Hold your mother tongue

5148231684_57fa0336c9It’s impossible to find a language in which the world can communicate across linguistic borders. For the time being, we make do with English, but that was a bad solution even before the two major Anglophone countries contracted Mad Voter Disease. The language gives a 6% minority of the world population an edge that leaves most of the other 94% impotent and frustrated.

Of course, any world language spoken natively by some would be a weapon of mass destruction in their hands, leaving all others vulnerable and exposed. In amiable conversation, that’s sort of okay – people don’t nuke their friends. But as soon as there’s conflict of interest, the natives win every time. It’s a fact of life and every international negotiator knows it. Personally, I remember participating in a discussion on a UK radio station a few years ago, in which my English opponent was talking absolute, utter and demonstrable rot. I would have devastated the fellow in any other language I speak. But the shots I fired in what happened to be his first language were barely audible amidst his relentless bombing.

So we need something better, but what? Machine translation has potential, but let’s not put our hopes too high in the short term. Esperanto lacks the political, economic and cultural clout. Mandarin then? Who knows. Frankly, I hope not.

There is a solution though. It’s fairer than what we have at present and more realistic than the alternatives. It’s this: not one world language, but two.

One of these would, at this point in history, still be English. As for the other, let’s call it WL. It could be Spanish, it could be Hindi, it could even be Mandarin, never mind how I feel about it. It’s not the exact choice that matters, it’s the fact that, once we all speak both WL and English, we will never be forced to speak to anyone in their mother tongue again. It will become a matter of basic civility to shut up in one’s first language except in the company of those who prefer to use it – mostly fellow native speakers. At long last, the verbal battle field will be level.

But isn’t it simply too difficult to learn two foreign languages, you wonder? Before answering it (in the negative), let me point out that native English speakers would have to learn only one. But more importantly, multilingualism used to be common in Europe and it still is in Africa, India and many other, smaller regions, so learning two languages is perfectly feasible. Moreover, learning English will become easier as soon as we no longer have to listen to people using obscure idioms, talking at breakneck speed and frowning at our grammar – the native speakers that is, and especially the monolinguals among them.

I guess monolingual native English speakers are to be pitied rather than censured. But they do cause the problem, and now we have the solution. I can’t wait for WL to emerge. I’m hoping it will be Spanish. But I’ll welcome any of the major languages. Communicating in Mandarin, Arabic or Russian, spoken as a second language by both parties, is preferable to being outtalked and patronised by native English speakers.


Update, in response to questions I’ve received by email: no, native speakers of English do not necessarily use more obscure idioms or talk faster than native speakers of other languages – though the high incidence of monolingualism makes them somewhat more likely to do so. But more importantly, their tendency to do so in conversations with second-language speakers is more of a problem than in others, because theirs happens to be the language of international communication.
Also, English-speakers are far from being the only ones among whom we’ve seen recent outbreaks of unsavoury populism. It’s just that this blogpost happens to be about this language. One of the reasons why the 20th century saw a tremendous rise of English was the endless stream of popular and enviable cultural products from the States, and to a lesser degree from the UK also. Trump and Brexit have badly damaged the image of these countries outside their borders. Of course, this doesn’t immediately stop English from being the world language and things may yet swing back, but recent events surely lessen its appeal – and its appeal is what it ultimately owes its status too.

7 thoughts on “Hold your mother tongue

  1. Goedenavond Gaston,

    coming across that older blogpost, I’m tempted to be a bit picky on the logic… and I think we don’t need two world languages, but three.

    Indeed, what would happen in your model if an Englishman and a WL-man would meet? Which language would they pick to be courteous? They would need a third language then!

    The logic may have led us to not do stupid an idea actually, as long as we consider as rule that anyone would have to learn minimum two world languages out of the three, in addition to one’s mother tongue.

    That way:
    – There will always be a common one between any two individuals.
    – The investment for 94% of the population is the same (2 languages to learn) or actually even less, as they will have higher chances to be able to pick a language from their language family, or from a language there is a course for around.
    – The remaining 6% (English natives) have more work than in your model, that’s to say the same work to do as all others, but that’s fair enough!

    On the overall that would probably require less work having 100% of the people learning two world languages out of three than having 94% learning two out of two. At least I managed to convince myself quite well tonight!

    By the way I remember reading a recommendation that European Union should have three official languages, one of each of the major families, like for example English, French and Polish… It makes even more sense to me now.

    Let’s see how convinced I remain after a night and after a reply of yours ;+)

    Thanks for your blog, keep sharing!

    Bonne nuit!



    • Two languages would be enough if speakers of WL1 and WL2 consistently speak their other rather than their mother tongue, even to each other. In more relaxed situations, they may both speak their mother tongues. The latter is something I’ve experienced more than one: some of my English-speaking friends have no problem understanding my Dutch, so we can both babble away in the lingo we’re best at.


  2. Sure, they all have disadvantages. But French would be very unfair: I think that from an East Asian perspective, they almost look like twin sisters… Perhaps Turkish would be good: both spelling and grammar are very regular, and I don’t think it has extreme sounds.


  3. An unintended consequence, to counter the comment of Sol Rosenstock, is that learning a foreign language forestalls dementia, the harder the language the better. As a native speaker of English and non-native speaker of Russian, I can confirm it takes years to learn Russian well enough to speak it, but learning the alphabet is simple–it only takes about 2 hours. Also there are thousands of “international” words in Russian, like “telefon,” that are easily learnt. To my understanding there is no standard spoken Arabic; only the written language is universally understood. With Chinese it apparently takes six years to learn the characters–an obstacle. Another suggestion: how about French? Half the vocabulary is the same as English; the alphabet is the same (with a few pesky accents) and the food is awesome.


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