Do we need so many languages? (long)

Many languages are disappearing every year. Is this a bad thing, or could having fewer languages help bring people together?

The world appears to be moving towards a smaller number of languages such as English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese or Hindi, each with millions or billions of speakers. Unfortunately this means that smaller languages are in danger of disappearing. Some people fear the loss of culture and identity, while others believe a world with easier communication would be a better place. In this essay, I will discuss the dangers of both outcomes.

We are indeed losing a lot of languages. One language expert estimates that 60%-80% of all languages will disappear in 100 years, just three generations from now. This is a major loss. First of all, the way that people think is to a certain degree rooted in their first languages. A community’s language is bound up with its way of life, culture, religious beliefs and identity. A second point is the loss of diversity: different languages can contribute to different ways of looking at and solving human problems. Thirdly, fewer languages does not necessarily mean better communication: it could even mean a dangerous situation with billions of people fighting against each other, rather than smaller groups as in the past. This could be the most important drawback: as more people speak one language, it becomes easier for billions to be influenced by shallow media or aggressive politicians.

However, there might be a lot to be gained from having fewer languages and greater communication. First of all is today’s practical problem of translation: business is more difficult, travel is more complicated, and misunderstandings arise. Another current problem is marginalization: communities who do not speak a major world language fall behind in science and technology and their economies suffer. Third, having fewer languages might mean more shared ideas. Global collaboration could happen instantly rather than taking years. And finally, although some people are afraid of the loss of culture or identity, it seems that good ideas can survive. We don’t speak Latin or classical Greek anymore, but the ideas and values of the people who spoke those languages are still with us.

In conclusion, it seems inevitable that some languages will disappear: like animals or plants, they need a specific habitat and can be squeezed out by stronger competitors. The answer is not to hide and isolate ourselves but to be confident about our identity in whatever language we speak.

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3 comments on “Do we need so many languages? (long)
  1. Santosh Arya says:

    This is really great essay on language but i found one grammatical error. “Thirdly, fewer languages does not necessarily mean better communication” Should it not be “Thirdly, fewer languages do not necessarily mean better communication”?

    • writefix says:

      Hi Santosh!

      Thanks for the comment, and yes, this could be changed or rewritten:

      “Thirdly, fewer languages does not necessarily mean better communication….”

      On the surface it looks grammatically incorrect. However, there is an implied ‘having’ in there, somewhere:

      “having fewer languages does not necessarily mean…”

      or there is an implied idea of a situation or state of a smaller number of languages, rather than a direct reference to the noun.

      But it could be also rewritten as you suggest: “fewer languages would not necessarily mean…” or “a smaller number of languages does not lead to greater understanding…”

      Sometimes rewriting makes you think about the idea you wanted to convey. Here, it’s a hypothetical situation (we still have a lot of languages), so

      “fewer languages do not necessarily mean better communication”

      might benefit from a change to a modal such as “might” or “may not.”

      One change can lead to another!

      Thanks for the great comment.