• Reuven Sherwin

[Paper] The world would be a better place if all people shared a global language

(First submitted as term paper in the course: Psycholinguistics: Language in Persuasion, September 2022)

Painting of The Tower of Babel by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder
The Tower of Babel by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder
 

Introduction

“Misunderstanding is the cause of 90% of all conflict” claims Freshley (2016), a professional meeting facilitator and trainer. Though Freshley does not offer support for this claim, it does resonate with the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativism (Whorf, 1939/2012, p. 138): “Are our own concepts of ‘time,’ ‘space,’ and ‘matter’ given in substantially the same form by experience to all men or are they in part conditioned by the structure of particular languages?”.

Simply put, the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis questions whether people speaking different languages perceive the world differently, and as such are prone to more misunderstandings and conflicts. While presented as a question, Whorf suggests that the answer is in the affirmative: Language influences the way individuals perceive the world - individuals who differ in their primary language perceive the world around them in different ways. Whorf (1939/2012) believes this is the result of the way the brain processes words related to the real world. Therefore, conversely, one must wonder whether a globally shared language would improve the world.

A brief review of the literature reveals what opportunities and costs a globally shared language may carry, and we propose a possible third option, which we feel offers a balance of the opportunities and costs.

Discussion

The idea of a single common language is not a new one. The Bible tells the story of the Tower of Babel. According to Judaic biblical sources (Genesis 11, 1-9), all humans spoke a single language and decided to use the opportunity to build a tower that would reach the sky, with a declared goal of uniting all people.

That story had a sad ending, as God deemed their actions unworthy, destroyed the tower and dispersed the people all over the land. Later Judaic interpretations (ben-Horkanos, 8th century) claim that God’s wrath was because the people of Babel used the single language to create a dehumanizing society, where the only important thing was The Tower. According to ben-Horkanos, the society of builders would treat the loss of a brick as a big deal – and the loss of human life as meaningless: “What did they do? They baked bricks… If a man fell and died, they paid no heed to him, but if a brick fell, they sat down and wept… ‘when will another one come in its stead?’”. Irrespective of the interpretation, the story suggests that a single language – like almost any development by humankind – may be used for good – or might be used for evil.

Considering Freshley’s (2016) claim that misunderstanding is the source of conflict and taking the premise of linguistic relativism to its extreme allows us to hope that a common global language could lead humankind to be more understanding and experience less conflict. In addition to the decrease in conflict and misunderstanding – cooperation would increase and improve. Yao & Lim (2019) found that people who share a language are better at solving problems together, increasing trust and overall laying the ground for people to want to work together.

A globally shared language would allow for more and easier trade among people. Lohmann (2010) establishes that language barriers have a negative effect on trade between people and nations. To quantify this obstacle he developed the LBI (Language Barrier Index) and added LBI to a version of the gravity equation of trade introduced by Rose (2004). Employing the measure, Lohman was able to show that the higher the language barrier, the lower the trade. This finding implies that the lower the barrier – the more trade, leading to more people being involved in trade, and more people benefitting from trade – thus increasing the global utility and social good.

While the good of a globally shared language is plentiful (decreased conflict, decreased misunderstanding, increased cooperation and trust, increased global trade and welfare), some researchers feel it may come at a cost. First and foremost, if all humankind “dropped” their current primary language, to adopt a globally shared language – humankind would risk losing the traditions and culture associated with the defunct languages, as Nuwer (2014) suggests in Languages: Why we must save dying tongues. Furthermore, there is significant research in multiple disciplines establishing the value of bilingualism. This value may be lost should the world move to a single globally shared language. In the most basic consequence, Perani & Abutalebi’s research (2015) found bilingualism may delay dementia by an average of 4 years. Bilingualism not only impacts quality-of-life at old age, but Yang & Yang (2016, p. 134) also identified “the positive impact of early childhood and adult bilingualism on the attention system”.

However, perhaps one of the most surprising values associated with bilingualism is that of creativity (Ricciardelli, 1992). Research shows a positive impact of bilingualism on creativity, whereby bilinguals are more creative than monolinguals.

Conclusion

In summary, there are numerous advantages to humankind sharing a global language – yet displacing local languages or dropping bilingualism comes with significant costs. While we could claim one side out-values the other, we would like to propose the findings may point at a third alternative – a globally shared language, to serve as a second language(*) – alongside the local languages. This would enable humankind to retain the benefits of traditions and cultures associated with local languages and bilingualism – while enjoying the benefits of a shared global language, allowing for many conflicts to be managed better – by people understanding each other.

 

(*) Side Note: It is interesting to note that Zamenhof’s creation of the Esperanto language in 1887 (described first in in Dr. Esperanto's International Language) may be considered as a step in this direction, as Yaffe (2017), claims that Zamenhof himself thought Esperanto to be a second language – augmenting local languages.

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