Mind your language

I have always been interested in languages and communication. I suppose, on that basis, following a career that has involved lots of writing and talking was a wise move. I am English, so my native language gives me a lot of flexibility, as apparently about one fifth of the world’s population would be able to have a reasonable conversation with me. And another fifth would have a good try.

Nevertheless, it would be good to be able to do better than that, which I could if I were fluent in another language. Like most English kids, I did French at school and was quite good at it – I can still stumble by now in an emergency. I also did a bit of German, but I am now limited to greetings and the essentials of life, like ordering beer. Later I took evening classes in Italian, which was helpful in elucidating menus, as I have always loved Italian food.

I have given a lot of thought about how we could all communicate better …

When I was an idealistic teenager, I was interested in international languages and started to learn Esperanto [I love the way that the name of the language is derived from the Latin word for “hope”]. The logic is that a totally regular language, which is not native for anyone, would be a level playing field. Sadly, although Esperanto still has its supporters, it has never really gained mass following.

Recently I heard about another artificial language, which is designed to be truly minimalist. Toki Pona has only 14 basic sounds and 118 words, with a totally regular grammar which is simple to learn. This quite appeals to me and I have considered learning this language and maybe evangelizing – a book is due out soon.

The reality in the world today is that the nearest we have to an international language is English – probably American English. My response to this realization is to simply try to use my own language as proficiently as possible. When I am writing or speaking for an international audience, I endeavor to avoid colloquialisms and contractions and make use of American spelling [even though I find that painful!]. When I am making a presentation, apart from speaking slowly and clearly, I try to arrange to have some words on each slide; then I speak about the topic using different words; when I can, I will then repeat myself, but paraphrase – use different words again. My goal is to access the subset of English that is understood by each member of the audience.

It is, in my opinion, a great shame that Basic English [also known as Simple English] has never reached really wide acceptance. The concept is that of a precisely defined subset of English – limited vocabulary [around 1000 words] and simplified grammar. Anyone wishing to learn English would learn this first, which would at least guarantee that everyone has the same subset of the language to start with and can communicate with other Basic English speakers as well as natives.

A problem, being a native English speaker, is which other language should one learn? Unless you are spending a lot of time in one specific country, it is hard to choose. On the other hand, for most non-English speakers the choice is more obvious and their day-to-day exposure to English is extensive.

My daughter seems to have inherited my interest in languages. Having done well at school in French, Spanish and Italian, she has just started at university studying Italian. I thought that maybe I would revive my studies and sign up for an evening class. I contacted four local colleges that offered courses. Two of them had cancelled the class through lack of interest. Another was running the class, but it was full. The last one had the ideal class, with space, but on a day that really was not convenient for me. I guess I will be sticking with English.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2009/10/01/mind-your-language/