In case anyone had any doubt, the contagiousness of our current economic crisis has made it painfully clear how integrated our global neighborhood is. It doesn't make much sense, though, that we can't all speak about this world-embracing problem in the same language—literally. It is time that all nations swallow their pride and agree to adopt a common language, one that every person on Earth would speak, read, and write.
Visceral reactions to such a call for language commonality are understandably indignant. What about national sovereignty, cultural identity, or tradition and history? On the surface, demanding that everyone speak the same language seems bigoted and culturally imperialistic—who can say that one language is better than all others?
A universal language does not, however, mean the extermination of linguistic diversity.
It is possible to maintain bilingualism or even multilingualism in a society. Everyone at Columbia, for instance, speaks English, but we are all required to learn a foreign language as well. Rather than linguistically and culturally homogenizing the world, speaking a common language would increase opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue and intercultural understanding, as it would allow direct dialogue between people of different origins.
Furthermore, times of economic suffering remind us that being rational and pragmatic is sometimes more important than clinging to tradition. It is inevitable that some feeling of national sovereignty and distinction will be lost if everyone speaks the same language, but it is naive to believe that the conception of cultures as discrete entities has not already been significantly eroded. The fact of the matter is that adopting a universal language is not too large of a step from where we already find ourselves in our globalized world—English has already infiltrated societies across the globe.
Evidence for the proliferation of English abounds. France has found itself so inundated by English that one of the branches of its Ministry of Culture, the Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie, has devoted itself to preventing the contamination of the French language by English words. Although it maintains Web sites intended to encourage French speakers to use native alternatives for words such as "podcasting" and for phrases like "beach volleyball," it is difficult to be optimistic about its chances for success when words such as "Internet" have become so universally ingrained.
Indeed, if the French backlash against English only hints at the extent of the globalization of English, the Japanese obsession with English offers unequivocal evidence. It is not only words for things that are un-Japanese, such as "pizza" or "necktie," that the Japanese borrow from English. Using English in Japan has become so trendy that English words regularly replace Japanese ones in pop culture: for example, "getto," Japan's adaptation of the word "get," is so frequently used that it has become part of the vocabulary of the average Japanese youth. With English so prevalent in societies across the globe, it isn't as huge a leap as one would expect to call for a more formalized, codified role of a global language. The obstacles are largely ideological and psychological—the will rather than the way seems to be the largest barrier to linguistic unity.
Yet the fact that English has become increasingly globalized does not in itself justify a more formal role for universal language. The reasons for a global language are more fundamental and more pressing. A common language would be a significant step towards the elimination, or at least the diminution, of racial and cultural prejudices that have no place in our contemporary world. When people are technologically capable of communicating with essentially anyone in the world with Internet access, why should they be linguistically deprived of this opportunity?
More importantly, a single global language makes economic sense. According to an article in July 2006 in British newspaper the Independent, the European Union budgeted one billion euros for translation of documents into each of what was then its 20 official languages. One billion euros is only the budget for one year in the EU—the cumulative cost of translation for small and large businesses and organizations across the globe must be staggering. With world economies slipping into recession, it is the right time to reconsider the wisdom of allocating resources to the culturally symbolic but highly impractical and difficult service of translation.
Of course, some may rightly argue that adopting a universal language would also incur costs. Would the staggering one-time cost of translating already-existing documents in all countries to a single global language really be less than the cumulative daily costs of translation? What would happen to translators and interpreters whose jobs would be demoded? How feasible would such a shift to a common language be? How many generations would it take? All these questions are profound and challenging, but they are nonetheless—or therefore—ones that multinational organizations should consider carefully.
Our global economic recession reminds us that we are all interconnected on this planet, and it is detrimental to seek to sustain anachronistic and artificial linguistic barriers merely for the sake of the antiquated concept of cultural autonomy. Each nation, of course, should value its own culture highly and seek to preserve it, but not at the cost of the welfare and progress of our world. Perhaps the United Nations could put the question of language on its agenda. To avoid having English or any other language inadvertently or arbitrarily imposed upon them, nations must proactively and cooperatively decide their own linguistic destiny.
The author is a Columbia College first-year.