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July 16, 2013

The World in 3 Languages

What does the future hold for the languages of the world? A discussion on how the popularity of foreign languages is shaping a world where everyone understands each other.

I was reading an article in Forbes about foreign languages and the impact of speaking a second language in the workplace. Financial and social effects are both positive of course. However what stood out the most was the fact that over the years, for certain languages the salary premium for speaking a second language has decreased while others remain the same. If you are interested you can read that article right here.

Clearly the world has changed immensely since the introduction of the World Wide Web. But one of the “subtle” changes that I think is rarely touched upon is the impact the Internet has had on our languages and how they, as we, have evolved. There are currently around 6,900 languages in the world of which roughly 515 are about to go extinct. The total amount of languages around can and should be surprising given that we are accustomed to hearing of the top ten, if not the five most spoken languages which are, in order (by amount of native speakers):

1. Chinese
2. Spanish
3. English
4. Arabic
5. Hindi

Now let’s look at the most popular second languages (ones that people choose to learn outside of their native tongue):

1. Spanish
2. French
3. English
4. German
5. Mandarin

The difference between the two lists can be attributed in part to the need of a portion of the population to communicate with their business counterparts in one language. Today those languages are, with exceptions, English and Spanish when business is conducted internationally. The popularity of Spanish has diminished the value of being able to speak the language in the workplace, at least in the U.S. Since the population of Spanish speakers is getting so big, finding a Spanish speaker these days is far more common than it was 50 years ago. But people are still learning Spanish and it is the most popular second language. So we can infer that work being one of the motivations to learn a second language is a minor one.

Diversity imageRegardless of the reasons for which a person decides to take up another language there are always positive consequences. The goal of reaching people outside of your national circles becomes more attainable. By default you learn one or two things about the culture of the language being learned so you as a person become more cultured and socially aware. Society as a whole unifies a bit more and if the language you are learning is one of the top three or five, all of the sudden you can communicate in a number of other countries.

We can look at this in two ways:

1. The more people that learn a second language be it Spanish, French or English, the less another language is spoken.
2. The more people that learn a second language the fewer obstacles there are for communication between cultures.

The former scenario is arguable among other reasons because of the unlikelihood of the native tongue to be forgotten. However, learning one of the top three popular languages means more people are able to speak those languages and the lesser common ones are slowly decreasing in number. The latter, scenario B, presents what is currently occurring. An increasing number of individuals from different backgrounds are able to communicate in English, Spanish and French, therefor increasing the number of people in the world who can speak to one another in one or all of these languages.

It is now easier than ever to learn a different tongue. There are innumerable sources to learn a language and this can be achieved in many ways. Depending on the type of learner you are, you can choose between several options and in many cases you don’t have to pay a dime. Below are just a few of them ranging from apps to online to one to one classes:

- Duolingo – One of the most popular language learning apps
- 50 Languages – Learn 50 languages for free using your native language
- Rosetta Stone – The most popular computer based language learning tool
- Berlitz– A solid and established language center. Locations all over the world
- Fluent Language – Online language tutor for German, English, Spanish and French

We don’t need a very deep analysis to come to the conclusion that society is rapidly adapting to the available technology and using it to come together through popular languages. Take for example this New York Times article from 2007. Every year one or more languages die while an increasing number of people learn to communicate in the most popular languages.

I am by no means implying the importance of a particular language. Instead, by sharing these thoughts I am questioning how society will be verbally communicating with each other in the far future. If we continue on the very positive path of educating ourselves and learning other languages and customs precisely so that we can easily communicate with different cultures, what will the language world of tomorrow look like? Will there come a time when we are all able to communicate regardless of our backgrounds?

Please leave your comments below

Until next time!

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