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English a lucky language?

Posted on December 20th, 2011 by Alexika

As reported in the Sunday Times, new research by Professor Mark Pagel - an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in the UK – makes fascinating reading. But there is one conclusion that we would like to take issue with.

First the fascinating part – and there is plenty of it. Prof. Pagel explains that as many as 500,000 languages have lived  and died since modern humans evolved. But they are dwindling all the the time, and half of today’s 6909 languages are under threat. We are living in an era of the least linguistic diversity, with only about 20 languages covering almost the entire population of the world. The remainder are spoken by tribal groups of usually only a few thousand.

Prof. Pagel explains that languages die out for political and geographical reasons: “Some languages just by accident get hooked up to successful societies and they drive those languages. Every language on earth is equally good at being a human language. There are just lucky ones. The luckiest of them all is English.” This research is fascinating and Prof. Pagel’s body of work can be accessed here.

No doubt the conclusion is simplified for the purposes of a newspaper article, but the argument is then taken to its conclusion as follows. English is everyone’s second language, so English will win this battle to the death. Just as many more languages have died out, so many more will follow until we are left with just one. But this is where we would beg to differ! On our own web site, we present the information that only 15 languages cover over 90% of the business done in the world. And yes, English covers 35% of business done globally. But look what’s coming – Chinese in 3rd place with only 7.4% – this is surely set to grow. German stubbornly in 4th with 7.2%, and showing no sign at all of losing impact.

We would humbly add another reason to Prof. Pagels list. Languages prosper or die out for political and geographical reaons – and also for reasons of international trade. Admittedly the British are not good at this, but generally people need to learn languages to sell things to each other across cultures – and they find that they can sell more if they use the language of their customers. To paraphrase Helmut Schmidt: If you buy from me I speak English, but if you are selling to me – Sprechen Sie Deutsch!!

University of Reading, Berkshire UK

 

 

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