A hundred years ago, there were numerous number systems in use in the world.  But with a vast increase in trade, the twentieth century saw a comprehensive movement of various nations around the world to drop their indigenous numbering system in favor of a set of numbers that originated in the Indus Valley and later was adopted by Arabic traders.  From the Middle East this system spread to Europe during the Middle Ages, as people abandoned the cumbersome Roman Numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, etc.) that Europeans had previously used, in favor of the much more efficient set of number symbols 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.  What became known as Arabic Numerals, spread around the world.  Today, from China to Chile, and from Iceland to Indonesia, people use Arabic Numerals.

Because of the obvious economic advantages to adopting a standard numbering system, business throughout the whole world is now totally committed to using Arabic numerals.  Imagine the mass confusion that would result if every person doing international trade had to convert to unique symbols for every different language.  Today, in Southeast Asia, Thailand and Cambodia still have their own unique symbols for numbers, but no one in Thailand or Cambodia today—no matter how nationalistic—attempts to do business in those symbols.  Every Thai or Khmer person uses 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10… as their way of representing numbers.  Every Thai or Khmer person uses a 24-hour clock with seven days of the week and twelve months of the year.  It would be archaic and, at this point unthinkable, for each nation to try to have its own separate numbering system.  No one in their right mind would think of trying to conduct international business in any other system.  No matter what language someone speaks, they can look at the written Arabic numbers and know exactly what quantities are being represented.

This drastic change in the spread of an international symbol for numbers occurred quite rapidly, within only one century.  With mathematics leading the way, humanity is moving toward a more comprehensive means of communication.  Globalization has now proceeded to the point that similar ways of thinking need to be applied to language in the 21st century as happened with numbers in the 20th century.

However, the need to make a sensible international language has met much resistance.  The way that communication in written and spoken form is conducted in the world today presents many problems of communication.  Many nations, chief among them China and Japan, have writing systems based on characters of meaning rather than an alphabet.  Southeast Asian peoples like Cambodians, Lao, Thai, Burmese, and the Dai of Yunnan in southern China fiercely retain their ancient alphabets, even though none of those forms of writing are indigenous to Southeast Asia.  They were adaptations of writing systems adopted from India. South Asians have adopted the Roman alphabet for writings in English, but still retain indigenous writing systems in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and other native languages. Arabic speakers, Armenians, Central Asians, Koreans, Ethiopians, Hebrews and other peoples each continue to use their own unique writing systems.

In contrast, when Indonesia became independent in 1947, its leader Sukarno wisely gathered a group of linguists together to come up with a national language.  The linguists decided to abandon the dominant Javanese language (which had its own difficult South Asian alphabet) and to write the language they invented (Bahasa Indonesia, which is based on Malay) by using the Roman alphabet.  This was one of the most significant long term results of the Indonesian Revolution.  Generations of Indonesians since then have benefited from the wisdom of President Sukarno and the team of linguists.  Those who argue for the preservation of languages have a point, and the teaching of multiple languages should continue, but the world today desperately needs a global language.


About englisheasylearning

Walter L. Williams, Ph.D., has taught at UCLA and as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. He taught English Language in Thailand and also as Fulbright Professor at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. He has published eleven books, including JAVANESE LIVES: WOMEN AND MEN IN MODERN INDONESIAN SOCIETY (Rutgers University Press).
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