THE WORD “Babelism” refers to the misunderstandings or conflicts that arise from miscommunication due to the existence of a number of diverse languages. It has originated from the story of the tower of Babel in the bible. According to the book of Genesis, mankind once shared one language and lived in peaceful coexistence. However, one day, men built a tower which can reach the heaven, and this arrogance infuriated the God. God punished them by confusing their language, forever preventing them from ever challenging God under one united group. As a result, the language barrier was created, and students today are studying foreign languages day and night to overcome this barrier. However, what if there was no need to study foreign languages? What if everyone on earth spoke the same language?
Eliminating the language barrier
Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a worldly renowned linguist, theorized that mutual misunderstandings caused by the lack of one common language causes conflict between people. Zamenhof was born and raised in a Polish town of Bialystok, which, in the late 19C, was under Russian control. There were a variety of ethnicities living in Bialystok, including Russians, Poles, Jews, and Germans. Since his childhood, Zamenhof witnessed conflicts constantly arising between the different ethnicities, and suggested that this may be due to the existence of the language barrier which leads to the lack of communication between people from different nations. Thus, Zamenhof came up with a solution, proposing the use of an international common language. Zamenhof thought that, if people could communicate with each other easily by using a single common language, they would understand each other better, decreasing the possibility of a conflict arising. Later, Zamenhof invented Esperanto, one of the most popular artificial languages in the world, and in 1887, proposed it be used as an international language, as a solution to reduce conflicts between people.
International language, or international auxiliary language refers to a language commonly used in the international stage. Since it is a language that every nation can use in common, it is also called the common language. The call for an international language has long been discussed before Zamenhof as a novel approach to solve the problem of language barrier. The purpose of an international language is to overcome the language barrier by eliminating it. If everyone in the world starts to use the common language, the language barrier would not exist anymore. However, there is no officially designated international language as of now.
As the world becomes more globalized, the number and importance of international meetings have greatly risen. However, due to the diverse nature of linguistics, an immense amount of resources had to be invested to solve the communication problem. According to Andrew Large (Director and Professor, Graduate School of Library & Information Studies, McGill Univ.), about a third of the European Union (EU) staffs and half of the EU parliament staffs assume the task of facilitating communication between representatives from different nations. Moreover, about 50% of the administration budget is used on language related expenses. Yet, despite the huge cost, the result is not very impressive; it is very difficult to translate one language to another in a limited amount of time. Under such situation, international language is receiving attention as an alternative that can solve the problem fundamentally - eliminating the language barrier itself.
Artificial language, equal and efficient
Among thousands of languages that exist in the world, which one would be the most appropriate as an international language? There has been a controversy surrounding this question for a long time, and two opinions have gained the most approval so far. The first is to select a native language as the international language and the other is to create an artificially constructed language. A native language or mother tongue language is a primary language that one learns through his ethnic group. It indicates a language that belongs to a certain ethnicity. On the other hand, a constructed or a planned language is a language that is consciously devised. Since it is created for a certain purpose, it does not reflect the ethnicity nor has any native speakers who learn it as their primary language.
In the western world, there existed a time when native languages were used as the international language. For example, before the 18C in Western Europe, Latin was prominently used as an international language. In the early 18C, French replaced Latin and became widely used in diplomacy. In the past, international communication used to be regional and confined to the elites, and so using a native language as an international language was not much of a problem. However, with globalization, the scale of international communication radically expanded, and the meaning of using native language as an international language also underwent a change.
Currently, the most widely used native language in the world is English and Chinese. In many countries, including Korea, learning English and Chinese is part of their regular education curriculum. However, lots of people find them difficult to master. Kim Do-hyeon (Jr., Dept. of Nursing, Far East Univ.) said, “I have been studying TOEIC for 2 years but getting a high score is still difficult. What drives me crazy is the vocabulary - it is so different from Korean.” In her research paper “An International Language for the World to Come”, Chung Young-hee (Assistant Prof., Dept. of English, Sejong Univ.) also pointed out that “6 years of intensive studying from Middle to High school does not guarantee for most Koreans any proficiency in reading, let alone speaking and writing.” Learning Chinese is not much different. Suh Hyun-jung (Soph., Asian Studies Division, Yonsei Univ.) says, “In my Chinese class, I had to memorize complicated Hanzi (a letter of Chinese) along with shengdiaos (the intonation of Chinese) it belongs to. Chinese was a totally different language from both Korean and English, so I had to work on it a lot.”
Such limitations with learning are the problem with using native languages as an international language. In short, native users would naturally have an advantage over those who speak other languages if one native language is officially designated as an international language. Because language is the outcome of a unique culture and thoughts of people who use the language, people from other cultures cannot help but feel challenged when trying to learn a language of other nation. When a native language becomes an official international language, non-native speakers would have to invest a considerable amount of time and resources to learn the international language and such difficulty in learning a foreign language will bring inequality between nations that already use the international language as the native language and nations that do not. Such inequality may even foster complaints among people since the matter of speaking an international language does not come from different language capabilities of people but from different starting lines. What is more, such linguistic inequality may lead to linguistic imperialism, in which those who use the dominant language dominate the world. To prevent inequality from lingual differences, mankind would have to develop and adopt an international language that offers equal chance of learning to everyone – thus artificial language being more suitable as international language.
Besides equality in learning, an international language should also be easy to learn. If an international language is hard to learn, it would lead to the language barrier problem again. The founders of successful artificial languages also understood this point and tried to simplify their artificial language as much as possible. A good example of an easy artificial language would be Esperanto, the most popular artificial language of this day. Park In-sun (Jr., Dept. of Hungarian, Hanguk University of Foreign Studies) says “I joined the Esperanto learning club in university and studied Esperanto. Its grammar was very simple, and soon I could speak Esperanto quiet fluently and could even have a conversation with other friends in Esperanto,” says Park. Likewise, an international artificial language should not only offer equality in learning but also efficiency in learning.
Diversity and unity in harmony
Another controversy surrounding international language is about how it is used. Should an international language be the only language people use, or should both native languages and international language be used? Those who argue “one language for all ethnicities” claims that everyone in the planet should use the designated international language only. This way, everyone in the world would use a common language, bringing a complete elimination of the language barrier.
The “one language for all ethnicities” system places unity over diversity. This might be necessary in some cases like in the army where every unit has to work together for the survival of the whole. However, when it comes to the matter of language, unity should not be positioned over diversity. Language is the representative outcome of a unique culture; it is created by the culture of its users, and in turn creates new cultures. It is a representation of its users’ identity. Neglecting diversity of language and emphasizing unity only is the same as neglecting diversity of culture and threatening the fundamental notion of freedom of identity.
Both unity and diversity are equally important in this globalizing era. Different people should be united under noble values such as achieving human rights, freedom and overcoming poverty. At the same time, the identity of each individual should be respected. Thus, the international language has to follow the system of “one ethnicity, two languages” which reflects such belief. Every ethnicity should use their native languages amongst themselves to preserve and develop their cultural identity and at the same time use the international language on the international stage for better communication. Only when our unique identity is recognized can we learn to respect others’ difference and unite to make a better world.
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The development of the Internet has reduced the distance between people around the world. International communication is no longer limited to the few privileged, but is now open to a wider range of people. People scattered all over the world are coming together through the power of communication. In time, as the will for international communication becomes stronger, the need for an international language will rise. Perhaps someday in the future, we might be using only one language with foreigners wherever we are.