Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?


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Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?

If everyone spoke the same language, wouldn’t communication be a lot easier? There’d be no need to learn other languages, we’d all understand each other… But what if it’s not that straightforward? Perhaps we all speak a range of different languages?


Even if you only speak one language, you’re probably multilingual, says Professor of German Literature, Katrin Kohl (University of Oxford). Professor Kohl directs the Creative Multilingualism project at Oxford and explains that often we speak many different languages in different places and with different people. So what does she mean by this? 

“There are two tendencies in communication through language. On the one hand, you’ll likely want to communicate in small groups e.g. with your family and friends. And on the other hand, you may need to talk to big groups, such as in a presentation to your class at school. Or even the biggest groups of all - the rest of the country or the world. This could be online, at a conference or at a gathering of some kind. For each group you talk with, you’ll use different languages,” explains Professor Kohl. 

Perhaps you have special words for things in your family or among your group of friends? Not just slang but your own secret language - such as twins sometimes have - whereas in a formal setting such as school or college you might switch automatically into a more formal way of speaking.

As part of the Creative Multilingualism project, students at Oxford shared their favourite word with a reason why - what would be your choice?: 


Language and identity

You might be familiar with the Welsh language being an important part of identity for people who live in Wales. “Wales is a hugely interesting example,” says Professor Kohl. “The Welsh live in Great Britain and English is the language they use to communicate with other parts of the world effortlessly. Yet in schools, Welsh is the first language. Now that wouldn’t seem to make sense globally but it does if you want to keep a small country’s language alive and still enjoy and appreciate the culture that is very specifically Welsh. It’s celebrated in The Eisteddfod, an annual festival of literature, music and performance.” 

People see language as an expression of their identity and culture. And most workplaces tend to develop their own language among employees. This might be to do with a specific type of expertise say in maths or computing. Co-workers use technical language like this (known as jargon) as a short-cut. This can be excluding for someone from outside the group but it isn’t necessarily intended to be. It’s just a quick way of getting a point across. For example, think about when a group of medics have to rapidly problem solve to help a patient in an emergency… 


When language deliberately leaves others out

But sometimes people do use language to exclude, though this isn’t necessarily for bad or nasty reasons. For example, parents may talk to each other in their own special code so that their children don’t understand what they’re saying – perhaps to protect younger children from more sensitive topics. And likewise, brothers and sisters may develop their own language so that their parents don’t understand them. Have you ever done this with your brother or sister? 


In years gone by when homosexuality was illegal in the UK, some groups of gay men used a language called Polari. This was a way to express themselves and their sexuality whilst reducing the risk of getting arrested. Some words from Polari - such as ‘naff’ - have since gone into general usage. 

Private languages like these enhance and enrich a country’s language as well as helping to keep a culture alive. Gay men no longer have to use Polari as a code to hide what had been a criminal activity. But many still enjoy using it as it gives a sense of belonging. And that's what different languages do for us. Even at a time of globalisation, we like belonging to small groups and language is one way of achieving that.

Multicultural English 

“The UK is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world as so many different groups have come here from different places at different times and developed their own varieties of language in interaction with English. Children won’t always say they speak a different language at home but they probably do, even without knowing. It can be impossible to define where one language starts and another one ends“. 

“I spoke to someone the other day who told me her Indian grandparents sometimes speak five languages in a day, talking to members of different groups. One of the languages she used was English as over time it’s become the most common language drawn upon between speakers whose native languages are different”. For this reason, it’s what’s known as a Lingua Franca. This is particularly powerful as “for India being able to speak English has connected it to the rest of the world,” adds Professor Kohl.


The Babel Tower and Babel Fish

So why do we speak so many different languages? One explanation is the myth of The Tower of Babel, from Genesis in the Bible. According to this story, the people came together after the Great Flood. Since everyone spoke the same language, they jointly agreed to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. But God felt his power was threatened by this plan and feared that the people might work against him. He didn’t want anyone to be more powerful than him and so he changed their speech so they could no longer understand each other. 

This is how sci-fi author, Douglas Adams came up with the idea of the “Babel Fish” in the 'The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy'- a small fish you put in your ear so you can understand anyone, including creatures from other planets. 



What do you think? Do you reckon a Babel Fish could take off as an invention if it actually existed?

Esperanto is a sort of real-life Babel Fish! It’s a constructed language with the aim of helping people to speak the same way. It was developed in the late 19th century by L.L. Zamenhof who wanted to reduce the time we spend learning foreign languages and create harmony between people from different countries. 

However, its usage has never become widespread. Professor Kohl thinks that's because it’s the wrong way round. Language is how we express our feelings, knowledge and experience whereas Esperanto is an artificial language. It doesn’t come out of human experience the way most languages do. It’s much easier to learn and connect with something if you have some feelings about it.

Sign language has different dialects too

You might not know that sign language has different varieties similar to other spoken languages. For example, it has different dialects (i.e. different forms peculiar to a specific part of the country or group).
As part of the Creative Multilingualism project based at Oxford University, a speaker who was deaf explained how he’d learned a system of sign language at his school in Birmingham. He received no instruction and wasn’t given special lessons. He just developed it alongside his classmates. Later on in his life, he was introduced to standard British Sign Language which was very different from the one he’d developed. “However he realised what he’d used at school wasn’t random but was, in fact, an existing language known as Urban Sign Language. 

Some of the differences between the standard and urban form were really interesting. For example, to demonstrate driving in the formal sign language he put two hands in front of him but in the urban one he was in a much more relaxed position with his arms lower down - far closer to the way most people do actually drive! 

This is an example of how a group that is linguistically active will through time develop its own conventions (rules).”

Diverse languages matter in science

Lots of science across the world is now reported in English. But using English as a common language in science can hold it back says Professor Kohl. “My main interest is in metaphor, for example referring to black holes in space is a metaphor. By only having English metaphors we might lose out on a rich variety of other descriptions and comparisons. Linguistic diversity is connected with creativity and that connects with cultural expression. In our work what we’re arguing is that linguistic diversity is as important as biodiversity.” Biodiversity means everything that lives has an important role to play in the world, no matter how great or small it is. So as we live in a diverse world, isn’t it better to have lots of different languages to describe it?

Can you imagine a situation where everyone speaks in the same way and was able to understand each other and the things everyone wanted? Does that sound like a world you’d like to live in?

Or maybe you agree with Professor Kohl that our diverse range of languages make the world a much more interesting and culturally rich place, even if it can be pretty challenging sometimes to understand each other? 

The benefits of the multilingual brain

Knowing more than one language can make certain things easier - like travelling or watching movies without subtitles. But are there other advantages to having a bilingual (or multilingual) brain? Mia Nacamulli explains the three types of bilingual brains and shows how knowing more than one language keeps your brain healthy, complex and actively engaged.


Beyond English – languages spoken in the UK

Take a look at these infographics based on the 2011 UK census data (a large-scale survey carried out every 10 years) to show the diverse range of languages spoken in different parts of the country. The next one is due in 2021 - do you think anything may have changed? 


Languages spoken in Birmingham visual

Languages spoken in Cardiff visual

Languages spoken in London visual

Second languages spoken in London

Languages spoken in Manchester

3 languages you might be a pro at

  1. Computer programming languages
    1. Humans and computers speak very different languages. Human speech can be quite vague and informal. For example, “orange” can mean either a colour or a delicious fruit. Machines need exact instructions of 1s and 0s, known as binary. If we wanted our laptop to do something, we could write thousands of 01101010. But this is both confusing and very boring! Therefore, we created “programming languages” to sit between human-speak and robot-speak. Now instead of 1s and 0s, we can write something readable (print Hello). Another program translates that into binary and then the computer can print the message. You might think these languages were created recently. But you’d be out by 150 years! In 1842, Ada Lovelace (daughter of the writer, Lord Byron) invented instructions for a mechanical calculator. But these were quite basic and the computer was never actually built. Around 100 years later, the first popular computing language came along - FORTRAN. Now there are thousands, and you might’ve heard of a few. You can make websites with HTML, apps with Java or animated videos with Flash. And unlike human languages, you can learn whole sentences very quickly. So maybe you’re a secret pro at talking like a robot..?!

  2. Text speak and emojis
    1. Do you 'laugh out loud' or lol? Are your WhatsApp chats full of hieroglyphics? Text speak is more than just a way to confuse our parents. It’s a quick language that many people know instinctively. The first ever text messages were limited to only 160 letters. So why waste space with “shake my head” when “smh” will do? When we speak it’s usually obvious if we’re happy or angry. However, within written text, it’s more difficult to judge emotions. Computer boffins solved this problem in 1982, by drawing smiley faces with punctuation marks (known as emoticons). Emojis came from Japan in 1999, and use small images to summarise our moods. With the “Face with tears of joy” emoji being 2015 Word of the Year, clearly, something is happening to language. Social media encourages short, rapid communication rather than extended essays. And through shared understanding, text speak actually supports complex conversations. For example, lol rarely means you’re laughing out loud. It can be sarcastic, awkward, or just showing that you understand. Animojis take this these concepts even further, combining your facial expressions with animated symbols. Could English ever be replaced by emojis? Or is language too rich to become a smiley?

  3. Body language
    1. There's so much you can communicate without even saying a word e.g. eye-rolling, shrugging, sighing, smiling, nodding. And we're sure you can think of plenty more... As humans, non-verbal signs are very powerful in getting our message across but it can be confusing sometimes. One thing's for sure, there's a scientific reason why hugs make us feel good. This stems back to our primate past since monkeys and apes create and maintain friendships through social grooming. Researchers at Oxford have found that when we hug someone (which tends to involve some stroking and patting like grooming monkeys do) this triggers an endorphin response in the brain. Endorphins are part of our pain control system (producing an analgesic effect) and they activate regions of the brain associated with reward - making us want to repeat the experience. But this chemical reaction only works when we are already psychologically connected to someone. So you maybe you're a pro at hugs... just make sure you embrace the right person first!    

Are Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki and Na'vi real languages?

Fantasy constructed languages (or conlangs) have the complexities of real languages e.g. a large vocabulary, grammatical rules etc. Linguist, John McWhorter (Columbia University) explains why these invented languages continue to fascinate fans.  


Political leader, Nelson Mandela once said: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart".

Political leader, Nelson Mandela once said: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart".

4 reasons to learn a 'dead' language

  1. To enhance our understanding of different languages
    1. Languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek - which many classify as ‘dead’ - are no longer used on a daily basis by people, and, in effect, no one in normal life speaks or writes them. For this reason, they’ve stopped evolving in the way that other languages do as nothing new is created within them. So why study them? Well, studying ancient languages can help us to understand the meanings and significance of words in our own languages and in others. This works in two ways. Firstly, understanding how a language is put together and structured can enable a linguist to move between languages with comparative ease. For example, many of the ideas discussed when studying Latin, will also be relevant to learning German. Secondly, it can help when learning about the development of vocabulary over time. How do certain words come about? By knowing the original Latin or Greek words, this helps with making sense of words – including unfamiliar technical terms – that are used today.

      Here are some examples below
      office      =     officium - duty - Latin 
      scholar   =     schole - leisure - Greek
      orthodontist   =   orthos (straight) dont (tooth) - both Greek
      photography  =   phos (light) graphein (to write) - both Greek

  2. To discover more about our culture
    1. Ancient languages offer us an opportunity to consider the origins of our own culture and literature. For example, in Greek and Latin we can look at the earliest tragedies written in the Western world – plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Seneca. Seneca looked to his Greek predecessors for literary ideas, but he also greatly influenced French and English drama that came after him. Writers such as Racine and Shakespeare were both inspired by his writings. Plus, when we read texts by authors such as Thomas Hardy or Wilfred Owen, their references to classical authors are central to our understanding of their meaning (e.g. Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori - a reference to the Latin poet, Horace). Such a cultural heritage is also reflected in art, with Renaissance and later artists using classical examples to inspire their works. For example, Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ (see below) shows newly-born goddess Venus standing in a giant scallop shell with wind god, Zephyr to the left of her and a female goddess of the seasons on her right who's offering her clothing. To gain a deeper understanding of pieces like these, it’s useful to know about the stories behind them. 

      The Birth of Venus


  3. To gain a better understanding of religious texts
    1. Many religious and spiritual traditions refer to ancient texts which they take as authoritative. Given that religious beliefs are valued highly by so many people across the world, it’s important that they and the ancient texts that they originate from, are understood as fully as possible. Also, several conflicts have developed over the centuries surrounding the meaning and interpretation of such texts. To be able to understand what the text said in the first place and the concepts discussed within the ancient languages, it can be a useful process to help uncover common myths and misconceptions. And being aware of the meanings of words as we use them ensures that we are not ‘taken in’ by them. For example, ‘This self is Brahman’ is one of the mahavakyas – the four great statements of Indian philosophy (written in Ancient Sanskrit). Its meaning is hotly debated, but analysis of the words can help to explain its meaning. The 'self' refers to each individual person, whilst the word Brahman comes from a root which has to do with expansion and growth. It's a concept of a universal power which, on one interpretation, is the essence of each individual person.

  4. To gain an insight into language change over time
    1. The Greek historian Thucydides, writing in the fifth century BC, observed something very significant about the language in time of conflict. He was speaking of a civil war in the small state of Corcyra (modern Corfu) and noted that the meanings of words changed during such conflicts. He gave the following examples, which are laid out in the table below to help show the changes. The left-hand column gives the original word, and then the right-hand column shows what it was generally understood to mean.

      This table is based on Thucydides III.82, using Rex Warner’s translation (Penguin 1972). The key words or ideas are followed by their changed meanings in time of civil war. Courage = a thoughtless act of aggression; cowardice = thinking of the future and waiting; moderation = an attempt to disguise unmanly character; unfitted for action = the ability to understand a question from all sides; fanatical enthusiasm = the mark of a real man, and a person who holds violent opinions = to be trusted.

      This change in the meanings of words reflects a change in people’s attitudes and ideas. This is significant because we can see similar changes in the meanings of words in the world around us. Having the perspective offered by Thucydides offers us the opportunity to think carefully about our own society and how it is developing. And how language has changed across history.

Maths…could it really be the language of everything we know? 

In this article, Dr Tom Crawford (lecturer in Mathematics, University of Oxford) shares his insights on our Big Question. He also sheds light on whether Maths can be considered 'the language of the Universe', and the possibilities of using it to communicate with aliens! 


Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?

Dr Thomas Crawford"As a mathematician, I’m going to jump right in and say that we already do all speak the same language: the language of maths. It’s often referred to as the ‘language of the universe’ and for good reason. It’s certainly universal across any culture, country, society, race, religion and maybe even any planet… Think about it, we all understand that 1 + 1 = 2. There can be no argument with that statement, no misinterpretation, no misunderstanding. If I have one of something and then add another one of that something, I have two somethings. It’s the same in any language, across the entire universe.

Some of you may be questioning whether or not maths is indeed a language and to answer that question, you have to think carefully about how you choose to define a language.

Perhaps as a method of communication? Maths is certainly that – it communicates complex ideas and patterns in a simple and understandable manner. Words, letters, symbols? Maths has numbers, operators (such as plus, minus, multiply, divide) and variables: x-y graphs or algebraic equations for example. A way to pass on information? Mathematical equations contain an incredible amount of information in very little space.

Take the example of Pythagoras’ Theorem – which is easier to communicate: a2 + b2 = c2 or ‘the sum of the squares of the lengths of the two sides of a right-angled triangle joining at the right angle, is equal to the square of the length of the diagonal side’? Maths isn’t just a language, I would say that it is the ultimate language. It’s simple, concise, effective and for these reasons, plus many more, it is possibly the most well-understood language on Earth. 

The language of universal ideas

As well as being a universal language, maths contains many universal ideas that appear in almost any branch of the subject. Take the number pi, for example, it tells you how to work out the circumference of a circle, 2 x π x radius, but it also appears in trigonometry with sin (π) = 0. However, my favourite example of pi appearing everywhere in maths relates to the following sum: 1 + 1/4 + 1/9 + 1/16 + 1/25 + … continuing indefinitely.

The mathematically minded amongst you will have noticed that the sum of numbers has a pattern. Each number is 1 divided by a square number, where the square numbers increase with each term. 1/1 = 12, 1/22 = 1/4, 1/32 = 1/9 etc. Now the question is if you carry this sum on forever what is the answer? We have more and more terms being added, but they get smaller and smaller each time. The total is π² /6, naturally. (Disclaimer: this can be proven using techniques from an undergraduate degree in maths, but for now let’s just enjoy its beauty and not worry about the details).

As well as being truly universal, maths has also helped us to better understand our universe. Some of you may have heard of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – the description of how space and time are curved by mass and energy.

Or maybe Quantum Theory – the way physicists understand the tiny world that exists between individual atoms.

You’ve certainly all heard of Gravity – the invisible force pulling us towards the centre of the Earth and keeping our planet in orbit around the sun. These represent three of the most fundamental and important ideas in our current understanding and explanation of the universe. What do they all have in common? They can be described in terms of equations – aka maths. 

Einstein’s Field Equations

Einstein's Field equations

Schrödinger Equation

Schrödinger Equation

Newton’s Law of Gravity

Newton’s Law of Gravity

Physicists test whether or not these theories hold true, but it’s the mathematicians who write down what it is that they need to test. Take the equation for Newton’s Law of Gravity for example, it says that the force of gravity between two objects (say a person and the Earth), depends on the mass of the two objects, m1 and m2, the distance between them, r, and a constant G (a fixed number calculated experimentally).

Because maths allows Newton’s Law to be written down in an equation in this way, the physicists can perform experiments and take measurements to see if it is true. For example, the physicists can measure whether the strength of the gravitational force between two objects decreases when the mass of the objects decreases or the distance between the objects increases. It would be very difficult to know what to test if things weren’t spelt out so clearly in an equation.

Communicating with aliens

Speaking of gravity and orbiting planets, let me put a question to you: if you could communicate with aliens, what would you send to them?

To clarify, by communicate, I mean a channel of sending information exists, whether or not they would understand it depends on what you choose to send. Music? Literature? Art? A summary of the history of Earth? They all require either an understanding of our spoken/written language or our culture.

Perhaps you could send music without words, but then which music do you send? The rhythm of beating drums from a tribe in the Amazon rainforest is very different to the classical work of Beethoven or Mozart. And in any case, to really understand and appreciate the music, an understanding of the culture that produced it is needed.

Alien silhouettes alongside an image of the globe

What about something more scientific such as a human skeleton, or the seeds of a plant? Whilst it might remove the need to understand our language and culture, it’s highly unlikely that an organism from Earth will look like anything the aliens have ever seen before, which makes finding common ground difficult.

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to a question such as this, but what we can do is to try and maximise our chances of successful communication by thinking logically. What is the most universal thing that exists on Earth? Do we have anything that we know to be true beyond our own planet? Is there something that is truly universal? The answer I’m hinting at is, of course, maths. 

Planets in other solar systems, orbiting far-away stars are doing so because of gravity. The same gravitational force exists on Earth and not only that, but we have a short and succinct language that we can use to express this fact. The equation for Newton’s Law of Gravity is truly universal. There may be issues of notation – we use G to express the gravitational constant for example, which is inherent to our alphabet; our numbers may be different – we count in base 10 (the decimal system) because we have 10 fingers, whereas the aliens we are communicating with may have 7 tentacles and thus count in base 7; but the key point is, these problems can be overcome, we can figure it out. Gravity will always be gravity and that means that Newton’s Law, or more importantly the maths equation describing it, will never change.

Maths is far from perfect, but it’s probably the best hope we’ve got of communicating beyond the stars". 

You can listen to an interview conducted by Tom with author and mathematician, Professor Ian Stewart about whether or not aliens would understand maths. 

You can also find further maths outreach material produced by Tom on his website tomrocksmaths.com