Unispeak: The Need For a Universal Second Language

Dr. Margaret Mead

Language makes us human. People who do not speak the same language but who must communicate with each other using improvised gestures don’t seem quite human to each other, for gestures are as stylized as are the thousands of human languages. The infant who can only utter cries that its mother alone can interpret seems to be just a little creature who only becomes fully a person when it learns to talk.

The loss of speech or the absence of a common language seems to return individuals to helpless infancy, able to indicate pain or simple amusement but unable to give any precise information. Traditionally, when the inhabitants of a strange land are depicted as savages, they are represented as saying only “Ugh, Ugh,” although the languages of primitive peoples are actually often more complex than modern languages.

In a world in which millions of people are moving around in planes, ships, or still on camel, horseback, or dogsled and travelers from opposite ends of the earth meet every day, the need for a common language becomes more and more urgent. Complicated machines are designed and built on one industrialized continent and shipped to the others. In what language are the directions to be written? Satellites circle the earth ready to beam their messages to the diversity of peoples below. In what language are they to transmit? Whether we are speaking of safety in travel, the conduct of trade, or the exchange of information or affairs of the United Nations—a common language is needed.

But the search for, or even advocacy of, a common language stirs deep passions, as each contestant pleads the cause of his or her mother tongue, of a more familiar world language, or of some attempt to construct a new world language, like Esperanto.

The great world languages are not only used by hundreds of millions of native speakers; they are spoken as the language of mobility by millions of other people whose own languages are less widely known. These are advocated as rival world languages not only by their native speakers, who add national pride to comfortable laziness by expecting English or French to be spoken by taxi drivers everywhere, but are advocated perhaps more strenuously by those who, like Africans and Asians, having been within the English-speaking colonial orbit, have already taken the trouble to learn English and don’t want to add a third language.

The most passionate are those who advocate a constructed language and who share the sense of great achievement with those who made it up. Sometimes there are only one or two advocates besides the originator of such languages. The best known are those who hope that Esperanto will become a universal language.

It is not at all necessary to wipe out all the little languages of the world in order to have a universal language. Each language has a beauty of its own and forms of expression that are duplicated nowhere else. When any little language disappears, not only are its native speakers impoverished, but also the whole of human kind. (We will never know how ancient Greek was pronounced.)

Because Americans are so used to immigrants’ being forced to learn English by other Americans, by the schools, and by their own eagerness to become part of the country, they naturally think of a world language as one that would displace all other languages. But this is not at all necessary. It is easy for anyone exposed daily to the full use of any language to learn it as children do—quickly and “naturally” and without more effort than that displayed by a bright four-year-old in acquiring dozens of new words a day.

What we need is a universal second language—a language that all the schoolchildren in the world can learn when they are young; a language that by its very existence will protect all the little languages of the world. Then English, Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, French, and Arabic will not spread like steamrollers, obliterating the thousands of little languages, demeaning their speakers, and in the process becoming dialects mutually unintelligible to each other.

Anyone who has listened to an “English” sermon in the Philippines, to an “English” speech in the Parliament of India, to a child in the city of the English Midlands or in the American Appalachian Mountains, or to the Creole “French” speakers of Louisiana or Haiti knows how quickly one of the great languages can become so distorted as to be hardly intelligible. Yet keeping English, French, or Russian stable and “pure” requires a kind of vigilance that makes the language itself rigid and unresponsive to change.

A second language could be policed, the pronunciation kept constant, the script guarded from local or nationalistic idiosyncrasies, its grammar and syntax kept simple. A second language would also do what all second languages do—widen the consciousness of human beings. It would teach them that their own languages were not ordained in heaven or by some form of innate superiority of skin color or head shape, but that all languages are historical developments of our shared human capacity to communicate verbally.

I believe that the best candidate for a second world language must be an existing language, a natural language that has been polished by long use, babbled by loved infants, dreamt in and loved in, simplified for the use of strangers and spoken among strangers and regularized for the uses of the schoolroom. It should be a language that has been shouted and whispered and muttered in delirium and pain, that can be heard easily over telephone wires. Such a language bears the mark of millions of former users, polished, refined, made intelligible and ready for use. Artificial languages lack this quality; they are too intellectual, they almost inevitably lack the redundancy of natural languages, and they are about as rewarding to learn as arithmetic—yielding only the satisfaction of rational mastery.

A good deal of thought has gone into the possible choice of such a language, and we can state some of the criteria. It should not be the language of any great power. Fifty years ago Malay would have been a good choice, but today Indonesia is the fifth largest country in the world, expansionistic and nationalistic. The chosen language should be relatively as easy to pronounce for Asians and Africans as for Europeans. It should have a script, or be reducible to a script, that is alphabetic and phonetically simple. Ideally there should be many literate speakers scattered over the world who could become translators, interpreters, and teachers very rapidly once it was chosen.

A second language would have to be introduced simultaneously all over the world—perhaps by satellite—but especially in airports, on planes, and in all international communications. It should appear side by side with any other language used. No one, except its own native speakers, would have an advantage, and even this would be balanced by the fact that they would be giving up their language, permitting its simplification and rearrangement to be shifted from the historical needs of the few to the uses of the many.

Such a language has one major function—to permit people to talk with each other. Each existing language has several functions—intimacy and communication among its speakers, to make people feel close and at home together, to bind the generations, but also to keep other people out. The kind of universal language I am speaking of would make everyone who learned it an insider in a language designed to bring all outsiders together.

In this it would be like a lingua franca—the language that develops between two languages or many languages—in which equality between speakers of different languages is obtained at the price of depth and richness. It would be democratic; no one who learned it as a second language would have an advantage over any other. No one need get a headache as those who don’t speak one of the recognized and interpreted languages do today when the native speakers jabber together idiomatically in a language that shuts them out.

If we wanted to find such a language, outfit it as a universal second language, launch it by satellite, we could have the whole world speaking it in a decade.

A world language that is a second language will not exhaust the needs of world communication. We need glyphs—signs with unitary meanings for “entrance” and “exit,” “potable water,” “stop.” We need more elaborated standard symbols, like those used in mathematics, chemistry, and genetics. We need ways of transforming natural languages into formal systems, unidiomatic and manageable, that would make machine translation cheaper and more practicable. The sign language of the deaf, given a more international base, could be developed into a form of quick international communication, with a grammar and consistency that it usually lacks today because it is not taught systematically and speaking it is often forbidden in schools for the deaf.

There is an enormous variety of possibilities, but I think a second language for a world of mobile human beings in an interdependent planetary community comes first.