Miscellany 9: Why we should talk

Miscellany 9: Why we should talk

Continuing our exploration of the origins, conundrums and variety of language

Native English speakers have a huge leg up when it comes to communication. We’re privileged enough not to have to learn another language – and many of us never do.

But what if we wanted the ability to watch a foreign film without subtitles? Well, it turns out there are downsides to having won the linguistic lottery.

Not only do most English speakers have little tangible reason to engage with foreign languages and are therefore not as motivated to learn, but we also tend to have fewer opportunities and less exposure to foreign media.

But that’s enough about us English speakers. We already get too much attention. How easy is it for speakers of other languages and dialects to communicate across linguistic barriers?

We’ve established that English is usually easier for them to understand than vice versa. For example, native speakers of creole languages and dialects based on English, like Jamaican Patois or Gullah from the southern United States, can usually understand us with little effort.

What if we take English out of the equation entirely? There is still often a comprehension imbalance. As with English speakers, the speakers of the language originating from the more economically and socially dominant region will be less likely to understand their interlocuters.

For instance, Lao speakers have an easier time understanding Thai than the other way around, possibly because they are exposed to Thai soap operas and magazines.

But there is another, more subtle reason for asymmetric intelligibility: the languages themselves. The linguistic explanation is very maths heavy, but it has to do with differences in pronunciation leading to differing levels of uncertainty when one side is trying to understand the other.

This applies primarily to closely related languages, like variants of Modern Standard Arabic, or Finnish and Estonian.

As a final example, let’s look at the Scandinavian languages.

Danes have an easier time understanding Swedes than vice versa due to that complicated piece of linguistic maths called the Levenshtein distance. However, this formula fails to predict the fact Norwegians are better at understanding Danes than the other way around, probably because its influence is overridden by other factors of the sort mentioned earlier.

Meanwhile, Swedish and Norwegian can be understood as a dialect continuum rather than two separate languages as people in the border region speak something between what is recognised as Swedish and what is recognised as Norwegian.

Language is a tapestry, ever changing, ever combining. A lifetime is not enough to learn even a small part of it. It is what makes us the most successful species on the planet but also the most dangerous, so perhaps we should try a little harder, especially we English speakers.

Get our newsletter for insights into modern comms