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Health and Sanity

Melissa Hutsell
Freelance Writer and Editor
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piqer: Melissa Hutsell
Monday, 26 November 2018

Is There One Language That's More Efficient Than Others?

Approximately 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world today. Crowd Science explores which is most efficient.

The topic was suggested by a listener, Major Sirgen. To answer, host Marine Chesterton begins with army radio English, a reduced form of English used for speed, clarity, safety, and to stay in touch up to 20 miles apart, Chesterton explains. But is it the most efficient?

She moves on to another place where clear communication is a matter of life or death: airplanes. She speaks with linguistic anthropologist Dr. Barbara Clark about the pilot lingo, language requirements, and the importance of effective communication in the air. Chesterton found the system isn’t fool proof. So, she visits the BBC’s World Service Language Hub for more answers.

Here she defines “efficient” language as a way of getting something across accurately, and quickly. Turns out, speed of language is well researched. The fastest spoken at the hub is Indonesian. Chesterton asks Indonesian speakers what they want for dinner, and answers took longer to explain in Indonesian than in English. She switches to a “slower” language – Vietnamese. Seems efficient, Chesterton responds. But, she concludes, “there’s more to communicating than that,” Chesterton said.

Enter Adejuwon Soyinka, editor of BBC’s Pidgin services, who said Pidgin is most efficient because it’s one language that connects everybody. Soyinka added, “We have over 200 ethnic languages in Nigeria – Pidgin connects all of them.”

Effective communication has many factors: context, speed, difficulty. Can language effectiveness be calculated? Chesterton consults Ted Gibson of MIT who approaches language as an engineering puzzle. They discuss information theory, and whether it’s even possible to answer which language is most efficient. Turns out, there's more than one.

But, if it doesn’t exist, could it be created? Chesterton further explores artificial machine learning lingo, coding and the future of language. 

Is There One Language That's More Efficient Than Others?
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