Even the experts who give all their time to words are unable to get a working knowledge of more than 20 or 30 of the 1,500 chief languages still in use; and those who have a knowledge of Chinese or Japanese in addition to one of the languages of India or Africa may be numbered on the fingers of the hand.
Today the great languages of Europe are important from an international point of view not only or chiefly as the mother tongues of this or that group, but because of their use in other parts of the earth. Spanish and Portuguese, for example, have a future in South America, though English is increasing as the second language of all South American countries. It has taken 500 years for English to become the second language of the East, in addition to its development in the United States, Canada, and Australasia; and of the 30 languages now at the head of the list, English has the first place among the eight which are used by more than 50,000,000 persons. It is the natural language, or the language of government or trade, of some 650 millions. The seven others are:1
Before the Great War, it was clear to most persons with a knowledge of history and an interest in international organization that one of the chief needs of Europe was fifty more dead languages. Every year the Earth is getting smaller, through the discoveries of Science; but there are still more than 1,500 languages in use in the different countries which the radio, the telephone, and advertisement in all its forms have suddenly put in touch with one another. In fact, the experience of the past ten years makes it possible to say with some hope of agreement, at any rate from men of science, that the chief need of our time is 1,480 more dead languages.
Even today, it is hard to get a working knowledge of more than three or four, so 20 would be quite enough (in schools) to keep teachers at work; and men of letters would be quite happy with almost 2,000 (in libraries).
In a year or two it may be possible for voices in China or Peru to come through quite clearly to any English working man with an apparatus about the size of a hat and at a lower price than the present small phonograph. Twenty or thirty years back it was possible to put together a language based on European roots in the belief that it might one day become international; but now that the East is fully awake, and in the very front of our political picture, such as idea is foolish.
English has been made part of the school system of countries with interests as widely different as Japan, the Argentine, and Estonia; it is the language of the taking pictures and of over 500 radio stations; and experts in all countries have for a long time been of the opinion that if only it was simpler it would quickly become international for trade and for all other purposes.
Basic English is this desired simpler form. The complete word-list goes on the back of one bit of business notepaper, and takes only 15 minutes on a small phonograph record. In theory, anyone with no knowledge of English might get it into this head in less than 24 hours; but it is wiser to take two hours a day for a month, giving one hour to the words and the other to word-order and to the 250 special uses ('idioms') which are needed to get the natural effect of everyday talk.
In science, this effect is equally possible, as may be seen from any of the Basic Science books. But it is less important, because in science the chief need is to get the sense clear without troubling about the details in which men of letters are interested; and this is what Basic is designed to do. With the addition of 50 special words for any branch of science, and 100 words for general science, the field knowledge may be completely covered for international purposes. At a higher level, different in every branch, international words are ready to hand; and Basic is the quickest way to getting to that level.
The value of making the discoveries of science international is not seriously questioned; but it might be 1,000 years before the necessary language was produced by the process of natural selection. A strong attack on the forces of reaction is the only hope; and with the right organization, on the lines of the international Bureau of Weights and Measures, the work might be complete while some of us are still living.
In this connection, it may be noted that those who have not given much thought to language are frequently in error as to the number used for the purposes of normal education. Even before they go to school, young learners are generally making use of between 2,000 and 3,000 separate word-forms, and there is an American list of the 20,000 most frequently needed by teachers. Most readers of these pages will have a working knowledge of 20-25,000 words ready for all purposes, and there are more than 7,000 so common that they might an day be seen in advertisements or headlines designed for the general public. So statements in the papers, saying that we may get on happily with 500, are passed on the chance ideas of some office boy. All this makes the value of a word-list limited to 850 units very clear.
For the expansion of Trade, for the organization of Peace, and for the development of Science, an international language is at least a important as the gold questions; and if it is true that men of science are in touch with less than 10% of their public, it is very much more important for the future.