Language is the strongest form of communication, granting human beings, merely through a series of throat-and-tongue-based utterances, the ability to convey practically anything to other individuals, whether it is an emotion, feeling, urgency, or even just a basic thought. Without language, there is a variety of communication methods in the human toolkit of information exchange, specifically what we call “body language”, and while these do help, they are often merely supplementary to the spoken, written, or otherwise presented word. Because of this, a difference in language is one of the most fortified barriers keeping people apart.
People have long been aware of this fact, and there is evidence of a strong understanding of the lack of communication between speakers of different languages through the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. This legend posits a world when all people spoke a single language and were in the process of building a tower so tall that it could reach the heavens, before they were struck down to the ground, where they all thereafter spoke different tongues, thus making their cooperative mission impossible.
In the world today, there are almost as many as 7,000 distinct languages, and some regions can populate a plethora of speakers of different languages. A Polish eye doctor named Lazarus Zamenhof raised concerns with this as he resided in late-Nineteenth Century Bialystok, a city that was home to a multiethnic mixture of Poles, Russians, Jews, Lithuanians, and Germans. In an effort to alleviate the distrust and misunderstanding that he felt was growing between these different peoples, and to prevent the strenuous task of learning a foreign language, Zamenhof invented Esperanto.
Esperanto today is recognized as an international standard language, and it is relatively easy to learn due to Zamenhof originally inputting only 16 basic grammatical rules. He also heavily based the vocabulary on Latin and some modern romance languages, in addition to including roots from English, German, Polish, and Russian. This made many of the terms familiar to users of the tongue. Esperanto is currently the world’s most widely used auxiliary language, having long maintained popularity in China and eastern Europe. There are approximately 1,000 native speakers of Esperanto, 10,000 people can speak Esperanto fluently, 100,000 can use it actively, 1 million understand a lot of Esperanto, and about 10 million have studied it to some extent.
Whether or not he was aware of it, Zamenhof was attempting to design his very own lingua franca, a term describing languages that are used for communication between people who do not share a native language or dialect. Like language in general, these develop naturally, out of the need for communication between groups, being commonly spoken throughout history among merchants that have needed to converse with speakers of different languages. In fact, the phrase itself derives from the name of a language that was used by Mediterranean merchants, along with other professionals, from the Renaissance until the late-Eighteenth Century.
A lingua franca is spoken traditionally outside of that language’s community, and it can even be spoken between two individuals who are not native speakers of that lingua franca. There are many examples of this both currently and throughout history, in which the language used as a standard among different peoples has been prevalent in a particular region. Certain languages have even acted as international lingua francas, such as French from the Seventeenth until the mid-Twentieth Century, when it was the official language of diplomacy and often aristocracy.
However, after modern globalization, English has replaced French as a widespread international lingua franca. Today, about 1.5 billion people speak English in at least some capacity, an amount significantly greater than the 400 million native speakers of the language. Following the Second World War, it became the official language of international business, education, science, technology, diplomacy, and entertainment.
And, when any English speaker uses the standard language in an international setting, his or her usage is at least partially evincing of their culture and native way of speaking. This is even true for native speakers of English, as they truly won’t speak “International English”, but the form of the widespread language that is unique to their home nation or region (their “speech community”). For example, when two individuals communicate with one speaking American English and the other using British English, they will certainly be able to carry out a coherent conversation, but they are clearly not using the same dialect (some might even call these two different languages).
Furthermore, it is important to note that this difference in dialect is prevalent between two native speakers of the same country, and that, even though many might believe otherwise, there is truly no such thing as a standard language. In fact, if you ask two individuals who speak the same language in the same country for the rules regarding their standard language (e.g. two Americans discussing Standard American English), they will believe that the official rules of their language differ. Therefore, despite the fact that one fifth of the entire population is able to speak this lingua franca and many can likely communicate easily with one another, they are truly not adhering to a standard when speaking.
International standardization needs to manage the issue of having many spoken languages in the world, as its efforts are made to keep global organizations compliant. However, as the motto of World Standards Day 2015 pointed out, standards are “the world’s common language”, a statement that does hold some truth. Every standard document must be comprehensible to a vast array of individuals, who come from different cultures, background, and even language communities.
For example, ISO 9001:2015 – Quality management systems – Requirements was written with the intention of providing any organization in the world with the means to follow a sound quality management system. In broader efforts to complete this task, the document has been published in many different languages, such as English (ISO 9001:2015 and BS EN ISO 9001:2015), Swedish (SS-EN ISO 9001:2015), and German (DIN EN ISO 9001:2015 and ONORM EN ISO 9001:2015), among many others.
In each instance, the languages are unintelligible with one another, but the guidelines and specifications are still the same. Standard documents like ISO 9001 are also written so that their breadth of users can understand their recommendations, and they practically always include a vocabulary or terms section to clarify any kind of jargon or important word used. In a way, the English version of these documents is using Standard International English, or at least something that resembles what such a thing would be.
Standard languages, like international standards documents, can successfully convey an idea with clarity, even if they use terminology that the receiving individual would regularly not use. While it is likely not necessary for a language to be constructed like Esperanto, it is certainly advantageous to speak a language for particular uses, but it is also just as important for one to attempt to learn foreign languages and other ways of speaking to enhance interactions with others.