Some thoughts on language, a major issue and to some extent false issue here in Ukraine

There are 6000 languages in the world. However, half the world’s population speaks in one of the top four, natively or as a second language.  Three quarters speak one of the top ten.

Linguists are going crazy because languages are going out of use. They run around with recorders capturing the last words of the last speaker of this or that language. We notice that most of these last speakers of a language of course, talk to the anthropologist in some other language which he understands.

So why do we really need all those languages? What’s language good for?

  1. We need to talk with people at home and with acquaintances – our immediate circle.
  2. Languages and dialects distinguish ethnic groups – who you can trust
  3. We need to stay informed through media we can understand: newspapers, television and radio.
  4. We need to learn, to access the world’s store of knowledge.
  5. International businesses, and government, need to communicate for business and to exchange information.
  6. Academic knowledge and the Internet are worldwide resources – they should be available to everybody.

The Indian dialects of Kayapo and Yahi are not written: they are only useful for the first two of the above named purposes: talking among themselves and group identification.

The minor languages of Europe, such as Basque, Irish, Gaelic and Sami, are at least written.  It is a matter of intense pride for Scots to speak Gaelic and for Basques, sandwiched between Spain and France to speak their Euskara Basque language. It boosts national pride.  It creates solidarity among themselves and their communities.

However, when they want to do business, even buying groceries or cars, they need an adequate knowledge of the major language in their home country.  As for staying  informed?  The very nature of minor languages means the information is usually meager and biased.

As the number of speakers of a language increases, there is more and more information available.  About 80,000  titles were published last year in each of German, Spanish and French.  There were more in Russian, an eighth of a million.  In Chinese – a quarter million, and in English– more than a half million titles.  The English books are generally more widely distributed.

The bestselling books in Ireland, Scotland and among the Basques are Harry Potter and Stephen King.  In Ukraine, add a couple of Russians – but no Ukrainians.  If you want to become well-known, write in a language with lots of readers.   Metcalf’s law of networks applies to languages: the value of the language is proportional to the square of the number of users.

English is truly the world language, the only one that fully satisfies all six objectives of language.  Without English a person is cut off from a great deal of academic work, a fair percentage of popular literature, and some portion of news coverage.  The Internet runs on English.  Even speakers of major European languages like German and Spanish make a point of teaching their children English.

Chinese and Russian are distant seconds as world languages.  Several countries speak Chinese natively, and there are overseas Chinese everywhere.  Russian was the language of the world’s most extensive empire.  A lot of international trade is conducted in both languages.  Nonetheless, the elites in both countries make a point of learning English.

Whereas students in a monolingual society like China, Japan or the United States can spend more time learning things that will improve technical skills like computer programming or engineering, a kid growing up in Basque country has to spend countless hours learning at least one other language natively, and then on top of that learn an international language like English.

Forcing the teaching of Basque (or Irish, or Gaelic) is a boon for politicians. They get a lot of mileage out of inflaming the fears of the common people that Spain and France are taking advantage of them.  People make money teaching, translating and publishing.  But – the languages are no more than expensive hobbies.

I think you see a pattern here if you want to deal in the worlds of commerce, diplomacy and academics, you cannot do it in a minor language. You are much better off speaking English than anything else; otherwise Chinese or maybe Russian.

Don’t let politicians convince you which languages ought to be spoken.  As always, they have their own interests at heart, not yours.  Don’t let them waste your time, don’t let them create false divisions.  Make your own decision, and focus on the language or languages that will be most useful.  Unless you are a politician, it isn’t Basque.

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