How Many Languages Should We Speak?

Apr 23, 2021

The importance of language to humankind is beyond debate – it is fundamental to our survival. Unless highly unusual circumstances dictate otherwise, we all speak or have access to at least one language to communicate with others who share an understanding of the same language. What about multilinguals? How many people in the world speak more than one language? It is an intriguing question, particularly for the ISF community, given our commitment to bilingual education. It is a question, however, that is much more complex than it appears at first glance.

First of all, how do we define a ‘language’? We often think of a language as a human artefact with a unique set or system of sounds that enables communication of semiotic content between people who can encode and decode the system. In a stable language, a reproducible sound becomes associated with an object, action, or idea for a group of people.

Because language facilitates communication between individuals, the geographical spread of a language in historical times was limited by the ability of speakers of a language to travel. Over distance, local or regional influences shape language, creating different names for commonplace objects found in one place, but not another. Human experience unique to a location also serves to shape local ways of expression. Phenomena found in one place, but not in another, will generate words unique to that location. The pronunciation of common words may differ, thus creating an ‘accent’. Where there is sufficient common ground for mutual intelligibility, the two different codes or systems of communication might be called ‘dialects’.

Over time, as the technology of transportation became more sophisticated, so too did the geographical spread of languages beyond their birthplace. The international spread of Latin in the time of the Roman Empire is one example; modern ‘international’ English is another.

There is also the notion that languages have many purposes: the maintenance of familial or social order and the formation of identity in the home or at school; social governance, along with cultural norms and practices, rules, laws and the expectation of compliance; language facilitates allegiance to a leader, religious faith, or system of values; defence against others when threatened; and ultimately, language creates a sense of ‘belonging’. Making this point in a humorous way, a definition that I encountered some years ago, translated from Yiddish and associated with the sociolinguist Max Weinreich, suggests that:

A language is a dialect with an army and navy…(אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט; a shprach eez a deealekt mit an armee un flot) (Friedman 2003, Boyle 2014).

Using an architectural metaphor, languages are like shared spaces – ‘rooms’ if you will. Our first language is created in the linguistic ‘room’ or space into which we are born; it is largely created by our parents, particularly our mothers (hence the term ‘mother tongue’), but as children, we also have our part in shaping the language we use each day. It is our desperate desire to survive as infants that drives us to find some way, any way, to communicate our needs with our birth parents or carers. If we cannot achieve this, we know instinctively that we will die. Parents are also driven biologically to care for new-born infants. Through this highly interactive, iterative, halting, individualized process, the parent and child work out a way of communicating that sustains life. This ‘room’ gradually expands to embrace others – siblings, relatives, neighbours, classmates, friends, etc. Education helps us formalize rules and practices that are already instinctively embedded in our first language through interacting with family and friends. It also extends our linguistic reach beyond the experience and expertise of our parents, to embrace a much bigger, wider world.

Some of the things we encounter in this exploration of the world make no sense to us. They are foreign words, ideas, concepts, values, and world views. We may struggle to express that for which we have no words. As Wittgenstein famously stated, “The limits of our language are the limits of our world”. An important function of language, therefore, is to extend the boundaries of our experiential universe, to enter new territory and make it more familiar, more accessible. The philosopher Hannah Arendt described this process beautifully:

The sheer naming of things, the creation of words, is the human way of appropriating and as it were, disalienating the world into which, after all, each of us is born as a newcomer and a stranger. (Arendt 1977)

By naming something, we make it familiar, eliminating its amorphousness, reducing its distance to us.

One of the most effective ways of embracing the unfamiliar, illuminating the unknown, is through the study of languages that are not the same as our mother tongue. Through other languages, we can choose to leave the comfortable, familiar ‘room’ of our birth language and unlock the door to enter new experiential spaces to explore the ideas, history, and collected wisdom of others. Without their language, we remain outside the door, unable to enter, unable to connect directly, reduced to passing notes through the awkward, indirect ‘letterbox’ of translation, a process which often bleaches away context, connection, and culture. For example, how often do we find that humour utterly fails in translation?

This idea of an enlarged life through the mastery of more than one language is not new. A saying attributed to Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans (748-814 AD) claims, “Avoir une autre langue, c’est posséder une deuxième âme (to have another language is to possess a second soul). There is a German proverb that says, “Je mehr Sprachen du sprichst, desto mehr bist du Mensch (the more languages you know, the more human you are)”. Linguistic richness and our humanity appear to be inextricably linked for some.

Each language carries a unique record of the accumulated wisdom, experience, and learning of its community of speakers. It offers a window into the shared histories and collected experiences of peoples in different parts of the world. At this point in human history, there are more than 7,000 languages still in use in the world. Each with its unique system of exploring and explaining the world. An unknowable number of languages are already extinct – a tragic loss to the ethnosphere of planet Earth. Nearly three quarters of these 7,000 languages still in use are in danger of extinction. Many languages spoken in remote locations are used by just a handful of people. When a language becomes extinct, the collective insight gathered in that language is lost; the door to that room is slammed shut and locked forever.

Back to the questions posed at the start of this reflection, estimates vary, but approximately 40% of the world’s population speak one language, around 43% speak two, with the remaining 17% made up of polyglots.

At ISF, we value linguistic diversity as an essential part of our mission and core values. We currently teach four languages: two modern (Chinese and English) and two ancient (Latin and Ancient Greek).

However, I would invoke the spirit of Wittgenstein in encouraging each of us to extend the limits of our world through linguistic exploration: open the door to a new linguistic world and make it as familiar as your own room!


Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School


Arendt, H. (1977). The Life of the Mind. New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Boyle, J. (2014). “What is the difference between a dialect and a language?” The Quora Blog 2015.
Friedman, V. A. (2003). Language in Macedonia as an Identity Construction Site. When Languages Collide: Perspectives on Language Conflict, Language Competition, and Language Coexistence. B. D. Joseph, J. DeStefano, N. G. Jacobs and I. Lehiste. Columbus, OH, The Ohio State University Press: 257-295.