20 June 2013

English will remain the international language

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The dominant position of English as an international language seems to create controversy in certain circles. Some French people for example, resent the increasing importance of English in the European community, and Claude Hagège is but one spokesman for this point of view. French used to be the language of diplomacy and the preferred language of international exchange. Educated people in Europe, as well as the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East were proud to speak French. This is much less so the case today.

The Chinese government is promoting the teaching of Mandarin around the world, through its Confucius Institute network, in order to establish Chinese as the new international language. Yet the difficulty of writing Chinese characters, and the tonal nature of the language, make it unlikely the Chinese will become a preferred language of exchange for people who are not native speakers of Chinese.

To some, the widespread use of English is seen as advancing the political agenda of the English-speaking world. Esperanto, is offered up as an alternative, as a politically neutral international language. It also has the advantage of being quite rationally constructed and easy to learn, apparently.

Often, when I read or hear French or Mandarin or Russian or some other language I have learned, I reflect on the natural elegance and power of that language. Each language is a master-piece of human creativity, having evolved naturally during the course of centuries. In that sense, all are equally valuable and sophisticated in my view. Some are less useful than others, however.

The use of English as a highly convenient means of international communication is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. The relative power and influence of the United States and Britain will continue to decline. This will not, however, make English less useful. It will just make the political argument against English less relevant.

At the same time, in a shrinking world, I expect to see an increasing interest in learning languages, major regional languages, minor languages, threatened languages, artificial languages, all languages. The recent Polyglot Conference in Budapest is but one example of this.

The Internet makes it easier to learn languages, in ways that were not possible before. It makes it easier to connect with people who speak different languages. The future of language learning is bright, but the role of English as the main international language is unlikely to change.

12 Comments

  1. David
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    What do you think about Spanish? You didn´t mention it.
    The learners of this language are increasing day by day.

  2. Posted June 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    David, I referred to regional languages. Spanish is one, but so are Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Swahili and others that I am not aware of. I think their importance will grow.

  3. Asdrúbal Suárez
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    As a Spanish native speaker (Trying to mastering his English, after that I will try other languages too) I must say English will remain not only as a “Lingua Franca” but maybe as a unique language too (Obviously in a far future). Check this question in Quora and, if you want, give me your opinion https://www.quora.com/Language/Will-the-world-converge-to-use-a-single-human-spoken-and-written-language

    Greets from Venezuela

  4. Posted June 26, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    We need to resist the prolifiration of English, if we want to avoid living in a uniformed, standartised world.

  5. Posted June 26, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Yuri, you can learn other languages, and use other languages as much as possible. I do. However, you can’t resist or change the power of the utility of English for most people, as an international language of communication, in my view.

  6. Posted June 26, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Asdrubal,

    I answered at Quora, or at least I think I did.

  7. James Chalmers
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    What about the fact that English as a lingua franca is quite different to the English as used by native speakers? There are now more people who speak English as a second language than as a first. So the need for a more flexible language is necessary. People naturally change language to suit their needs and most people who speak English as a second language do not need to speak like a native speaker. On the other hand, with the rise of technology and its power to translate, is it not possible learning other languages may become unnecessary?

    • Posted July 6, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      James, I think you are right about technology. Within a 20-50 years the quality of machine translation will probably have reached such a level that there will no longer be a need for an international language. Actually I think this could have some positive effects: apart from improving international communication, it will put speakers of “major” and “minor” languages on a more even footing and help to preserve linguistic diversity.

      • Tony
        Posted April 7, 2014 at 1:52 am | Permalink

        Tim I agree also. I think in 40 years it’s very reasonable to believe instant language translation that works seamlessly will be in existence. I have learned that those who support Esperanto and want to see it encircle the globe tend to disagree with this and say machine translation is impossible and will never happen. I was shocked at first thinking how can you be so near sighted about this. Sure now it seems that way, but 40 years is a long way off. I guess this doesn’t sit well with certain “linguistic” types who push for an Esperanto takeover, because 40 years could be just the time they see this transformation taking place, and the don’t want to see this pesky machine translation derailing their efforts to spread Esperanto. But I have to say, sorry, but trying to get one language to takeover is probably futile at this point. However, also exciting is if you have a desire to learn a new language, and the fact that practicing it is the only good option, you will also be able to talk to your computer in a language that is impossible to practice in your area because it’s just not simply spoken there. Heck you will be able to converse easily with live people on the other side of the world in that new language. Seeing them sitting right next to you in the same room. It’s going to be mind blowing what you can do.

  8. Posted June 29, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I think the native speaker remains the model in second language acquisition,whether for English or for other languages.

    I think that more people will learn languages now and in the future, than before. It is possible to use modern technology, podcasts, the Internet, MP3 players, iPads, and yes even LingQ, to do so much more cheaply more effectively than in the traditional classroom.

  9. Hamilcar
    Posted June 30, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    虽然我学习中文我真的喜欢英文。英文真的是很漂亮的语,也喜欢很多人学习英文, 如果英文不是国际的语就我不会跟国际的人谈谈,不每个人会学习每个语所以我们应该有一个国际的语。但是, 我觉得英文说的人应该学习学习第二语言, 英文的国家都是岛, 所以他们都只知道英文, 但我们在很小的世界英文人应该学习两个语, if only to be fair.

  10. lohith
    Posted August 26, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    this is good one but if u had more it would be good

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