Physics of Poverty: One World. One (Giant) Language

By Dr. Tara Thiagarajan|7th Nov 2011
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Dr. Tara

Physics of Poverty series by Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, Chairperson, Madura Microfinance

Take a risk. Use your imagination. Transform your world.

Try to say this in any Indian language. I challenge you. You will fall short. Short on comparable, easily accessible vocabulary, short on that easy feel of flow and short on memories of when you last heard something like it said. English is the language of progress and possibility. English is the language of technology. English is the language of change.

To be progressive, therefore, one of the most powerful things we can do in this country is make English mandatory curriculum in every school, and then in the next generation just switch to English as the sole medium of instruction. One world. One language.

OK, I hear the critics. Some of our languages are so beautiful. So much of our culture will be lost. Then quick, start translating. English is one of the fastest growing languages in human history. According to the Global Language Monitor, the number of English speakers has grown from 250 million in 1960 to some 1.53 billion today. In China alone there are apparently now 250 million English speakers. In India, 100 million.

But more significantly, consider this. From roughly half a million words in the English language in 1960, today English has over one million words. And, currently, a new word is added to the language every 98 minutes. That’s about 15 new words a day. To qualify as an ‘English’ word it must be appear in a consistent context in English books and articles some large enough number of times with some criteria of geographic breadth. Both Google and the Global Language Monitor have their own counting algorithms. The growing and evolving feature of the English language therefore allows us to carry with us those words and phrases from our own languages for which we cannot find ‘English’ equivalents that give us the same nuanced feel.

Now, most human beings apparently have a vocabulary between 10,000 and 50,000 words. Only a small number of overzealous linguists can claim vocabularies upwards of 200,000. On the other hand, there are supposedly less than 2000 words that we use every day. The most recognized English word on the planet is OK. So what this means is that all of us English speakers get the benefit of a common linguistic structure and a handful of daily words so we can basically understand and transact with one another, but then diverge in our other vocabulary. Someday how widely you can communicate will no longer depend on how many languages you know but how many words you know. And this will be richer than having multiple languages because the richness of language comes from use. It comes from words traveling among people and building common memories and associations.

So, the one millionth English word, which was announced on June 10 of 2009, was Web 2.0 which means “the next generation of the world wide web”. Coming in right behind at 1 million and 1 was Jai Ho! which means in the new English dictionary “accomplishment” or “victory”.

So,

Take a risk. Use your imagination. Transform your world. Jai Ho!

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