One of the great advantages of studying English is that it does not just grant access to a wide array of different English-speaking cultures extending over five continents, but to a rich repository of non-native cultures as well.
A scholar of English literature does not only read Wilde, Walcott and Hemingway, but also Nabokov, Conrad, Ishiguro and Rushdie. Nowadays English is not only the universal second language, but also the second most spoken native tongue worldwide, the official language of 70 countries, which controls about 40% of the world’s total GNP1, and influences international media, cinema, music, science and computing. But how long will its supremacy last?
That English has become the de facto universal language is less tied to the language itself, and more to the former dominance of the industrially-preeminent British Empire, and the current influence of American political, economical, technological and cultural hegemony. By a lucky coincidence, it also happens to be “one of the simplest and easiest natural languages in the world”2, thus more easy to acquire by large foreign populations, and easier to adjust to diplomacy and business, science and culture, all at once.
Yet universal languages rise and fall. French was a lingua franca in the 18th century, the “unchallenged sine qua non of diplomatic patter”3. It had dislodged Latin, which had itself dethroned Greek; in the era of world mass communication, English has long since toppled French, but how long before it gets deposed in turn? If language is, above all, a powerful tool of subjugation, its importance necessarily fades whenever the power erecting it dwindles. If China is to be the new world empire, who is to say Chinese will not become the new universal language?
According to a study by The Washington Post4, native speakers’ charts clearly put Chinese and Hindi-Urdu-Bengali – all dialects included – massively ahead of English, with Arabic and Spanish closely on its tail. These languages also prevail from an economic-influential vantage point. If we are looking for the most geographically-disseminated languages, we should add French to the list, and we should not neglect Russian if it is culturally influential languages we seek.
Does that mean we will eventually find ourselves specialists of a fading language? Of course not: English will certainly remain a major global language for yet a very long time. It is highly unlikely, however, that it will remain as dominant worldwide as a second language in academia and culture. If one indicator arises from this study, it is that the future will not be made of one but of several linguae francae, and none more prominent than the digital signals of the Internet. English will continue to thrive as a cultural repository, but may no longer remain the vector of universal understanding. Learners – and more so scholars – might soon have to reevaluate the pertinence of settling for a single global language, for the days of unilingual imperialism may very well be numbered.
1 Torres, Carlos Carrion. « English as a Universal Language ». Omniglot. [http://www.omniglot.com/language/articles/engunilang.php]
3 Pulvers, Roger. “The days may be numbered for English as a universal second language”. The Japan Times: 03/03/2013.
4 Noack, Rick. « The Future of Language ». The Washington Post: 24/09/2015.