‘Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages’ by Gaston Dorren takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the most popular languages spoken across the world today. Out of approximately 6,000 different languages currently in use, over half of the world’s population speak at least one of the top 20 as a mother tongue, from Vietnamese (85 million speakers) to English (over 1.5 billion speakers), spanning all corners of the globe.
Each chapter focuses on a different language and I liked that Dorren uses different formats and topical slants to discuss them, from the challenges of learning a foreign language, to the cultural and historical background and influences, to the complex grammatical and tonal features. The discussions surrounding the latter are a bit less engaging unless you truly are a linguistics geek, but for those who persevere with these parts, Dorren explains tricky concepts in an accessible way and the chapters are not too long.
The opening chapter detailing Dorren’s attempts to learn Vietnamese made my head spin. He speaks five languages (Dutch, Limburgish, English, German and Spanish) and reads several others but even a polyglot as accomplished as Dorren was defeated in the end by the complexities of the Vietnamese tonal system. Unperturbed by this experience, he is an enthusiastic guide, avoids making technical aspects too dry and is pleasingly unpretentious about the evolution of language, as evidenced in the chapter outlining the background of the Académie française in France.
‘Babel’ is stuffed with countless facts, interesting information and food for thought about the future of certain languages. Despite currently being spoken by approximately 100 million people, Javanese could become endangered in a few decades as the majority of young people in Indonesia are learning less formal and hierarchical languages. The chapter on Swahili takes a broader look at multilingualism in sub-Saharan Africa. While the current global dominance of English is unquestionable, Dorren predicts that it will become increasingly fragmented into different regional varieties and artificial intelligence may even take over in the long-term.
‘Babel’ is highly accessible and completely fascinating. It will naturally appeal the most to those who already speak more than one language but I would recommend it to anyone with a general interest in the subject too.