What Makes a Language?


Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated – okay, let’s not get our wires crossed here. This is not a pining revisit to Valentine’s Day and about falling in love. What we are talking about is communication and the fact that we all do it, we all use language to communicate - even animals. But before we get ahead of ourselves and start pondering the complexities of how the rest of the animal kingdom stays in contact, let’s define what we mean by ‘language’.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, language is “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.”

The Ethnologue lists 7,102 known living languages and these range from the well known English, Spanish and Chinese to the obscurities such as Rotokas, Khoisan and Taa. Surprisingly, English doesn’t even top the latest list of most commonly spoken languages in the world, despite the fact that so much of our literature and our internet resources are written in it.

So what actually constitutes a language?

Scholars may debate the actual criteria but the most defining factor must be that a language is the most typical method of communication. Whether this communication is within the confines of an officially recognised language or not, the important thing is that one person can ‘speak’ to another and be understood. Does it have to be something traditional like English or Latin? The quick answer is no. There is a whole other world of unusual languages out there.

Language learners unite!

What if we told you that there were a language you could probably learn in the next ten minutes that only has one simple rule, where letters are pronounced how everyday English is pronounced, and that there is no grammar to fall to pieces over?

Too good to be true?

Have a look at 'pig latin' – straightforward, easy to get to grips with, and there are even translation services available online, as well as trusty YouTube videos.

If we are looking at atypical languages, what about Esperanto? Devised in 1887, Esperanto has between 100,000 and 2,000,000 users, a vast online presence, and many pieces of published literature. There are multiple associations all over the world and the language is fiercely defended by some as the ‘future foreign language to learn’.

Continuing our look at unconventional languages we cannot ignore the joy that is slang. Slang comes in so many shapes and forms, different between even neighbouring towns. Slang evolves and adapts to our lives, becoming the norm for social media, amusingly defined in the Urban Dictionary and if used consistently enough, gaining entry into the Oxford English Dictionary. Slang may arguably be the most relevant and modern language available to us simply because it is constantly changing and plays nicely with our normal mother tongue.

The Unspoken

If communication is key to a language, then the scope is wide open for a wealth of languages that are unspoken. Morse code and flag semaphore telegraphy are good examples of this, as they have both been important methods of communication throughout our history. However, whilst both are useful, neither are taught in schools as foreign languages.

What then can be said about computer languages? Admittedly, although it depends on who you speak to, these languages are not quite as lyrical as, for example, Italian, or complex as Mandarin. However, professing to be able to code in JavaScript, Python or C++ is equally asset-like when preparing your CV.

Does this mean we can consider computer science a language?


Considering how reliant our world is on computers, and everything related to computing, perhaps it is past time that we started treating learning these coding languages as just as important a foreign language as the ones we already know.

In the United States it is estimated that employment in the sector of computer and information science is to grow by 15% by 2022 (Ars Technica). And perhaps with this in mind, a bill is being introduced that would allow students to take computer science as a foreign language.

Typical ways to learn any foreign languages include self-study, enrolling on a course, and the internet with resources such as Coursera. This is also true of learning a programming language, making a good case for teaching computer science as a foreign language… but what will it take to get it listed as a living language in the Ethnologue?

In fact, the Ethnologue might itself be key in answering the question about what constitutes a language, but there doesn’t seem to be a consistent response at all. The argument over what constitutes a language seems to continue to be up for debate because of the changing nature of language, spoken or otherwise.


While the world has not come to terms with computer science as a foreign language just yet, and what constitutes a language is still up for debate, we do have a lot of them on offer. Why not take a look at our current courses, and contact us to see whether there’s a new language waiting for you?