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How to Learn a Language Nobody Speaks

After hundreds of years, and multiple attempts to develop a universal language the same problem still remains: no one wants to learn it

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In fact, good sir, I have no idea what you’re saying. Image: Lovelorn Poets

The quest for a Universal language has produced some interesting options. Turns out, it’s really hard to produce a language everyone can, and will speak. At io9 they recently chronicled a few attempts at such a language.

For the music lovers, there was Soresol. To make sure no one language was advantaged in learning Soresol, its creator, Fancois Sudre, based the sounds on musical tones. Each tone had a color and a symbol. You write a word by combining them – just like you combine syllables in English. “So, for example re-si-mi-re is brother. I could write that with a musical score. I could write it by writing the number 2732,” io9 writes. “I could write it by using crayons and making lines of orange-pink-yellow-orange.”

Soresol is actually one of the few attempts at a universal language that got much traction. It actually garnered some popularity, and Sudre taught it to his followers. But you’ve probably never heard of it. You might have heard, instead, of one of its successors: Esperanto.

Developed by a Polish physician, Esperanto is quite simple, which might be why it’s one of the most widely spoken of these languages. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people speak it around the world. It’s even recognized by UNESCO. In the United States, the group Esperanto-USA tries to spread the word about the language. Here’s a video that will teach you some beginning Esperanto:

And, perhaps as a sign of true success, it has offshoots, called Esperantidos. One of them, Ido, is essentially a simpler version of Esperanto.

There are loads of other artificially created languages. Io9 lists a few more: Occidental came from sailors, Afrihili is one of the few that originated in Africa, rather than Europe, and Sambahsa-Mundialect is the most recent, released in 2007.

Other people argue that rather than constructing a universal language we should simply designate one we already have and make everyone learn it. Some argue that English should be that language. There are already somewhere between 800 million and 1.8 billion English speakers on the planet.

But others argue that the the diversity of languages is a good thing. An organization called Cultural Survival estimates that there are between 3,000 and 6,000 languages spoken on earth, and the vast majority of them are spoken by indigenous people. About half of those languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people, says the Foundation for Endangered Languages. And one language, Ayapaneco, is only spoken by two people… and they don’t like each other very much.

Regardless, we’re heading towards fewer languages these days. Experts estimate that within two generations a huge number of those endangered languages will die out. But the question is whether they should be replaced with these universal ones. Chances are, they won’t catch on. All of these languages have their challenges. While io9 is referring here to Esperanto, it applies to all these languages:

Since it’s nobody’s native tongue, it relies on people’s willingness to learn it as a second language. Few people are motivated to do that unless there are already a great deal of people also willing to learn it, and so it seems to be spiraling down, not up. One good kick from people around the world and it might yet become a common language, but to do that it has to overcome its homegrown demons.

Let’s face it, you probably can’t even read the menu at the local Italian place – why would you to learn a whole new language that no one speaks. Especially when your dinner doesn’t depend on it.

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

Babies Raised Bilingual Get Language Benefits

History’s “Global Languages”

People Are More Rational When Speaking in a Foreign Language

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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