rotten and stunted. I implore the reader to recognise the importance of language- not just foreign language, but also their own. Our ability to learn is precious, and must be made the most of for us to progress as understanding, unified human beings.