Don’t Insist on English! Sharing Ideas Through Language

Luis vahn Ahn’s TED talk is making the rounds over here at Smartling (in fact, Jack recently posted his thoughts on the Duolingo project). His presentation is actually one of 17 TED talks about language, and while browsing the other videos, I discovered Patricia Ryan’s talk, Don’t insist on English!

Before I even pressed play, two things struck me about this talk: the title and a question in the video description (“Is the world’s focus on English preventing the spread of great ideas in other languages?”). The title grabbed my attention for obvious reasons (I mentally reworded it to “Don’t insist on an English-only website!”).

That statement is an articulation of what I (and hopefully, you) know to be true, but never said aloud. Reading it on Smartling’s website a few months ago, I immediately screamed “YES!” (in my head). Watching Ryan’s talk, I had the same reaction – several times. Below are some “YES!” moments from the talk (and the embedded video, if you’d like to watch):

1. Ryan asserts English is becoming a barrier. Brilliant people are being denied admission to universities based on English-proficiency tests (like TOEFL). “This system equates intelligence with a knowledge of English.”

2. English-only journals, research, and textbooks are a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Ryan. “It feeds the English requirement… I ask you, what happened to translation?”

3. A lovely anecdote about two stumped English scientists and a German scientist helping them find the answer (hidden in the German language).

4. Every 14 hours a language dies. Ryan wonders what knowledge dies with these languages.

When you apply this thinking to the idea of the global web, you can see how damaging it could be to force the world to adapt to one language (remember, 56% of web content is in English but only 27% of web users are English-speakers). What does insisting on English mean for the global web? I think it means the same as it does offline: a loss of collaboration, ideas sharing, and innovation. But if you’re providing your content in languages other than English (powered by Smartling’s website translation, of course), you’re allowing other languages to interact, contribute to, and build upon your ideas.