It seems to me that nations are currently opting for the hegemony of the English language in intercultural communication. And though single language civilization model undoubtedly has many perks, I wonder whether the Star Wars model would be a better option. In the Star Wars universe every race speaks its own language but learns to understand oral and written speech of other races. So in school you would not be taught to produce foreign speech but merely to understand it.

Has anything like this been ever attempted? How successful it was? How successful it can be?

  • 4
    Any liturgical language would be an example of a language understood but not necessarily spoken creatively, from Assyrians' use of Sumerian (according to Thorkild Jakobson) to Vedic Sanskrit to Classical Latin.
    – Greg Lee
    Jul 30, 2015 at 17:21
  • Excellent point! Thank you, I have never thought about it this way! Jul 30, 2015 at 17:36

3 Answers 3


The rationale for the Star Wars model was that different species had different vocal apparatus, so, for instance Chewbacca and Han Solo literally could not speak each other's language however well they understood.

Nonetheless a situation in which most people can passively understand a foreign language fairly well while speaking it badly is feasible here on Earth. As Greg Lee's comment said, that's what actually happens with liturgical language. It is also commonplace between grandparents and grandchildren in communities descended from immigrants. The grandparent speaks the language of the Old Country to the grandchildren while the grandchildren reply in the language of their new home.

On the other hand, in situations where mistakes could be very costly, a rule is often followed wherein each person must speak the other person's language. By forcing people to talk in the language they know least well, this rule brings potential misunderstandings into the open and avoids people thinking they have understood when they haven't. There is a brief reference to this being the rule in the test Apollo-Soyuz docking here, although the same link says that daily conversation in the less stressful situation of daily life in mixed Russian-American space missions is carried out in a mixture of Russian, English and "Runglish".

Pairs of languages are not always symmetrical with respect to ease of speaking versus ease of understanding. Personally I can understand and speak Italian equally badly but speak French much better than I understand it, quite a common situation for English speakers. Pairs of languages are also not necessarily symmetrical with respect to passive understanding. See this link about the lopsided mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese.


I'll answer only from my personal experience: As a Brazilian, and so a Portuguese speaker, I know it's very common when tourists from Argentina and Uruguay come here, or when we go to these and other neighboring countries, that we both speak our own languages and, although we don't always know how to speak the interlocutor's language, we pretty much understand them and they pretty much understand us.

Well, today I speak a considerable amount of Spanish, picked up in the time since my first contact with them when I was 10 years old and we moved to the state where I live and I met a lot of Argentinians on the beach. It's pretty natural.

Sometimes things don't work perfectly, and there are some words we must be careful with (e.g. innocent Portuguese words that are similar to dirty Spanish ones), sometimes one person must repeat what was said or say it again in another way, explain, etc. But it's usually possible to communicate without having to learn the other's language. Sometimes I understand a Spanish speaker better than I understand Portuguese speakers from other regions of Brazil, actually.

So, coming back to your question's focus, I know I used as an example two closely related Romance languages, that are easily understandable to each other, and I also know that it wouldn't work, for instance, between English and Portuguese, German and Spanish, or Chinese and French. But maybe, if we all could learn one "sample language" from each family, plus develop some non-verbal abilities (as communication isn't just verbal), it looks like something reasonably possible.


Multilingualism is extremely common in many regions - people speak several languages in addition to a possible lingua franca or several Lingua Francas - which is not always English or even not mostly English. For example, in many areas of the Amazon, people will speak Portuguese as the main Lingua Franca for communication with officials, an indigenous Lingua Franca for trade and other interactions and one or two other local languages (often as a result of intermariage). This all happens without any major investments in the educational system. However, remember that this multilingualism does not mean that these people have native-like command of all of these languages. Further, in amongst these multilingual people it is not uncommon to find many monolinguals who are very insulated from others.

However, the modern nation-state-induced monolingualism is not only way language skills are configured nor is it the norm.

PS: I don't think the linguistic aspects of the Star Wars universe are sufficiently well elaborated to build a model on them. There are more linguistically realistic universes out there (Tolkien being the high mark in this respect).

  • Tolkien? His is just a mechanical transposition of Earth's past. E. E. "Doc" Smith designed something new -- the Arisian lens, worn as a bracelet, which translated instantly among all sentient beings. For words in L1 with novel conceptual content, it would coin new words in L2 which would henceforth be standardized in L2. (E.g., English "dexitroboper".)
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 29, 2016 at 3:30

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