28 Dec '18
A Closer Look at Global Languages
A global language is generally defined as a language that is learned and spoken internationally, and is characterized by several factors such as:
- • Geographic dispersion
- • Number of native and second language speakers
- • Usage in broad global circles or communities, such as international institutions, commerce, science and academia
- • Usage by groups who wield power (leadership and administrators)
- • Number of countries using a language as their mother tongue, or adopting it as their official language; number of countries that teach it in their public or private educations systems
With the expansion of global trade, commerce and travel, and cultural exchange and interaction, the need for smooth linguistic interaction has led to deeper discussion about the future of linguistic communication and why languages are chosen as the global lingua franca, and whether English will continue to be the dominant global language. As is evidenced by the founding of the United Nations (UN) with its 6 official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish), and other large regional organizations such as the European Union (EU), having more than one official language leads to higher administrative costs and burdens. The EU spends nearly one third of administrative costs on translation into the various languages of member states. The UN’s translation budget is also considerable, as they state on their official languages page that they accept communication in other languages, with certain preconditions:
A delegate may speak in any official UN language. The speech is interpreted simultaneously into the other official languages of the UN. At times, a delegate may choose to make a statement using a non-official language. In such cases, the delegation must provide either an interpretation or a written text of the statement in one of the official languages. Most UN documents are issued in all six official languages, requiring translation from the original document.
The UN has taken specific measures to reduce the disparity between English and other languages and to encourage multilingualism by mandating minimum standards for UN web multilingualism, meaning that most of their main documents will be translated or posted online in the six official languages. The UN Declaration of Human Rights has been translated into more than 500 languages and is available in most of them on their official webpage.
The main unit of society that preserves a language is a civilization or large nation-state such as China. The dominance of English has taken place due to British imperial legacy, followed by the technological, economic and cultural influence of the United States. Not having English can be a barrier to anyone trying to enter international markets, or access the latest scientific, medical, technical or academic sources of knowledge.
While nations want to assure international intelligibility, they also wish to preserve their distinct national character and identity. Thus, many smaller nations must manage some degree of tension between global economic aspirations and their cultural roots. The fate of global languages and the quest for a universal lingua franca will continue and may become even more pronounced in the future.