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. Claude Hagège is a 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 around the world.
International Language Politics
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. Esperanto also has the advantage of being quite rationally constructed and easy to learn, apparently.
But Esperanto has not really challenged the position of English as a practical means of international communication. There are supposedly 2 million Esperanto speakers in the world, but I have only ever met these people at polyglot conferences. On the other hand, there are apparently 1.5 billion speakers of English, mostly non-native speakers. That is 20% of the world’s population. If you are traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language, and you want to communicate with someone, it is unlikely that you would try Esperanto. Your best bet would be English. I don’t see that changing.
All languages are equally valuable cultural creations. Not all are equally useful in today’s globalized world. Often, when I read or hear someone skillfully use French, Japanese, Ukrainian, Korean, Mandarin, Russian or any of the languages I have learned, I am in awe of the natural elegance and power of that language. Every language is a masterpiece of human creativity, able to express the same thoughts but in its own unique way. These languages have evolved and changed over thousands of years, the accumulation of the inventions and innovations of thousands or millions of users throughout time.
Are There Languages That Could Replace English?
In my view, the use of English is too well established. It is simply too convenient for a Japanese person and an Indian, or a Brazilian and a Russian, to use English to communicate. 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, in my view. It may 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 other languages, major regional languages, minor languages, threatened languages, artificial languages, all languages. It is hard to predict what role Chinese will have as an international language, especially in East Asia, as a result of China’s rise. Spanish is widely studied and easy to learn, with its consistent spelling. Could it assume more importance in Europe? Already Spanish and Portuguese speakers in Latin America can easily learn each others’ languages.
Will some standard form of Turkish become a lingua franca amongst the various countries of Central Asia? Will the role of Russian decline in the post-Soviet world as recently independent countries assert their cultural specificity? Or will Russian become more widely used as these countries feel more confident about their own identity and recognise the value of their common Russian language history? What about artificial languages like Interslavic for Slavic languages, or Interlingua for Romance languages? Will these have more success than Esperanto? We don’t know.
Language Learning in a Connected World
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. Not only can we learn languages faster, we can meet people with like interests more easily. There is a proliferation of people offering advice on language learning via YouTube and blogs, as I do for example. Language learning systems like LingQ, and the vast array of language resources on the web, make it easier than ever to learn languages.
It is not just potential regional languages of international communication that are in vogue these days. There is renewed interest in languages that used to be considered minor, or even threatened. The Internet is helping in the revival of these languages. Whenever I attend a polyglot conference I meet people who speak languages I have never heard of. And these are often languages with a lot of speakers, for example, Quechua, the ancient Inca language spoken in Peru and neighbouring countries.
The future of language learning is bright. I don’t see English pushing out other languages, However, from a practical perspective the role of English as the main international language is unlikely to change.