One World, One (Giant) Language

Posted on November 7, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Physics of Poverty, Writing. 5 comments

Take a risk. Use your imagination. Transform your world.

Try to say this in any Indian language. I challenge you. You will fall short. Short on comparable, easily accessible vocabulary, short on that easy feel of flow and short on memories of when you last heard something like it said. English is the language of progress and possibility. English is the language of technology. English is the language of change.

To be progressive, therefore, one of the most powerful things we can do in this country is make English mandatory curriculum in every school, and then in the next generation just switch to English as the sole medium of instruction. One world. One language.

OK, I hear the critics. Some of our languages are so beautiful. So much of our culture will be lost. Then quick, start translating. English is one of the fastest growing languages in human history. According to the Global Language Monitor, the number of English speakers has grown from 250 million in 1960 to some 1.53 billion today. In China alone there are apparently now 250 million English speakers. In India, 100 million.

But more significantly, consider this. From roughly half a million words in the English language in 1960, today English has over one million words. And, currently, a new word is added to the language every 98 minutes. That’s about 15 new words a day. To qualify as an ‘English’ word it must be appear in a consistent context in English books and articles some large enough number of times with some criteria of geographic breadth. Both Google and the Global Language Monitor have their own counting algorithms. The growing and evolving feature of the English language therefore allows us to carry with us those words and phrases from our own languages for which we cannot find ‘English’ equivalents that give us the same nuanced feel.

Now, most human beings apparently have a vocabulary between 10,000 and 50,000 words. Only a small number of overzealous linguists can claim vocabularies upwards of 200,000. On the other hand, there are supposedly less than 2000 words that we use every day. The most recognized English word on the planet is OK. So what this means is that all of us English speakers get the benefit of a common linguistic structure and a handful of daily words so we can basically understand and transact with one another, but then diverge in our other vocabulary. Someday how widely you can communicate will no longer depend on how many languages you know but how many words you know. And this will be richer than having multiple languages because the richness of language comes from use. It comes from words traveling among people and building common memories and associations.

So, the one millionth English word, which was announced on June 10 of 2009, was Web 2.0 which means “the next generation of the world wide web”. Coming in right behind at 1 million and 1 was Jai Ho! which means in the new English dictionary “accomplishment” or “victory”.


Take a risk. Use your imagination. Transform your world. Jai Ho!

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5 thoughts on “One World, One (Giant) Language

  1. Risk lo, apne imagination use karo, duniya ko badlo. Jai Ho!

    Just as English takes words from other languages, so do other languages from English.

  2. I understand your point of having a single-global language of business. It will surely take down a lot of barriers.

    The concept of one world one language has to be accepted by the 5.5 Billion people of the world who do not speak or understand English, not just India. How much would it take for a Saudi Arabia or a Japan to switch to English as the primary language ? These are nations who are powerful even without much dependence on English.

    Just an FYI, India is already the third biggest pool of English-aware people in the world, behind USA and UK. In fact the language of business and government in India is English (along with 15 other languages – which to me is mindboggling).

    I quote Richard Parker from his book “Mixed Signals: The Prospects for Global Television News” on a study undertaken by Lintas, a major media buyer : “When ad researchers recently tested 4,500 Europeans for “perceived” versus “actual” English-language skills, the results were discouraging. First, the interviewees were asked to evaluate their English-language abilities, and then to translate a series of sample English phrases or sentences. The study produced, in its own words, “sobering” results: “the number of people really fit for English-language television turned out to be less than half the expected audience.” In countries such as France, Spain, and Italy, the study found, fewer than 3 percent had excellent command of English; only in small markets, such as Scandinavia and the Low Countries did the numbers even exceed 10 percent.”

    Truth be told, the number of English-speaking people in the world is an unknown. How well most of the 1.2 Billion non-native English aware speak/understand the language is entirely questionable. English is much prevalent, agreed, but the vast numbers that are often publicized (1.5 billion speakers) may have only tenuous grounding in reality.

    Another point to note is that per predictions by ‘The English Company’ – an organization tha specializes in analysis of global English and the impact of its development on economies, societies and other languages – English is likely to cede its spot as the ‘second most prevalent language’ soon. By 2050, English will have been overtaken by Hindi and Arabic, and perhaps even by Spanish.

    The association between English and Technology (~ progress ~ science)is purely accidental. It is chiefly because the USA has been a prominent player in science, technology and research. If the USA was, by chance, a Spanish speaking nation, surely Spanish would have been the language of science and technology. There is nothing inherent in English that makes it an imperative language of science and technology…it just happens to be, that’s all.

    In any case, returning to your point of one world one language, the idea is fantastic, the benefits are obvious. But English may not be the candidate for it. English can, at best, gain dominance as the global second language, but it is unlikely it will ever become the ‘only’ language of the world.

  3. Yeah, and Hindi is the worst since it has the same word for yesterday and tomorrow.. which must be absolutely hard to believe for an outsider.