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Learn Math, not Mandarin

An old joke goes:
Q: What do you call someone who knows three languages?
A: Trilingual
Q: What do you call someone who knows two languages?
A: Bilingual
Q: What do you call someone who knows just one language?
A: An American

Probably mostly true, the joke implies that it’s a bad thing to know only one language. More specifically, it’s poking fun at the fact that most Americans only speak English. But is it such a bad thing to only know English? According to this Wikipedia list of most commonly spoken languages, the most spoken “primary” language (“mother tongue” or “L1 Rank”) is, predictably, Mandarin, followed by Spanish, and then English. So, you’re at least in the top 3 just out of the gate!

But just looking at the number of speakers of their Mother Tongue (L1) is misleading, because when someone does learn a second language, it is almost always English! So instead of looking at the most common “first languages” (L1), you look at the most common languages including second languages , that is, the languages by total number of speakers (L1+L2+…), you get a very different, and somewhat surprising, list (the rightmost column in the WP table, and the main sorting rank of the table). By this measure, English is the most commonly spoken language, with 1.12 Billion speakers (at this writing), followed closely by Mandarin (1.11B), and then by Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, and French. The reason that most people learn English as a second language, if it isn’t their Mother Tongue, is that English is the de facto language of Business, Engineering, Science, and, most influentially, The Internet. Indeed, by the time you get to French, there are fewer speakers of French word-wide than the population of the US! So, really, there are only five global languages: English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic. So if you were going to learn a second natural language, you’d do best to learn one of those.

But I’m going to make a play for taking a different path; Instead of bothering to learn a second (natural) language at all, speakers who’s Mother Tongue is one of the four global languages that isn’t English, should definitely learn English as a second language, in order to participate fully in Business, Engineering, Science, and, The Internet. BUT — and here is where I’m going out on a limb of my own! — native speakers of English (or those who already know it well, if not natively), shouldn’t waste their time learning a second (natural) language at all, but instead, those English-speakers should spend their time learning the only true permanent global language: Math.

Now, I realize that this is an extraordinary suggestion, and that extraordinary suggestions require extraordinary support. I’ve already demonstrated that one doesn’t really need to learn any language other than English in order to participate in the modern technical world. One may want to learn a second natural language for some personal or local reason. For example, I live in California, where knowing Spanish is of great practical value, and I’m personally fascinated by Chinese (esp. it’s ideographic writing system). But some educators have argued (and some scientists have experimental results to support the hypothesis) that learning a second language is good for your brain. My read of this data is that it’s pretty weak….[ ]

What do you think?

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Posted by Topten

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