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Vol. 19, No. 4, 2020
 
     
 
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why english is the world's
LINGUA FRANCA


by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

____________________________________________________

 

England and America are two countries
separated by the same language.
George Bernard Shaw

All Indo-European languages have the capacity to form compounds.
Indeed, German and Dutch do it, one might say, to excess.
But English does it more neatly than most other languages,
eschewing the choking word chains that bedevil other Germanic languages
and employing the nifty refinement of making the elements reversible,
so that we can distinguish between a houseboat and a boathouse,
between basketwork and a workbasket, between a casebook
and a bookcase. Other languages lack this facility.
Bill Bryson

 

In the alleged spirit of a disinterested accounting for the dominion, the global hegemony of the English language, it was a common belief, especially among colonized or conquered peoples, that the predominance was a consequence of at first British Imperial power and then American, that if another nation, such as Germany, had come to world domination, its language would have become the world’s lingua franca. This clean-cut but erroneous conclusion speaks to the over-appreciation of the cause and effect that underlies all historical change and the inveterate under-estimation of the role human nature plays in determining not only what language best lends itself to universality, but human behaviour in general.

If Ireland, population five million, a country of inconsequential power and prestige, were the only English speaking country in the world, English would still emerge as the world’s primary language of communication -- that is the second language of all non-English speaking nations -- for reasons which are as unvarying as they are proper to the species, in particular the propensity for human beings to seek out and take the path of least resistance when it is available. This is especially observable in the human response to the effort required to perform any given task in contrast to the effort expended, when the latter offers a choice of ‘less than’ in respect to customary expenditure. In negotiating the limited time available between home and getting to the workplace, we will choose biking over walking, driving over biking. In the supply of heavy materials for home construction, we will opt for mechanical conveyances over human agency.

In the near future, China is expected to emerge as the world’s next superpower, but despite its 1.4 billion inhabitants, English will still remain the international language of governance and instruction. It is hardly an accident of history that India, a country comprised of 29 states and 22 major languages (720 dialects), uses English, the mother tongue of its reviled former colonizer, for governance, and national and international commerce.

Since there is no circumventing the long-term drudgery the learning of any language entails, the language that best facilitates the learning process will immediately recommend itself, just as recalcitrant languages (Czech, Hungarian, Turkish) will be strictly limited to those for whom it is their mother tongue. We must bear in mind that 5-year-olds, who are naturally disposed to learning, require between two and three years to learn a new language. Rare indeed and in deed – with the exception of English learners -- is the person over 30 who is able to master a second language. I, for one, look forward to the day when an Elon Musk patented micro-chip can be welded to my flabby (under-performing) neo-cortex, and with a simple cerebral impulse-command, I’ll be proficient in whatever language circumstance prescribes.

There isn’t a person who wouldn’t rather be proficient than not in whatever task is set before him. Who wouldn’t rather make fewer than more mistakes? We revere, pay top dollar to those exceptional persons who make the fewest mistakes in their field of endeavor: the world’s best athletes, ballet dancers, classical musicians, actors. With the exception of those individuals whose psychological make-up or socio-economic standing have rendered them self-annulling – prone to, at one extreme, apathy or the other extreme, anarchy -- each of us, according to ability and inclination, strives for perfection, a fugitive goal that all human beings are condemned to pursue asymptotically.

As it concerns the learning of a language and the meta-objective of attaining perfection, or less than that, the more modest goal of making the least number of mistakes in one’s second or third language, where both objectives are subsumed by human nature that bids us to ease the pain associated with the protracted learning process, we will congregate around the language that provides the most efficient result in respect to time and effort expended. In our time, which hasn’t yet taken into account the proficiency of the many new digital languages that are operating just below the surface of computation based technology, the language that best facilitates learning is incontestably English, especially basic English upon which international communication and commerce depend.

Among the many reasons why English is easier to learn than all other languages are:

(1) no masculine or feminine (or neuter) nouns, participles/gerunds
(2) no declensions (distinguishing noun as direct or indirect object of verb, possessive, nominative).
(3) conjugations (especially in the present) are facile compared to other languages
(4) English requires fewer words than the Latin languages, or German, to express the same thought
(5) In any given sentence there are more non-variables in English (words that stay the same regardless of usage) than other languages.
(6) There are no number inflections for adjectives, articles and adverbs.

In English, “the blue book” will always be the blue book.

In all the major languages except English, in a typical sentence of 15-20 words, at every 3rd or 4th word, the speaker has to consider choices in respect to verb endings, direct and indirect objects, noun and verb modifiers, all of which are gender sensitive. In Turkish, an agglutinative language, a single noun can carry as many as six suffixes. In other words, since English has more non-variables per sentence than all other languages, the learner will make fewer mistakes than the learner of German, for example. In the efficiency rating category, measured by significant content divided by the number of syllables, English is the most efficient language.

In respect to the all-important ear - - if you don’t catch it you lose it -- English is the easiest tongue to assimilate because it is the slowest spoken language in the world after Mandarin and German. Spanish is spoken 33% faster than English, on top of which it is a vowel based language, meaning that its (torrential) flow is unbroken making it more difficult to isolate individual words. German and English, consonant based languages, are full of stops, which allow the ear to identify words and phrases heard for the first time.

Verb conjugation is famously simple in English, with only the 3rd person singular changing in the simple present. (I go, you go, he goes, we go, you go, they go). In French the ending of the verb changes according to the person and number (singular, plural: Je vais, tu vas, il/elle va, nous allons, vous allez, ils vont). In English there is one change, in French there are six. The same relative simplicity holds for compound verbs. Sentences that require two or three verbs are demonstratively more unwieldy in non-English languages. Unlike Spanish and French, subjunctive mood tenses are rarely used in English.

In English verbs, the infinitive reveals the form of the conjugation in the simple present: 'to go,' 'to see,' become 'I go,' 'I see.' In French the infinitive aller (to go) becomes je vais. In Spanish ir (to go) becomes yo voy. In Spanish there are two verbs ‘to be;’ in French there are two verbs ‘to know.’ In Turkish there is no verb 'to be' or 'to have.'

And while it is true that there are almost no verb conjugations in many of the Asian tongues, they are tonal languages and their scripts and long alphabets preclude their suitability as convenient second languages.

In respect to the all-important learning curve, it is always easier to transition from the complex to the simple than the other way around. It is easier to manage an alphabet comprised of 26 compared to 50 letters, or to deal with 50 grammar points than a 100.

Native English speakers have been singled out (mocked and derided) for being unable to learn second and third languages. However misleadingly true, it has nothing to do with innate ability. If I’m used to solving quadratic equations, I will find the learning of multiplication and division facile by comparison. For mother tongue English speakers, all other languages are more complex and thus, exponentially more difficult to learn.

If we now agree that English, compared to all other languages, best lends itself to universality, it should be noted that this consensus is not strictly an outcome of ergonomics, but also human nature that serves but one master: the path of least resistance. Notwithstanding strategic location, specialized industry and technology may require of a workforce that it become proficient in second languages other than English, in most international arenas (UN, WHO, NATO, NAFTA) English is the medium that best facilitates the discourse that animates difference of opinion, while providing the best lexical materials for the construction of bridges that link unlike cultures and allow watchful and wary strangers to become better acquainted.

 

 

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from apscis/reddit
I don’t buy the strange claim that English would be the global lingua franca even if it was only spoken in Ireland (in addition to England, I guess?). It’s not like the greater world would seek out the best lingua franca and unanimously agree upon English. And what of, say, Russian, which is complicated by pretty much every standard put forth here, but is a lingua franca across swathes of Central Asia and the Caucasus? Why are these people not using the supposedly much simpler English? Because Russia was a major power in that region, and England was not.

kovkov44/reddit
In Russian satellite countries Russian language compulsory. Third language is English.

from SwankyPanda123/reddit
Hate to break it to you, but English is the lingua frnca cuz of centuries of colonialism around the world and the US being a superpower, not cuz it’s easy to learn. India doesn’t use english because they think it’s easy, they use it cuz of years of British rule.Also, if people chose lingua francas based on easiness, esperanto would’ve dominated the world.I get the feeling from this article that you don’t know much about languages or linguistics. Also, I forgot to mention that written English is stupidly complicated. Languages that have consistent phonetics with their alphabets are way waaaay easier even if they have slightly more letters.

Hindi is already the lingua franca in north India, in that region, there’s no competition. However, the only thing keeping hindi from being a lingua franca across all of India is that many south Indians see the language as foreign to them, which makes sense when you think about it. Although all indic languages were influenced by Sanskrit, south Indians speak dravidian languages which is a completely different language family than the indo-european languages of the north, which share high mutual intelligibility. And most importantly, the south didn’t have that much imposition of the Hindi language, english on the other hand was imposed for 100s of years by the british as the “prestigious” language. That imposed mindset is what makes english the current indian lingua franca.

Also, for any Indian, Hindi is an easier second language to learn than english by far. Hindi shares more vocabulary and grammar structures with all indic languages (even dravidian) than english.

ThomasLikesCookies /reddit
Some of the claims there are just false. For instance, English doesn't actually require fewer words to express the same thoughts as German, but about 20% more.

also by Robert J. Lewis:

ORIGINAL ALT-CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR GUITAR

One Hand Clapping: The Zen Koan Hoax
Human Nature: King of the Hill

The Trouble with Darwin
The Life & Death of Anthony Bourdain
Denying Identity and Natural Law
The Cares versus the Care-nots
Elon Musk: Brilliant but Wrong
As the Corporation Feasts, the Earth Festers
Flirting & Consequences
Breaking Bonds
Oscar Wilde and the Birth of Cool
The Big
Deconstructing Skin Colour
To Party - Parting Ways with Consciousness
Comedy - Constant Craving
Choosing Gender
Becoming Our Opposites
Broken Feather's Last Stand

Abstract Art or Artifice II
Old People
Beware the Cherry-Picker
Once Were Animal
Islam is Smarter Than the West
Islam Divided by Two
Pedophiling Innocence
Grappling with Revenge
Hit Me With That Music
The Sinking of the Friendship
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
1-800-Philosophy
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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