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A Universal Second Language -
What's the hold-up???

I took four years of German in public schools and another semester in college. I enjoyed it and made a good effort to learn it. However, I never got anywhere near conversational with it. I only got to the point where I could figure out written German, maybe, with a dictionary handy, and even then assuming a writing level that was not too advanced. Believe it or not, I was a "good" student in German, even placing second in some sort of regional contest. If this doesn't rank up there in the "tragedy" class, or even "how sad...", it should be apparent something is a little out of whack. What does this say about the teaching of second languages, in general, to American students, many of whom will only take a year or so, and who will be (this can be proven mathematically) "average" students?

If I had gotten conversational with German, what good would that have done me during my summer in Puerto Rico? What good would it have done on my visit to France? What good does it do me here when I struggle to understand someone's gallant attempt to speak my language? The benefits of being able to communicate with anyone anywhere are so obvious I won't even waste your time justifying the claim.

A universal second language has been another long-time soapbox issue of mine. Obviously, the idea has been around since long before I was born. And not surprisingly, whenever the subject comes up, everyone in the vicinity gleefully jumps in with, "It's been tried! And it's never worked!"

My response to that is, it has NEVER been tried. Even having met one person in my life whom I know to have had half a year of Esperanto in elementary school, my position is unwavering: A UNIVERSAL SECOND LANGUAGE HAS NEVER BEEN TRIED.

Yes, there have been several, or maybe many, for all I know, universal second languages created. But the recipe calls for one other absolutely essential ingredient which has always been lacking - the commitment on the part of many nations to implement it in their school systems.

If the word "commitment" there sounds like an obligation to perform a somewhat distasteful chore, implementing a universal second language should be nothing of the sort. It should inspire unbounded enthusiasm, a feeling of "Let's do it!"

So what's held it back? I'm guessing the reason is nothing deeper than it being easier not to do something than to do something, never mind the eventual benefits. There's always a know-it-all American in the crowd to exclaim (with a big grin on his face you want to punch in), "There is a universal second language! English!" The correct response to that, taking pains to be as polite as possible, is, "Don't be such an idiot." Perhaps the English language has more of a claim to universality than any other, but universal it's not. See paragraph 2 above.

To my mind, a universal second language is such an obviously good idea that I can hardly imagine an objection. But I've heard people argue, for instance, "What if someone doesn't want to learn it?" I say, so what? How's that any different from someone resisting learning anything else in life? If a student goofs off in math class throughout school, then the doors to various careers that a knowledge of math opens up will be closed to him. No need for anyone to lose any sleep over it. (He might be happier than all of us!)

Someone might ask, "But where will we fit it into the curriculum?" My best response to that is spend some time in your local elementary school. Spend a few days in classrooms at each grade level. Then ask yourself how much of what they are attempting to teach is more important than a universal second language. In lieu of actual visits you could draw conclusions based on the homework a student does, or completed assignments he brings home, but I think it might be eye-opening to see what actually gets done in a 6- or so hour school day.

The expense should be negligible; after all, the school systems are already in place. It's just a matter of swapping out that study material for this study material, and they're diligently changing study material all the time, anyhow.

I presume that there have been studies made of bilingual children, and I'd be surprised if there isn't much to be gleaned from their experience that can be applied to teaching the universal second language early. To me, who has enough trouble with one language, the effortless way in which a child can pick up both the language of his parents and the language of his friends - and keep the two completely separate - seems nothing short of miraculous. But obviously young brains can do it.

Notice that recordings on tangible audio media and on the web will have everyone in the world speaking the new language perfectly uniformly, perfectly unaccented.

About which language to choose, who am I to say. Not knowing much about Esperanto beyond its name, I've got big doubts about it. A rolled "r" right in the name? Sounds like the creator of Esperanto had a no prisoners taken attitude right from the beginning. The "r" sound has to be the biggest pronunciation bugaboo on the face of the earth. I can't think of two languages, including English English and American English, that treat it the same. Admittedly, if the idea were to teach the world how to say "r"s using ipods, etc., my little rant here is largely defused, but why not use what's already easy for everybody as a starting point?

Apparently there's a very sensible, simplified form of English called Ogden's Basic. But there are those who have given the matter a lot of thought and have good arguments why the universal second language should be wholly artificial and not based on any existing language.

Countries that are worried about the second language seeping into the native language and defiling it can appoint a Language Purity panel and take legislative action to safeguard the native language.

To get the ball rolling, it would take nothing more than a couple of national leaders saying, "Sounds good to me, Alphonse." "I will if you will, Ambrosio." They then approach a few more countries with the idea until there are a goodly number of participants on all the continents, and it's a go. Notice that it's not necessary to have 100% participation from the start. Any country can join in anywhere down the line. For that matter, individual school systems might add the language even without any official action taken on the language by the government, and individuals might undertake to learn it on their own.

In summary, to implement a universal second language would be as easy as falling out of bed; to not do it is simply dumb.


Why I finally got around to putting these soapbox thoughts down in June 2006 is because of the potential tie-in with another soapbox issue that got a page at the same time - a call for switching over to the superior Base 8 number system from Base 10. Whew, now there's a tough one! But all of a sudden it's not so out of the question. Here's the ticket - new language, new numbers. When the simple, sensible universal second language is implemented, the associated number system will be simple, sensible Base 8. When people see the beauty of Base 8, it will then spill over into general usage.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not holding my breath.


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