Day 10 of the 31-Day Blogging Challenge (#31dbc)
(This post originally appeared as a comment on Val Swisher’s blog, Content Rules, on Feb 11, 2012. The post was called. “Everyone Speaks English, Right?”)
One poster on Val’s blog commented that, if you want to truly connect with people, you have to meet them where they are, and do it in their language. I’m a firm believer that many (if not most) of the problems we have on this planet are a direct result of poor communication and lack of cultural understanding.
Language by the Numbers
To put some numbers around this, as of 2012, approximately 1.9 BILLION people spoke Chinese as their native language, compared to 406 Million who spoke Spanish natively or 335 Million who spoke English natively (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0775272.html). Millions more people speak English as a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th language, but at what level of fluency?
Speaking of fluency, here are some numbers that provide context:
- Basic Oral: 2,000 words; this is the level of a 1.5-2 yr old and, while you can get your needs met, it’s difficult to have a real conversation.
- Basic Written: 3,000 words. You can read street signs and maybe a simple children’s book. You can probably understand basic oral directions.
- Technical: 4-5,000 words. You can understand technical terms in your specialty, most safety and warning information, and simple instructions. You would struggle to understand most user’s documentation. You can have simple conversations
- University texts: 10,000 words. You could follow most discussions and understand the textbooks (with lots of help from a dictionary).
- Fluent: 20,000 words. You can have conversations on a variety of topics, read literature and articles in the language and communicate effectively with native speakers. You probably still struggle with idioms and some cultural nuances, however.
- Native Speaker(adult): 30-40,000 words. This is an average. Translators, people in Tech Com and others who work with words regularly often have a higher vocabulary. (http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd518.pdf)
BTW, Google estimates that there are over 1 million words in English as of 2011. (http://www.languagemonitor.com/no-of-words)
There are also different kinds of fluency: comprehension (listening), speaking, reading, writing. People tend to progress in one area faster than others, depending on their learning style and on what they are exposed to most…
The Bilingual Brain
Then, there are the studies that have come out recently that indicate that learning multiple languages helps your brain be more flexible and has a protective component against dementia (see Science News, search “bilingual” or “language acquisition” http://www.sciencenews.org)
Even if you aren’t fluent, it’s just more polite to at least attempt to interact in the local language. You will get better service, maybe make a new friend, and have a lot of fun (especially if you can laugh at yourself). In addition, knowing even the basics of another language and culture can help you create better content.