THE BEST LANGUAGE SURPRISE

~ Posted by Georgia Grimond, April 12th 2012 

The fourth, and most hotly debated, of our Big Questions asked which is the best language to learn. The Economist’s Robert Lane Greene kicked it off, arguing that although English is the most useful language to know, there are many reasons to learn another. Your enjoyment of literature and food will be enhanced, your position in business strengthened, your career boosted. His pick was French. La Francophonie, the club of countries with a French-speaking heritage, has 56 members, making French a “truly global language”. And it’s easy to learn.

Four other Economist writers and Intelligent Life’s editor Tim de Lisle disagreed. Daniel Franklin chose Spanish, “the most used international language” after English, with 400m native speakers. Simon Long championed Chinese, “not to impress your future boss, but to understand what she is saying”. Josie Delap argued for the beauties and challenges of Arabic, while Helen Joyce felt that Brazilian Portuguese is “spoken by people worth talking to, in a place worth visiting”. Tim de Lisle went in to bat for Latin, which teaches grammar, syntax and rigour: “if you stick at it, you discover, after no more than eight or nine years, that it is a glorious language per se”.

The response to our online poll was unprecedented. At noon today when voting closed, more than 11,000 votes had been cast. The surprise leader, with 26% of the votes, was Esperanto – a language, said Usono, “in which people on all sides of the conversation meet as linguistic equals”. In second place was Brazilian Portuguese with 16%, then Spanish and French which were level-pegging with 14%, followed by Chinese (12%), Latin (5%), Gaelic (4%) and Arabic (2%). Other readers suggested languages from the fictional (Elvish) to Finnish.

The comments have been an amiable Babel. Helen Joyce’s piece about Brazilian Portuguese attracted more than 600 comments, some in support of her choice, others outraged that she had mentioned some Brazilians’ fondness for white lies. French proved controversial too. Matt_Saleh wondered why Lane Greene hadn’t mentioned Canada when so many Canadians speak French.

One commenter, My name is, argued for “inter-cultural” languages, those which “include native and proficient speakers with backgrounds in very diverse cultures”. The same aspiration drove the inventors of Esperanto in the late 19th century: they hoped it would transcend political, religious and national borders. Estimates of the number of people who speak it vary wildly, from 10,000 to 2m—but whatever the truth, a fair few of them have mobilised to vote. Esperanto’s supporters say it’s easy to learn and a gateway to other languages. For now, it’s something to shout about.

Our next poll—which is the best musical instrument?—starts tomorrow

Georgia Grimond is letters editor of Intelligent Life