Oxplore: answers to your language questions


Researchers from our Metaphor strand recently took part in a live debate organised by the outreach initiative Oxplore on the topic of languages.

The panel, chaired by Oxford University student Miya Madovi, included Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature and Lead Researcher of the Creative Multilingualism research project; Marianna Bolognesi, Postdoctoral Researcher within the Creative Multilingualism Metaphor strand; and Tom Crawford, Tutor in Maths at St Hugh’s College.

The panel debated the question: Would it be better if we all spoke the same language? They also answered questions sent in during the debate from viewers via Twitter and email. Here, our researchers provide their answers to questions submitted during the debate, but which weren't answered on the live show.

Watch the live-streaming of the debate.

What about some words which cannot be translated to one word? Such as Waldeinsamkeit in German which translates to the feeling of being alone in the woods. Would we be depriving culture of such phenomena?

Languages vary in the way they capture reality and categorise experiences. The language of emotions is a very fertile field, and Waldeinsamkeit is a great example. Consider also the (culture-specific) Portuguese concept of saudade and the German schadenfreude, among others. This doesn’t mean that only Portuguese or German speakers are able to understand these concepts, but if a language has a label for a specific concept (in this case a specific emotion), then arguably that concept is salient for that culture, and the speakers of that language share it as meaningful. Therefore losing the word would mean losing part of that culture’s identity. And every language that is lost means that certain concepts will lose their name and distinctiveness.

Would there be punishments and penalties if someone decided they didn't want to change their language? I think many people wouldn't want to, so how would we deal with it?

At many points in history, rulers have tried to prescribe what language people must speak. For example, the fascist dictator Franco banned the Catalan language from schools in Catalonia and tried to force Catalonians to speak Spanish. People were punished if they didn’t conform. And the high status of English, Spanish and French is the result of European countries imposing their language in the course of often brutal colonial conquest.

Today, we are seeing English becoming the global lingua franca – a language that is shared across the world, in addition to more local languages. That’s happening through forces like the rise of the internet as a medium of communication, and the advantages of having a globally shared language. But it’s putting a lot of pressure on other languages, and people are in fact very passionate about keeping their own languages alive – examples in the UK are Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

It’s very important to respect the diversity of languages, like the diversity of cultures. People should be enabled to speak and pass on their own language. And for mankind as a whole, every language offers a distinctive window onto the world.

If we all had to suddenly speak the same language, would it take a long time to put into motion? We would have to create dictionaries from every language to the chosen one. Then we would all have to learn it.

For some languages, the dictionaries and other resources already exist, but if it were a new invented language, it would take time to create the resources. Above all, it would take a long time to train enough teachers to teach it. And learning a new language from scratch to native-speaker level takes a long time – just think how many hours it has taken you to learn your language! And if you learn a new language later in life, you don’t usually become as good at speaking it as you are at speaking your native language.  

I’d like to know, if we only had one language, would sign language count as one and would we all have to sign instead of speak? If we all spoke, then deaf people wouldn’t be able to hear.

Good point. This indeed provides a strong argument in support of making sure that any language policy is not exclusive. And it indicates that if we all spoke the same language, we would have fewer possibilities, rather than more – and people would very quickly create new forms to meet their needs. We can see this with English. Even though it is now recognised as the global lingua franca, there are in fact many ‘Englishes’ that have evolved. And there isn’t just one sign language – British Sign Language is even different from American Sign Language. If we did all speak a single language, it would need to be multimodal, and use gestures as well as words.

I would like to know if we all spoke the same language, would it affect cultural identity? Is language part of someone’s character?

Yes. Language and culture are tightly interconnected, and therefore if our linguistic identity changes, our cultural identity also changes. This is already visible when learning a new language: the thoughts we express in a new language are influenced by both our mother-culture and the culture in which the new language is embedded. As a result, our identity is enriched.

Would speaking the same language cut down the amount of jobs?

This is very difficult to predict and it might change over time. In the early stages of establishing the chosen universal language, it would be necessary to create many jobs for teachers of the language, though teachers of other languages would lose their jobs . You would also need an army of translators to translate all existing documentation into the universal language. Later on, once the language had become fully established, some jobs would become redundant (translators and interpreters above all) but new types of job could emerge. For example, you might need a language police to ensure that people only spoke the universal language. And cultural mediators, who would be needed to spot cross-cultural misunderstandings when two speakers misunderstand each other, even when using the same language.

How would having the same language change the political side of the world?

A large part of politics is about effective communication, about convincing people to believe that what a politician says is true. This is already extremely difficult within the same culture when people are speaking the same language: citizens’ political views vary enormously and political decisions are hotly debated within communities speaking the same language (see national politics within the UK and the US). We can also look to India to get an idea of how it might work – even though English has been a shared language across India since colonial times, it hasn’t stamped out other, more local languages, or differences across groups within society. It would make communication easier but it wouldn’t get rid of political differences. In short, if we all spoke the same language, that doesn't mean that we would vote for the same party: things would probably not be any easier.

Barack Obama giving speech

How much meaning do we lose when translating texts into other languages? 

You can lose a lot. For example, have you ever watched a movie or a TV-series in its original language, and then in a dubbed version? You can still grasp the plot and most of the characters’ personalities, but once you see and can appreciate the original version, then the dubbed version can feel fake and superficial. In Italian there is a saying which expresses this feeling: “traduttore? Traditore!”, which means: “translator? Traitor!”  But that’s only one side of the story. While reading a text in its original language will always give you the best insight into the text as the author wrote it, and you will lose nuances of meaning when it is translated, translation also gives us access to texts we wouldn’t know otherwise, and it can open up new meanings as well as giving us new words. We would not even have the word ‘translation’ if it hadn’t been adopted from Latin. And we wouldn’t have Cinderella or the Bible without the work of translators.

Do you think it would be safer if we all spoke the same language? Wouldn’t it be easier in an emergency for doctors or the forces to all speak the same language, or for police officers when they communicate with the public?

Yes, in cases of emergency it would be safer and easier. But such cases are only a tiny fraction of what we need to communicate about, so it’s unlikely that a unified language would ever be established just for that reason. People don’t use different languages because these are useful for practical purposes – they do so because their languages are a means of expressing themselves, and they help to forge distinctive communities.

If we all spoke the same language, would humanity then be able to make new discoveries faster as communication would be easier across the globe?

In fact, English is now widely accepted as the common means of communication among the academic community. However, many labs and research centres are multilingual. And research is not just about communication of discoveries but also about different kinds of knowledge and thinking outside the box. Our thinking is interconnected with our language and both are interconnected with our culture. If all our research were to be conducted only through the medium of English, we would lose access to different ways of thinking about the world. The sciences, social sciences and humanities all need to be able to understand what they research from different mental angles. The diversity of languages in the world strengthens our collective mental agility.

If Maths is a language, as said previously (since it transmits information), why does it not develop? Many languages have developed from their origins and are still developing now.

While maths is a system of symbols that carry meaning, it is a not a ‘natural’ language and it doesn’t evolve like the languages we use for general communication. Mathematicians keep it stable and consistent so they can build on the work of their predecessors and communicate with other mathematicians across the world.

Maths equations

How can you define a language as easy or difficult?

Whether a language seems easy or difficult to learn will depend in part on the characteristics of the language or languages you already speak. Some languages are more closely related than others – for example, English is a Germanic language like German, and it has drawn a lot of its vocabulary from French, a Romance language like Spanish and Italian. That makes these languages easier to learn for English speakers than Asian languages, which may have an unfamiliar script and tone system.

Even if we spoke the same language, wouldn't we end up creating varieties within our particular discourse communities? Would a 'one language world' be possible?

Yes, this seems to be a characteristic of languages. This can be seen across the UK, where the vocabulary and pronunciation have changed significantly across time and remain highly diverse. It’s in the nature of natural languages to change, to be fluid and to cater for the developing communication needs of the linguistic communities.

Why don't they invent a new language that everyone can speak?

There have been many invented languages. The best known is Esperanto, created to bridge the differences between speakers of different languages. While there are around 2 million speakers around the world, it never became as wide-spread as the inventors thought it would.

Why do we need languages? What would the world be like if languages weren't there? So what is language – are we talking about the written word, the spoken word, non-verbal communication...? What constitutes language?

We need language because we are social beings, and we need languages because cultures are diverse. As with life forms, diversity is part of the human condition. Language can be defined as a system of symbols that carry meaning. Without having a system that is systematic, conventional and compositional, it would be impossible to communicate. But that is of course a very limited definition …

To what extent would speaking all one language improve international relations between countries? Or would it actually hinder international relations?

Over the course of history, different languages have been used as languages of diplomacy, like Latin in Roman times, and French and English in more modern times. However, a system like the EU parliament, where one can decide which language to use, might be more beneficial for democracy and equality.

Is Mandarin the only language in China? Would we need to learn different variations in their language?

The landscape of Chinese languages is very complex, with four to eleven ‘families’ of Chinese, depending on what you count as a ‘language’ and what as a ‘dialect’. Mandarin is the official language of China, Taiwan and Singapore, and it will enable you to communicate widely. It will also form the best basis if you want to learn others.  

Is language important, and how is it important?

Language is the primary tool of communication for humans, and other mammals, too, use language. It reflects our culture and communicative needs and is a crucial part of our identity. Imagine what life would be like if we had no language at all …

Answers compiled by Ana Werkmann Horvat, Marianna Bolognesi and Katrin Kohl.

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Where next?

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