05 Jun 2014

International Languages Through the Ages

History leaves few clues as to how spoken language evolved over the ages.

UNESCO has broken down the world’s 6,000 languages into deriving from one of six ancient languages – Greek, Latin, Chinese, Tamil, Hebrew and Sanskrit.

Debates rage as to which one of the latter three is the planet’s oldest language.

Some experts believe that the first spoken language dates back to between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago and that all languages evolved from the original one.

Translation and the spread of ideas

Language and translation is a wonderful thing.

How else can the great musings of the Ancient Greeks and 18th and 19th-century German philosophers have achieved cross-border recognition?

The likes of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Socrates might have contemplated defeat had they known their wisdom would remain forever confined to the minute percentage of Greek-speaking people around the world. For many centuries this looked like being the case.

Yes, the ancient Romans inherited Greek philosophy but this inheritance disappeared following the empire’s collapse. It took another 700 years before the Greek philosophers’ teachings were recovered in the Arab and Byzantine world. Translators had to transcribe these texts into Latin. This is because hardly any scholars knew how to speak Greek.

Similarly, the works of the German philosophers across the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries breathed the oxygen of publicity through the efforts of accurate translators.

The painstaking work of contemporary translators ensured that the likes of Leibniz, Kant, Wolff, Marx and Nietzche won supporters from around the world.

Business language

For centuries, it has been a given that if God is an Englishman then the speaker of the international language of business is too.

Despite China’s recent re-emergence as a global power, the English language shows every sign of holding on to that moniker.

Unlike Mandarin, the residents of most countries in the world can speak at least a smattering of English. Many of them have enough basic English to get them through a rudimentary business meeting.

That the universal language of business is English has had an air of inevitability about it.

Centuries of colonial expansion helped the British Empire’s machine plant linguistic seeds in the very fabric of the countries they were taking over, whether it was for trading or spreading Christianity. And the expansion of US corporations in the 20th century cemented English’s dominance as the language of global business.

Hence, people across the globe learnt to do business in English in order to increase their own wealth and prosperity.

Is English really the international language?

No and yes.

No, if you are judging in terms of numbers alone. Chinese (mainly Mandarin) is the primary language spoken by over 1.2 billion people worldwide.

Its influence across the globe looks set to intensify as Chinese businesses stretch their reach in the face of an increasingly global economy.

In fact, there are around double the number of native Mandarin speakers as native English speakers (355 million or around 5% of the planet’s population).

But the answer is yes, if you consider influence.

An estimated record 700 million speak it as a second language.

Countries where English is spoken as the first language are scattered across the globe, including vast nations such as the US, Australia, Canada, South Africa.

Mandarin has so many speakers mainly because China has the world’s largest population with around 1.4 billion people.

Unlike English, it is largely confined to its own country and just a few others close by, mainly as a result of Chinese emigration.

One obstacle facing Mandarin’s challenge as the international language is the difficulty the tongue presents to its students.

This is something that could potentially hold back China’s seemingly unstoppable economic juggernaut.

Did you know that every word can be conceivably pronounced in four separate ways?

Thus, newcomers trying to get to grips with it can find themselves having difficulties differentiating one timbre from another.

Take, for example, the Mandarin words for “hello”, Ni hao (said like this: “Nee HaOW”).

The second word is said as a single syllable. However, its tone necessitates that speakers allow their voice to drop halfway through before raising it once more at the end.

Confused? You might be. But more than a billion Mandarin speakers, showing the sort of adaptability that has helped to make China a global superpower, have got to grips with it.

Will Mandarin really become the future language of business?

Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently hinted at tomorrow’s value of learning Mandarin.

He believes that learning the language is key to securing the UK’s future business contracts.

Mr Cameron claims that China will be the world’s biggest economy by the time that last year’s new-born babies finish school.

The Prime Minister has created a goal of doubling numbers of Mandarin students in the UK to 400,000 by 2016. He also wants to see a similar percentage increase in the amount of Chinese language teachers.

New figures from the World Bank not only support Mr Cameron’s assertion, they suggest it will happen even quicker than first thought.

The World Bank predicted in April that the US would lose its position as the world’s biggest economy sometime this year, much earlier than the original forecast of 2019. The US prised this title from the UK in 1872 and has held it ever since.

But just because a country boasts the biggest economy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it also possesses the primary language for business?

Not necessarily, argues a new study.

Forbes reported that two billion students will be learning English by 2020, according to research into 1.6 million internet exam-sitters across over 50 countries.

EF Education First’s research claims that English will expand its superiority.

Today, more students are studying English in China than anywhere else in the world, with 100,000 English language speakers teaching there.

Whatever statistics you believe, it’s a safe bet to say that English and Mandarin will remain the two most universally spoken languages for the foreseeable future.


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