If you were an alien and could only learn one language before your visit to Earth, which language would you choose?

why english is the universal language

English is the most pervasive language on the planet and the most universal language on Earth. When I asked is English the universal language, most of you polled agreed it is and in the comments you all made your cases well and brought up some insightful points but couldn’t sway me.

I’m not saying that English is the only language worth knowing or useful in every situation, but it doesn’t have to be.

English Answers The Question Above

My question above demonstrates the point I was getting at with my original question. English is the most universal language that will put you in contact with the widest range of people during your travels. Our alien friend would want to pick up the language with the most influence to get around the world and so would most travelers.

English Is More Than A Language

relatives of englishEnglish is a culture and languages do not stand apart from their speakers. It’s why we have variations and dialects of the same language and across populations that gradually diverge over time. A visiting alien could learn a great deal about the Western culture that is exported widely around the world through movies, books, and music.

  • Iconic – This exportation of English doesn’t just help the speaker, it helps the other non-English speakers around the world understand you too. Try using the icons “Elvis” to someone who doesn’t know the word “music” or “Hasselhoff” in Germany. It’s not just American culture, think Shakespeare.
  • It Has Relatives – English is a West Germanic language related to (obviously German), Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, and the Scandinavian languages.
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Accepted In More Places

anglospeakNot language with the most speakers around the world (that’s Chinese) but English has the widest geographic reach. You might find it difficult time finding English the further away you go from a big city, but most travelers don’t.

  • It Hits The Big Spots – Most travelers stick to major cities, touristic sights, and don’t venture too far or long from the beaten path. English translations are available at almost every major tourist location and city around the world.
  • Greets You At The Door – Almost all airplanes, airports, and GPS units have English translations. Airplanes, GPS, and other electronics and transportation vehicles are primarily made by US or European companies. English is the language of business and its in their best interest to manufacture products that speak the language. Again, flying isn’t the only way people travel but a very common one where English is useful.
  • The Sheer Numbers – English has 350 million native speakers and around a billion total worldwide.

So The Locals Don’t Speak English

Whether you speak English or not, if you don’t know the local language you’ll be stuck using hand signals and gestures. Humans are visual creatures which is why you can still bargain if you don’t know the local language. You should always check your international faux pas before venturing to a new locale, but know that through evolution, some facial expressions and body language are common to our species. A smile may vary from one culture to the next, but the message is generally understood.

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Knowing English is a very useful asset for travelers and it’s the Swiss army knife of languages. It may do you no good in northern China but you’ve got a better chance that just knowing French or Greek.

Even With English Our Alien Is Missing A Lot

Our intergalactic friend would be missing much of what Earth has to offer by only knowing just one of our languages. The same is true for the millions of people who don’t know anything other than their mother tongue. Traveling, and actively traveling forces us to strip down to the essential tools, gear, and technology we need to get around and English is the best lingual tool for the job.

[photos by: bbaltimore, Claudio Matsuoka]