If everyone were able to speak English, what would happen to all the other languages?

By Gemma Smith. Gemma, 16, studies at St Francis' College, in Letchworth, United Kingdom. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

The ability to communicate so precisely with one another is what divides us from other species of animals. Without language, it is difficult to comprehend where we would be right now – it has allowed us to question the universe and, ultimately, to develop and evolve. Therefore, what is even more incomprehensible is the prospect of everyone being able to speak one universal language – English.

At school, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to learn Latin. Everyone thought that I was crazy, learning to speak a “dead” language. However, for me, it was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made. There are so many words in the English language which derive their meaning from the Latin. English also derives words from many other languages, such as French and German. With the English language changing every day, new words are constantly being added to the dictionary. Yet, regardless of English having one of the widest vocabularies in the world, there are still gaps in our ability to express all of the things which other languages can. Growing up in a household where my mother’s native language was not English, I would be told proverbs which couldn’t be translated exactly into English. This therefore begs me to ask, wouldn’t meaning be lost if there was only one language? Will there always be gaps in the English language or could English end up as a combination of all the languages which already exist? Ultimately, the mind will always be constrained to what it can express. Therefore, if people are lacking the words to describe their thoughts with, will our ability to evolve be hindered by the English language?

Considering that people, like me, still chose to study languages which are no longer spoken, such as Latin and Ancient Greek, it suggests that people will continue to learn other languages which are no longer widely spoken. The reasons for why people still do are varied, but one of the main ones is that there are lots of materials which are written in these languages. For example, in ancient buildings, there are often inscriptions in Latin. In order for us to understand our past and explore our history, we need to be able to read any written resources, including those in languages which are no longer spoken. In the future, there will still be books and inscriptions written in languages, such as French and Spanish, which we will want to read. So, the assumption can be made that languages other than English will be taught, but there can be no certainty that they will still be spoken.

The Vatican, however, is one exception to everything that I have already mentioned. Latin is still spoken by the Pope and even cash machines in the Vatican bank give instructions in Latin. This is all for one reason. Tradition. In many cases, tradition never dies. So, although people may have the means to speak English, they may choose not to in some situations because it is not the tradition. English could simply be used as an economic tool for international transactions. The switch-over to speaking English would be a long and difficult one. There are areas of the world which we know little about. There are still tribes with have not been contacted and remain protected from any contact with the rest of the world. Therefore, it is very unlikely that everyone would speak English. Also, there is no guarantee that everyone who can be contacted would want to learn English – there will be people who will refuse.

At the moment, the majority of the high-grossing films and music are produced in English. Already, this is often the driving force behind people learning English. However, people in places like rural Uganda, for example, may not have the motivation to learn another language. When merely surviving another day is hard enough, why would people want to spend valuable time learning something which is not necessary? Surely, if someone is unemployed and has no connection with the rest of the world (e.g. via internet, TV), they would not benefit from learning English? This would slow down the process of the switch-over to English even more and could result in some languages being spoken for longer than others. Some languages could disappear altogether. For example, some languages are only spoken and do not have a written form. This makes these languages even harder to preserve. Some people might argue that if a language has no written form, then there would be no historic resources which would need to be translated from that language, and therefore losing that language would not have any negative consequences.

If everyone did speak English, then some languages will be preserved and others will be lost. What must be considered, however, is that languages are dynamic and will be constantly changing. So, although the spread of English may see the loss of many other languages, ultimately, English will disappear too. It will change and different dialects will form, and eventually new languages will form and English will cease to exist. So, to answer the original question, yes, the other languages will probably be lost, with only a few limited resources written in these languages. This change in languages, however, is a process which would have happened naturally, with the only difference being the timeframe during which it occurred.

One comment on “If everyone were able to speak English, what would happen to all the other languages?

  1. baggyk on

    I speak one language well and three others less well. I need all four of them to get through my daily life. And, the link that helps me understand them in a tight spot? It’s always Latin or ancient Greek. I think you made a great choice.


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