The Future of English

Various English and other dictionaries

courtesy Mary R Vogt / morguefile

The English language has achieved something unique in human history: it has become a truly global language.  It’s spoken by nearly a billion people spread across six continents, and is as close to a worldwide lingua franca as there has ever been.

The interesting part about those 1 billion English speakers?  Only a third of them are native users of the language.  For the rest, English is a second language, learned because it’s so convenient.  (Language popularity works on a positive feedback loop: the more speakers English has, the more useful it is.  The more useful it is, the more people acquire it.)

What does this portend for the future of English?  Will it fragment into local versions as Chinese is doing now, or continue expanding until it’s the only useful language on earth?  The situation’s unique, so we can’t be sure.  But there are a couple of theories that sound good to me.

Fragment & Fuse

Renowned linguist David Crystal is a scholar of the Future of English.  In this article (PDF), he suggests that the two main factors at play are

1) English is convenient

2) National identity is important

(and there’s also an anecdote about drunken linguists, if you’re into that sort of thing).

His example is Nigeria.  With over 400 different primary languages, the common secondary language of English is often the only way to communicate.  But English is also the language of the colonial oppressor.  What to do?

The Nigerians solved this by creating a creole, or hybrid.  Localized vocabulary, grammar, and even sentence structures found their way into the local version of English. It’s still standardized, but to a local standard.  Nigerian English is in the process of splitting from the mother tongue.

For another example, look to China.  This Wired article explains at length how a local “Chinglish” creole is coming into existence as English gets adapted to the rhythms and tones of native Chinese speakers.

Crystal predicts the end result of all this, which is that English will be nearly everywhere, but it will evolve into dialects, and speakers may not be mutually intelligible.  This would be analogous to the birth of Italian, French and Spanish from the original Latin.  But on a much larger scale.

Class learning English

courtesy flickr/rexpe

Into Irrelevance

Language historian Nicolas Ostler agrees that the spread of English will have to contend with nationalistic pride.  Unlike Crystal, however, he predicts that English will lose the struggle, and local languages will push it out.  It wouldn’t be stamped out entirely, but it might be reduced to native speakers only, putting it roughly on par with other major languages.

The most intriguing part of his theory is that advances in translation software will make secondary languages obsolete entirely.  If you can speak your native tongue yet be understood by anyone in the world, why learn anything else?  (I’ve previously argued that Watson The Computer would be an excellent candidate for providing this service).  In such a world, the difference between English and other languages would simply cease to have any practical meaning.

courtesy flickr/dickuhne

The Internet and the Rise of L33tspeak

There is one thing, however, that neither scholar focuses on much, and I think it’s a total game-changer.  I’m talking, of course, about the internet.  Because it allows conversations among anyone, anywhere in the world, a common language has suddenly become much more useful.  So useful, in fact, that I think English is practically guaranteed to keep its status as a worldwide tongue, inasmuch as we’re communicating online.

Finally, there are those who fret that the internet, and culture generally, are ruining the English language forever (like this gentleman).  If you’re someone who hates LOLs and “C U l8r”s, I can only point out that all languages are continuously evolving, and Geoffrey Chaucer would have been as appalled at today’s “proper” English as you are at tomorrow’s.

Hard to Say

Eventually, I’m pretty certain that language difference will become technologically irrelevant as Ostler suggests.  But until then?  Without historical precedent, we’ll just have to wait and see.  Where do you think English is headed?

Learn more about English vs. the internet here, or a world without language barriers here.  And if you like this post, tell your friends using the buttons below!

13 thoughts on “The Future of English

  1. I’m not one to make a guess one way or the other. But I *do* think that if translation software eventually discourages peopel from learning another language then we’re missing something. Just because a computer can tell you the “meaning” of what someone else is saying, I don’t think that makes language irrelevant.

    No matter how sophisticated the computer, any form of translation loses all the nuances. What about puns? What about poetry? I want Nicolas Ostler to tell me that the language a poem is written in is irrelevant…no way.

    • You make a good point, actually. Language does has value above and beyond pure communication. In literature and poetry, the composer’s language provides a particular texture, rhythm and meaning, independent of the meaning of the actual words. Missing out on that would be a great loss.

      It also occurs to me that languages tend to reflect the social norms, thought patterns and cultural priorities of the people who speak them. I’d hate to lose out on that diversity.

    • I’ve been reading a lot of machine translated documents. They’re actually quite expensive to obtain, frequently don’t make any sense, and when they do they seem to be missing the nuances as you say.

      And I agree, that the diversity is inherently appealing. Poets are proof that we want change and novelty in our language(s). 🙂

  2. I think we’re either all going to speak english, or we’re all going to speak Chinese. Given that Americans are entirely too lazy to learn Chinese, and the Chinese are hungry enough to learn English, the winner is likely to be English. Which is good for me, I’m rubbish trying to learn other languages 🙂

    • It does work out very conveniently for us native speakers! I enjoy learning other languages anyway, but I could certainly get by for my whole life without any.

  3. Like the people themselves, languages will soon morph into a mishmash of dialects that everyone can understand. We will become a true melting pot, as interracial modification grows, so shall their dialects.

    • A melting pot of languages… interesting concept. I wonder how that would play out in practical terms – I imagine we would communicate a bit less effectively, but with vastly more people. It’s hard to say. Thanks for the thought, and for reading!

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  5. even though i am not a native English speaker!! but i love it sooooooo much,, and i believe that english language will be spread all over the world and it will be spoken everywhere

  6. My daughter lived and worked in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for most of the last 2 years–her primary income was teaching English. There are dozens upon dozens of language schools in that city of nearly more than 7 million people. The Vietnamese are highly motivated to learn either English or Mandarin Chinese–because that knowledge opens so many doors.

    • That sounds like a great way to spend a couple of years! I know people who have done something similar in Germany, France and China. It’s amazing that English is so popular that it can fund our long-term world travel!

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