While the total number of languages is declining from an estimated 7 000. The thousands of languages, dialects and accents still allow for major communication blocks and misunderstandings.
One way to overcome this would be to make the languages in a country all official requiring everyone to learn all of them, or at least most.
South Africa has 11 and school children need to learn at least two. Zimbabwe holds the world record for most official languages with 16, while Papua New Guinea has the title of most languages with over 800 spoken even though there are less people living there (7 million) than the population of Gauteng.
Numbers vary for most spoken language but Mandarin (Chinese) is way above 2nd place Spanish with English, Hindi and Arabic close behind.
English has approximately 360 million first language speakers but when added with second language speakers it is estimated to be over a billion in total.
The dominance of some languages is what has driven the idea of creating a global language and been the main driver (along with urbanisation) with the killing off of less spoken languages.
Languages are incredibly diverse both for sounds and idioms which is the principal barrier for simply learning multiple languages. There is one "word" though that amazingly is common or at least understood by most cultures and in most languages. A study has found that huh would let almost anyone know that you either did not hear or do not understand what they are saying.
The challenge for business in an ever more connected world is how to get attention for their brand and build trust in it.
Will a single language help or hinder mutual understanding
Nelson Mandela may have provided the answer:
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.— Nelson Mandela
Brands need to connect with more than just the head, in fact they almost always try first connect with the heart.
Sometimes that fails.
There are many horror stories of brands selecting product names based on the culture and language they originate in only to find they mean something very different in other languages.
A classic is the Honda Jazz, which was originally named the Fitta which in Scandinavian is a crude reference to a vagina. The slogan for the car along was “small on the outside, big on the inside” which only made matters worse.
There is now a website to check if a brand or product name should be reconsidered in case it means something very different in another language.
Idioms also vary greatly and even if they were translated correctly, they literally might not make sense.
French has a great term which in English translates as the spirit of the staircase, but it is likely you would not have a clue what it meant even though you understood the words.
It refers to the clever thing you should have said in a confrontation that you only thought of after the confrontation ended.
Even if a single language was imposed on everyone, over time, the separation of groups within a region or even a city would see new words being created to refer to specific and potentially very local things. Idioms would form in the same way and in time accents and dialects too.
With enough time groups speaking the same language would speak a version so different that it would be considered a new language. This is principally how most languages have come about.
The changes are likely to take even longer now though, as more of us live in cities and new words can be shared quickly and easily; the term selfie is less than 10 years old yet is almost universal.
There are two scenarios both of which suggest we should not try create a single language but let all of them evolve and sometimes blend or combine.
Technology has progressed to the point where text translations can be done for the most part free and very quickly with high accuracy.
Multiple translations do result in some very odd versions though, see Adele’s Hello below.
Google Translate will allow you to use text, writing, or the camera to read and translate most languages. You can even translate websites. Samsung’s S translator is another practical way for travellers to be understood.
Skype and Microsoft have released a working version of Skype that allows two people speaking different languages to have their speech translated in real time.
Learning a new language is still the best option as technology will need a long time before it can accommodate the subtleties of language especially when using humour.
A business that can respond in a variety of languages and that has staff who can speak and understand multiple languages have a real advantage both locally and globally.
Make learning a new language this year a goal that thanks to technology is now the easiest it have ever been.