Language and the interconnectedness of things

The Internet of Things has spawned more than just an increased infiltration of web technology into our day-to-day lives. It has introduced a much more connected experience among users of web technology every day -- let’s call it the “Interconnectedness of Things.”

That, in turn, has made it more important than ever that we appreciate the benefits of a common means of communication in science, technology and business. For what it’s worth, that common means of communication is (at least for the foreseeable future) the English language.

Despite the technological advances attributable to China and Russia, English is still the de facto language of science and business. As far back as 2008, Research Trends magazine noted that English is the first language of about 400 million people in 53 countries, and the second language of as many as 1.4 billion more. English, the magazine contended, is “well positioned to become the default language of science.”

As for business, a 2012 Reuters news agency survey conducted by Ipsos Global Public Affairs showed that more than two-thirds of employees of 26 nationalities who deal with people in other countries use English most often.

"The most revealing aspect of this survey is how English has emerged as the default language for business around the world," said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos.

What does that mean in today’s interconnected age? Common communications skills create more options for more people, and yield better economic prospects for people with those skills. A common means of communication enables assimilation and creates positive changes in the culture of science and business. Distance is no longer an issue when the Interconnectedness of Things allows us to employ that common language to take full advantage of the Internet.

Breaking all of society into smaller lumps with no common means of communication is disadvantageous to progress in science, technology and business. Think of how much poorer your Internet experience might be if you could only read Russian or Chinese. It would be a more skewed experience with a much more limited point of view. That’s already been proven to some extent by the Chinese censorship of the Internet. You simply can’t fully appreciate the Internet without English.

On the other hand, resorting to a common language is also possibly damaging to the cultural identity and sense of heritage for non-native English speakers. According to the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative, approximately 6,000 languages are spoken around the world. Of those, they say, only about 600 are “confidently expected to survive this century.”

That is a real tragedy, but the plain fact is that affluence is tied to common language. If it were not, this trend toward English as the default language for science and business would just not be happening.

So, what’s to be done about language, culture and progress? In an ideal world, we’d all learn to use one language for science, technology and business, and learn, respect and use others for cultural identity and a sense of community -- especially in our polyglot nation.

That requires some flexibility in how languages themselves are developed. We need to be more adaptable and sensitive to other cultures as we use language.

Some languages, however, seem institutionally disposed toward inflexibility. For example, L’Academie Francaise protects the French language, allowing only a few new words each year to enter the lexicon. A commission of the academy’s members (known somewhat supernaturally as “the immortals”) regularly publishes a dictionary of the French language, considered to be the “official” usage guide.

That’s different from the way in which the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, provides its updates. Slang, new interpretations of established words, and even new concepts seem to be embraced rather than limited.

In my opinion, an overly academic approach to language has stunted the growth and evolution of French as the lingua franca (irony) of business and science. Not that French is doing all that poorly -- it is an official language of many international organizations including the United Nations, the EU, and NATO. And in 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek proclaimed French to be one of the top three most useful languages for business, behind English and Chinese.

But it’s this rigid approach to monitoring the language that is keeping French in the third spot, despite France’s remarkable history of scientific advancement. To some extent, French speakers are taking note. The official L’Academie Francaise dictionary is increasingly disregarded by users, in favor of language that has naturally fallen into common usage.

That’s for the best. The more flexibility there is in allowing a language to change and evolve, the richer it becomes. The richer it becomes, the more accepted it is as a common means of communication. And the more common a means of communication it becomes, the more it contributes to a connected experience -- the real endgame in the new Interconnectedness of Things.

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine October 2014