It used to be easy once. Whoever continued to study after elementary school had to learn Latin. Not because of free choice but because they had to. Latin was spoken in the so called civilized world. And no one travelled to the uncivilized one. Latin is still used nowadays in medicine, history, biology and other sciences but could I ask the way in Latin while abroad: Perhaps in the Vatican…
It is a fact I have never noticed any Latin guidebook. Guidebooks with basic phrases are as good as crash courses before a trip abroad. One doesn´t feel so weak and vulnerable. I won´t give up my wish to learn a universal language well.
Is English on its last legs?
It is not so easy to find a universal language in our multiplex world. There are more than 7,000 languages in the world but according to the UNESCO forecast half of them are destined to be forgotten. Some of them are being spoken only by small groups of people and other ones don´t even have a written form. As soon as the last speaker of the language dies, the language will die too. People cease using these languages also because they cannot use them in offices. That tells me I should choose a language from the other surviving half.
Several hundred years ago the most important international language was French that was replaced with English.But alas, more people speak Chinese or Spanish. Is it worth studying English if the second most popular language in England and Wales is Polish? Isn´t English in decline? It is a fact it has a really large vocabulary (up to 990,000 words). Is it not too comprehensive to keep its position of language No. 1 in the world?
Spanish is too chatty
For instance the Taki Taki language has only 340 words and simple grammar. That would be easy to learn, And not just by me. However, not many people know about it and the speakers are only about as many as in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Spanish is popular but like Japanese it is too chatty. There is much spoken but not as much said. On the other hand Chinese can say a lot with a few words.
The plan hasn´t worked
E.g. Papua – New Guinea speaks 820 languages and India uses not only 780 languages but also 66 different kinds of alphabets. And I should find a universal language for the whole world? Countries of the former Soviet Union cannot do without Russian. Africa prefers French and South America speaks half Spanish and half Portugese. English isn´t that popular in the whole of Europe either. The aggrieved French have ignored it until nowadays and Italians and Spanish don´t like foreign languages at all.
Evidently, I am not the first who seeks a universal language. When my predecessors didn´t find one they created one. It gave birth to Esperanto 127 years ago. Now it is being spoken by up to 2 million people whereas English is being used by about two billion people so the winner of the mini competition is more than obvious even for a bad calculator.
And what about sign language?
Isn´t sign language a universal communication means? All deaf people use it all over the world. Mistake. Uncle Google told me there is an international sign language but many deaf people cannot speak it. It is like with any language. Czechs or Slovaks use it differently than e.g. Germans.
And then there is a special body language that all hearing people can use. The “hand and leg“ language is international but its expressing abilities are not too precise. Moreover it is quite time consuming and physically demanding. I would almost compare with a PE lesson. But I have to admit it “saved“ me when I had to explain to the cleaner at the toilet in Italy that the toilet paper ran out…
Languages at home
I will change the topic and set myself a more modest goal. I will focus on the Czech Republic. In the past Czechs were force to study German, then Russian and now English. But what language is really useful here? From the tourist industry point of view, the most important language is German (who would have guessed when Czech´s neighbours are Germans and Austrians!), then a gap and then English and on to Russian. The Moravian– Silesian Region speaks Slovak and Polish. Czechs and Poles from the borderland understand each other without a problem. Neighbours from Warsaw would choose English.
Internet: Chinese is catching up with English
The most popular language on the Internet is English followed by Chinese. Third place belongs to Spanish. Perhaps I will really start to study the James Bond language. English is more important for international communication than Spanish and is easier than Chinese. But who knows? Maybe just like my grandparents groove Russian but have goosebumps when they are asked to speak English I will groove English and watch my grandkids with admiration learning Chinese at school.
Chosen, what´s next?
My quest doesn´t end with choosing the language. I don´t think about what to learn but how. I have learnt from my own school mistakes that not every method will help me learn a foreign language. I can still name lists of German prepositions but I´ve never really learnt German. I can find comparison with how languages are taught in the North and in the South of Europe. The North is good, the South swims in it badly (the warm Mediterranean Sea doesn´t play any role in this).
North versus south
The South taught languages in an old-fashioned way just like Latin was taught. They learn vocabulary lists and grammar lists (like my German prepositions). Although any traditional method doesn´t work without a stick. If teachers don´t succeed in putting encyclopaedic knowledge into their students´ heads, it doesn´t mean students know how to use them. The thinker, philosopher and writer Jan Amos Komenský belonged among the critics of mechanical learning and that is why he limited strict memorizing and taught Latin with regard to practical use. He created a textbook with an extensive picture supplement.
Students improve their language knowledge “naturally“. Instead of memorizing textbook passages they use original texts and recordings in a foreign language whether they are recipes, newspaper articles or songs. Lessons are about speaking, role-play and this way they learn to use the language. I have personal experience with the Southern method. It didn´t work. I am going to try the Northern variety. It is not a single method in fact. They are more principles that underlay concrete learning procedures.
The 21st century doesn´t require attendance of a language school, Many courses are online and slowly but surely smartphones and tablets are being used in learning. One undisputable advantage is time, freedom and independence.
Hopefully, the era of Chinese won´t come too soon to make me regret my choice.
Prepared by: Hana Dragounova
Link to the magazine - see page 90