English Be Declared the World’s Official Common Language?
Anyone who has travelled
outside his own country is aware of the thrill—and frustration—of
dealing with foreign languages. The thrill comes from the fact that
the languages are foreign. When you hear people speaking differently
from you, and see newspapers, magazines, posters and other written
materials that look different from what you are used to, you know
you have actually gone somewhere. The frustration also comes from
the fact that the languages are foreign. If you really need to say
something to someone who doesn’t understand you, or need to read
something you don’t understand, frustration is inevitable.
The solution, of course, would be a common language that everyone
would understand, everywhere in the world.
such an idea wouldn’t mean anyone losing his or her native
tongue. A Frenchman would still speak French, a German would
still speak German, a Chinese would still speak Chinese, etc.
However, in addition to their native language, they would
also speak “X”, the common language that would allow everyone
to communicate with everyone else, no matter where on the
planet they might be.
English to a large extent already fulfils this role; however,
this has come about by historical accident, not by conscious
design. If we really want a worldwide common language, some
international body (the United Nations?) would first have
to designate it, then diligently work so that everyone on
the planet could learn it.
My native language
is English; however, I also speak French, used to speak Swahili,
and have a working knowledge of Dutch, German, and Spanish. The
purpose here is not to promote English as the world’s official common
language, but rather to establish some ground rules for selecting
such a language.
makes a language easy to learn?
I believe we can
all agree that the official common language should be easy to learn.
But what does this mean? If your native language is French, Chinese
might seem to be unconquerable. Likewise, if your native language
is Chinese, you might find French equally daunting. The fact is,
whatever your native language is, certain aspects of any other language
are likely to make it appear impossibly difficult.
So, is there an objective way of determining how easy a language
would be to learn—for everyone? This would have to be determined
by the concerted efforts of linguists, psychologists, socialists,
educationalists, etc. I have no such expertise, but I do have experience.
So to get things started, I would like to propose a fundamental
criterion for answering this question and see how well English stacks
What you don’t have to do is always easier than what you do have
to do. In other words, the less you have to think about in speaking
and writing a language, the more rapidly you will learn it and the
fewer mistakes you will make. English scores very well against this
criterion, because its basic grammar lacks most of the complexities
that characterize many other languages. Here are a few examples.
Nouns Many languages, and
virtually all European languages, have different classes of nouns,
often called “gendered nouns”. For example, in French a noun can
be either “masculine” or “feminine”. In German a noun can be either
“masculine”, “feminine”, or “neuter”. Swahili in fact has four classes
of nouns (no, the fourth one isn’t homosexual!). To speak properly,
you must learn the gender of each noun individually, which is not
always obvious. English doesn't have this problem. English can be
considered to have only one class of nouns—all neuter.
Articles Each gendered noun
is associated with a gendered article. To speak properly, you must
put the correct article with the correct noun. For example, in French
“le livre” = the book (masculine), but “la lampe” = the lamp (feminine).
It would be quite incorrect to say “la livre” or “le lampe”. In
English, the definite article is always “’the”; it never changes.
Likewise, “un livre” = a book (masculine), but “une lampe” = a lamp
(feminine). In English, the definite article is always “a”; it also
Adjectives Languages with
gendered nouns usually have gendered adjectives. To speak properly,
you must correctly associate the adjective with the correct noun.
For example, “pain frais” = fresh bread, but “viande fraîche” =
fresh meat. It would be quite incorrect to say “pain fraîche” or
“viande frais”. In English, adjectives (like nouns) are all neuter
and never change, i.e. both “frais” and “fraîche” = fresh
plurals Certain languages
consider it insufficient to indicate a plural only once, so they
have multiple plurals. For example, “le grand livre” = the big book,
but “les grands livres” = the big books. It would be quite incorrect
to say “le grand livres”, i.e. without making both the article and
the adjective plural as well. English has neither plural articles
nor plural adjectives. “The” is always “the” and “big” is always
“big”. They never change.
classes Many languages have
different classes of verbs. Correctly using a verb depends on knowing
its class. French, for example, has at least three verb classes,
indicated by distinct endings on the infinitive (mang-er = to eat,
prend-re = to take, cour-ir = to run). The ending of each individual
verb must be learned; otherwise, mistakes are inevitable. English
has only one class of verbs. All infinitives are indicated by “to”
(to run, to jump, to sleep, etc.); mistakes are impossible.
conjugations Certain languages
have many more conjugated verb forms than does English. For example,
in the present tense you would say: I, we, you, they eat; he, she,
it eats. Thus, there are only two conjugated forms (eat, eats).
In French there are five conjugated forms and in Spanish there are
six. In the future tense you would say: I, he, she, it, we, they
will eat. Thus, there is only one conjugated form (will eat). Spanish
still has six conjugated forms, but now so does French. Similar
disparities exist in the past tense, and virtually all other verb
conjugations Irregular conjugations
are common in many languages; however, there are exceptions. Swahili
verbs are perfectly regular. If you know the conjugated forms of
just one verb, you know the conjugated forms of all verbs. English,
of course, does not have this enviable facility; however, compared
to many other languages, its irregularities are few and far between.
For example, English is perfectly regular in both the present and
The present tense is always formed by removing “to” from the infinitive
and adding the appropriate pronoun: to come = I come, he/she/it
comes, we come, you come, they come. The future tense is always
formed by removing “to” from the infinitive and adding “will”: to
come = I will come, he/she/it will come, we will come, you will
come, they will come.
French and Spanish are highly irregular in both of these tense,
as well as many others. Does the relative simplicity of basic English
grammar give it the inside track to becoming the world’s official
common language? Absolutely not! Along with its undeniable attributes,
it also has a number of significant drawbacks.
The most obvious
one is English spelling, which is far from being phonetic. This
means the same sound can have several different spellings (here,
hear; there, their; break, brake; clean, keen; said, bed; height,
kite; who, blue, new, etc.). French, of course, is much worse than
English in this respect; however, German, Italian and Spanish are
much better. And Swahili is perfect. In this language, if you can
say a word, you can spell it. End of story. The second major
drawback is pronunciation. Most people, and certainly those
who have yet to master another language, are unaware of how seriously
difficult correct pronunciation in their own native language could
be for a foreigner.
English, like many other languages, is cursed with a tonic accent.
“Tonic accent” simply means that certain syllables are given
more stress than others. For example, “difficult” is pronounced
“dif*-fi-cult”; the first syllable carries the tonic accent. It
could just as easily be pronounced “dif-fi*-cult”, which is what
Spanish prefers. Or even “dif-fi-cult*”, which might be the preference
in some other language.
If your native language has a tonic accent, you have grown up with
it, so you may not fully appreciate what a burden it really is is.
However, when you try to learn another language, the difficulty
becomes evident. The tonic accent will not always go where you think
it should (based on your language), so you will constantly be mispronouncing.
Worse, if you put the tonic accent on the wrong syllable, your interlocutor
might not understand what you are trying to say at all. Are there
any languages with no tonic accent? There may be many, but French
is the only one I know. Technically, French does have a tonic accent,
but it is very hard to hear it. For example, in English we say “un-i-ver*-si-ty”.
In French, this is “un-i-ver-si-té”, with each syllable being given
essential the same stress. Likewise with “rest*-au-rant”, which
in French is simply “rest-au-rant”. And so on. Thus, you never have
to guess where the tonic accent should go, so you can never make
As we have seen, based on the Facility Principle (what you don’t
have to do is always easier than what you do have to do), English
has a lot to recommend it. However, this is only one criterion.
In searching for the best common language for the world, the experts
will probably come up with many more. How well English would fare
against these additional criteria can only be guessed at.
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The
Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He
currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in
Brussels, Belgium. In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of
Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional, his recently
published book, is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium
(storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com).
For further information, contact:
Philip Yaffe, 61, avenue des Noisetiers, B-1170 Brussels, Belgium
Tel: 32 (0)2 660 0405, firstname.lastname@example.org