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Panglottery and Language Choice

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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 Message 1 of 34
15 February 2012 at 10:55pm | IP Logged 
I'd like to share (not prescribe) some ideas about language choice in the pursuit of panglottery. Panglottery is, as I understand it, polyglottery with an emphasis on achieving a more global perspective. Criticism, suggestions, and further ideas are welcome.

It's important to keep in mind the map of the world* and the boundaries on the map of all major languages and language families. We want to know the languages of vast numbers of people spoken over vast areas of the world and from vastly diverse language families. Some languages are so widespread and spoken by so many people that they don't require any further explanation: English, Mandarin, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Hindi/Urdu, Malay/Indonesian, and French. You'll probably want them. Arabic isn't quite as obvious a choice because of the crass diglossia that exists between the standard language and its "dialects". But I'd argue for the inclusion of it because you really can do a lot with MSA. Being able to read any newspaper or novel written from Morocco all the way to Oman is pretty meaningful. I wouldn't worry much about the dialects unless you have a personal reason to learn one or more of them.

At this point have a look at the world map. With these eight languages you will have something like two thirds of the world's land surface covered. And yet it's a rather unsatisfying group of languages. It's missing some of the languages with the most attractive cultures and economies in the world. Languages like Japanese, Korean, Turkish, and Persian. I encourage the aspiring panglot to include these languages because culturally, economically, and geopolitically they are just as, if not more viable than many of the languages from our first group.

At the latest by now we should be really picky in adding further languages because let's face it, we've already given ourselves enough languages to learn for two lifetimes. We must be especially picky if we're going to add any more European languages. Learning another Romance language like Italian would give us almost nothing on our journey to diversify. Italian is also considerably less widespread and useful than the other three Romance languages we've got, so I'd recommend abstaining from it. Then there is German. Very important in Europe but do we really want another Germanic language? Because it's the most widely spoken native language in Western Europe and the language of the largest economy in Europe, I'd lean towards including it. If there is room for three Romance languages, then perhaps there is room for two Germanic ones.

Only 11 language families in the world contain a language that has at least 20 million speakers (Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Afroasiatic, Japonic, Korean, Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Turkic, Niger-Congo, Dravidian, Tai-Kadai). All of these language families contain at least one language that has at least 50 million speakers. Because of our constraints, you might want to ignore all other language families. Dravidian languages more or less only help you with India, for which we already have Hindi/Urdu. At this point let's say ad hoc that we only want one language per country. Pulling out all stops now to keep language count as low as possible.

We must now recognize that we've got a bit of a blank spot in continental Southeast Asia. You might want to include Thai and Vietnamese because they will give you exposure to two entirely new language families. Tonal languages at the margins of the world's consciousness aren't everyone's cup of tea though. I'd understand if you passed on them. Despite being one of the premier language families of the world, the only Niger-Congo language that has more than a handful of speakers is Swahili, which clocks in at somewhere between 50 and 150 million speakers (no one knows the real number). Economically, culturally, and geopolitically, Niger-Congo languages don't have much attractive power though (as evinced by their low popularity), so you'd be forgiven for passing on them.

Dead Languages

There are five major ones: Latin, Ancient Greek, Classical Arabic, Sanskrit, and Classical Chinese. Only Ancient Greek doesn't have an eminent daughter language to learn. So for the sake of diversity, I recommend only Ancient Greek.

Writing Systems

To grossly oversimplify matters, there are three main kinds of writing systems in prominent use today: sane ones like the Roman alphabet; insane ones like Chinese characters; and one that the devil created so that no missionaries would ever be able to learn it, Japanese. Cyrillic and the Perso-Arabic script are also fantastically widely used so you'll want to learn at least one language for each of these five scripts for a panglottic perspective on writing systems.

So in closing we have English, Mandarin, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Hindi/Urdu, Malay/Indonesian, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Turkish, French, German, Thai, Vietnamese, and Ancient Greek. They belong to nine different languages families and make use of nine different scripts. They cover almost every corner of the world and all possess vibrant written cultures. Don't view any of these languages (except English) as must-haves, but rather as languages that are probably of interest to an aspiring panglot, and as such merit taking a closer look at.

Whichever languages you choose to learn, in pursuit of whatever you might wish to pursue, enjoy the journey!

*some useful maps and info:
Map of the world's language families
Map of the world's writing systems
Info on the world's language families

ETA: fixed a link

Edited by lichtrausch on 16 February 2012 at 2:44am

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 Message 2 of 34
16 February 2012 at 7:48am | IP Logged 
That's a good overview. If we're to optimize a bit with time, some choices will seem to make things easier. For example, Vietnamese is probably easier to learn than Thai is you know Mandarin, since there's a large Sinitic substratum. And honestly, I think we could add Literary Sinitic as a potential classical language because the writing system means that the learning time is quite low if you know Mandarin. This because almost nobody who reads LS uses reconstructed pronunciation. So some new characters and a new grammar, and you're set. And you'd need to learn a lot of pieces of LS in order to get really good at Mandarin, anyway, especially in the formal registers.

For a similar reason, a reading knowledge of Latin won't be too hard to get if you know French and Spanish, and the importance of the language for modern Western civilization is huge, so that's a large gain for a small cost. Greek does give you more linguistic diversity, but I'm not sure that the added benefit is worth the much greater cost. We can get a lot of the Greek civilization through the Roman heritage.

Of course, every time we make a decision to make things easier, we risk reducing the diversity, but I think we need to do some cost-benefit analysis.

I think (Modern Standard) Arabic is a more natural choice than Russian. Russian might cover vast amounts of land, but most of it is very sparesly populated and we're trying to cover human culture, not geography. We're also interested in history and the modern world, and Arabic influence has been huge throughout history, and it's intimately connected with the rise of Islamic extremism, which is a burning issue in today's world. Not to mention the oil wars. Since MSA is so close to Classical Arabic, we also get another Classical language for free. Russian has of course also had an enormous historical influence and its place amongst the important languages is assured because of the cold war, so it's hardly a bad choice.

I think Portugese can be cut without losing too much. In terms of language and culture, it's not too different from Spanish, so what we gain is mostly land mass, not cultural or linguistic diversity.

Japanese and Korean are both vibrant culturally, but we can probably be forgiven for choosing only one of them, as they're somewhat similar culturally and linguistically, and because they are both considered extremely hard to learn.

I think a case can be made for replacing Hindi with a Dravidian language such as Tamil. This still gives us access to India and it increases linguistic diversity by adding another family. Not sure how much the increase in difficulty would be, but I suspect Hindi is already far enough away for it to be quite difficult. Another advantage would be the large Tamil-speaking diaspora in places like Singapore and Malaysia. We do lose the Urdu advantage, however, so maybe it's not a great idea.

Swahili might not cover a large area or a lot of speakers, but if we're going for cultural panglottery, covering the entire African continent only with colonist languages seems to me to be skimming the surface. I think we need at least one native language, and Swahili seems like the natural choice.

So here's my list.

Must-haves: English, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic
Should-haves: Hindi/Urdu OR Tamil, Russian, French, Swahili, Indonesian/Malay
Could-haves: Japanese OR Korean, Vietnamese, Portugese, Latin, Literary Sinitic, Persian, German, Turkish

That's for a panglot with a modernist bias. For a more historically-inclined one, I think Indonesian/Malay could switch places with Latin, and we'd probably want Literary Sinitic, too, because of the vast influence it has had on China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
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 Message 4 of 34
16 February 2012 at 1:45pm | IP Logged 
If you choose languages with many speakers then both Latin and Ancient Greek are out - diversity can easily be obtained through living languages, and if the immense literature in Latin isn't an argument for retainning it then the legacy of Ancient Greek can't be an argument either. The logical replament for Ancient Greek would of course be Modern Greek, even though only around 12 mio. speakers speak it.

If you go for diversity in your stock of languages then the wish to cover a number af language families is certainly a relevant criterion - although I personally only have dealt with one non Indoeuropean language until now. However that single exception is Bahasa Indonesia, which is spoken as 1. or 2. language by around 175 mio. Indonesians (plus those that speak the sister language Bahasa Malaysia). And my experience is that it is a good choice for your first non European language. Those who habitually deal with tourists or who have a higher education will certainly know English, but if your let this criterion prevail in Indonesia then you could just as well drop all European languages (except maybe Spanish, but only because of the situation in Latinamerica - in Europe the average Hispanophone would speak English at least as well as the average Indeonesian).

To Ari: I would guess that any Dravidian language would be harder than Hindi for speakers of English or other languages from Europe.   

Edited by Iversen on 16 February 2012 at 1:47pm

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 Message 5 of 34
16 February 2012 at 3:26pm | IP Logged 
Iversen wrote:
To Ari: I would guess that any Dravidian language would be harder than Hindi for speakers of English or other languages from Europe.

I don't doubt that. The question is: by how much? Tamil gives you the advantage of increasing the diversity of your portfolio, and it also gives you access to "one of the richest literatures in the world". Though I guess the significant diglossia increases the burden even more.
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 Message 6 of 34
27 February 2012 at 5:16pm | IP Logged 
I'm for including one totally marginalized language, because although it won't be of much economic use and may not have many speakers, it will be culturally enriching in an area you are likely to know nothing about and can give you an understanding of the challenges marginalized groups face in general. The last point in particular is important to consider in a global perspective. You might choose a Polynesian, Native American, Papuan or Eskimo-Aleut language, for example.

Edited by druckfehler on 27 February 2012 at 5:31pm

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 Message 7 of 34
27 February 2012 at 9:18pm | IP Logged 
Great thread, thanks for sharing this with us =) Ari's must haves remind me of the UN's official languages:

English, French, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish...
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 Message 8 of 34
28 February 2012 at 12:00am | IP Logged 
I like the idea.

You could take "panglottery" in many different directions, too. Instead of # of people,
you could aim to be panglottic in sacred languages (Koine Greek, Coptic, Sanskrit, Pali,
Classical Hebrew, Latin, Tibetan, & Arabic), or in ways of communication (sign
languages, click languages, whistle languages ...)

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