In a multicultural and multilingual world the goal is universal understanding

The need for people and cultures around the world to understand one another requires a constant search for the most uniform communication possible, in the same language.

Overcoming this linguistic diversity could either involve the ability to speak the same language – even if it is a second language – or the creation of a new and neutral language everyone can use.

So far, however, all attempts to create universal languages have been frustrated. Now, and with modern technology, will translation and language learning be the most effective means of achieving this understanding?


Multilingualism: the diversity of languages around the world

Multilingualism is the use and promotion of several languages rather than just one. There are more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world, each with very different numbers of speakers.

All over the world, the people who colonized territories brought with them their languages and culture, which naturally evolved and adapted to the historic context.

Multilingualism is consequently a reflection of the multitude of people and cultures around the world. In order to understand, we have to speak the same language, meaning there will be aspects of this linguistic diversity that are positive and others that are less so.

On the one hand, understanding different languages and cultures can help us to better understand people who live far away. And even when one does not speak the language, this does not mean it is impossible to accept and respect differences.

On the other hand, this multitude of languages can also be considered to be an obstacle, since by speaking different languages we do understand the others and will not always know how to respect them.

The fact we do not understand and in turn are not understood can lead to xenophobia, hatred or criminality against foreigners or simply against people who are different to what we know and accept.

Clearly, we cannot blame multilingualism for hatred or xenophobia, but, from the more positive point of view, it cannot guarantee the absence of such sentiments. It can only improve cooperation, acceptance and respect.


Esperanto: an attempt at a universal language

The idea that we need a common language with which to communicate and to make ourselves understood, regardless of the location and culture in which we live, was responsible for attempts to create universal languages.

This led Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917) to develop Esperanto in the 19th century. Zamenhof believed the absence of a common language was at the root of misunderstandings and disputes between different cultural and religious groups.

He believed a neutral language could facilitate communication. This led to the creation of Esperanto, which uses a Latin script with a 28-letter alphabet. Three-quarters of the words are derived from Romance languages with the rest Germanic, while the phonetics are essentially Slavic.

Zamenhof’s Esperanto did not lead to the peace he dreamed of, and it became a frustrated attempt to create a language used by people across the world.

During the 20th century, the rise of the United States of America as a superpower and the emergence of the Internet, have naturally contributed to the universalization of English, which has become a global language.

Even so, the progressive use of English as the international language of communication has largely been a way to overcome the challenge of multilingualism, rather than an attempt to suppress this cultural and linguistic diversity.


Learning languages and translations in a multilingual world

Learning a second, or even more languages, is one way of overcoming possible communication failures when the interlocutors do not share the same native tongue.

English has proved easy to learn as a second language and is understood around the world. Spanish and French continue to be taught and, more recently, Mandarin and Arabic have gained ground.

In countries in which English is the official language there is not such a great tradition of learning a second language, and nor is there a need, since communication with other people and cultures is carried out in English.

The preference for content in native languages, however, goes against this universalizing trend, and it is here translation makes a bow as yet another option to facilitate communication in a multilingual world.

The localization of content using the appropriate terminology and translating texts, websites and software into a new language fulfils this role and preserves multilingualism as a valuable aspect of cultural diversity.

Understanding, therefore, rests on these two pillars, and is greatly assisted at a time  in which the Internet, automatic translation and the almost cost-free ability to learn languages all help us communicate in the same language.

Even as the technology seems to do our work for us, the quality of human translations has to be guaranteed while the learning of languages depends essentially on the ability of each person to grasp what is presented to them.

In the 21st century, learning languages or translating texts into a language that is understood is easier than it was a few decades ago. Multilingualism has been preserved without it also being considered an obstacle to closer human relations.

Sources: The New Yorker and Al Jazeera

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