The article is about the English language in the 21st century: about who will speak it and for what purposes. As people whose professional duty is to teach English as a foreign language we are strongly interested in the question of its future.
English is part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It is spoken as a native language by around 377 million and as a second language by around 375 million speakers in the world. Speakers of English as a second language will soon outnumber those who speak it as a first language. Around 750 million people are believed to speak English as a foreign language. English has an official or a special status in 75 countries with a total population of over 2 billion.
The domination of the English language globally is undeniable. English is the language of diplomacy and international communications, business, tourism, education, science, computer technology, media and Internet. Because English was used to develop communication, technology, programming, software, etc, it dominates the web. 70% of all information stored electronically is in English. British colonialism in the 19th century and American capitalism and technological progress in the 20th century were undoubtedly the main causes for the spread of English throughout the world.
The English language came to British Isles from northern Europe in the fifth century. From the fifteenth century, the British began to sail all over the world and became explorers, colonists and imperialists. They took the English language to North America, Canada and the Caribbean, to South Africa, to Australia and New Zealand, to South Asia (especially India), to the British colonies in Africa, to South East Asia and the South Pacific.
The USA has played a leading role in most parts of the world for the last hundred years. At the end of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th, it welcomed millions of European immigrants who had fled their countries ravaged by war, poverty or famine. This labour force strengthened American economy. The Hollywood film industry also attracted many foreign artists in quest of fame and fortune and the number of American films produced every year soon flooded the market. Before the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which ended the First World War between Germany and the Allies, diplomacy was conducted in French. However, President Woodrow Wilson succeeded in having the treaty in English as well. Since then, English started being used in diplomacy and gradually in economic relations and the media.
“English is widely regarded as having become the global language – but will it retain its pre-eminence in the 21st century? The world in which it is used is in early stages of major social, economic and demographic transition. Although English is unlikely to be displaced as the world’s most important language, the future is more complex and less certain than some assume.” [1, p.2]
The question is whether we can expect the status of English to remain unchanged during the coming decades “of unprecedented social and economic global change”. [1, p.1]
Why worry now?
Is it not the main language of international commerce and trade in a world where these sectors seem increasingly to drive the cultural and political? Has it not more cultural resources, in the sense of works of literature, films and television programmes, than any other language? Isn’t it obvious that the English language will continue to grow in popularity and influence, without the need for special study or strategic management?
David Graddol believes that the simple answer to all these questions is probably “yes”. There is no imminent danger to the English language, nor to its global popularity – a fact which is recognized by the majority of people who are professionally concerned with the English language worldwide.
Why then has this question arisen?
The mood of self-reflection at the end of a millennium is great enough when the communications revolution and economic globalization seem to be destroying the reassuring geographical and linguistic basis of sovereignty and national identity. Most titles of social and economic books include the word “end” or the prefix “post”: “The end of history”, “the post-industrial societies”, “post-modernism”, “post-capitalism”, “post-feminism”. There is just a general awareness of change, but no clear vision of where it may all be leading.
We may surely say that the world is in a state of transition. And there are reasons why we ought to take stock and reassess the place of English in the world. At the same time the future of the English language may not be straightforward: celebratory statistics should be treated with caution.
For example, the economic dominance of OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries – which has helped circulate English in the new market economies of the world – is being eroded as Asian economies grow and become the source, rather than the recipient, of cultural and economic flows. Population statistics suggest that the populations of the rich countries are ageing and that in the coming decades young adults with disposable income will be found in Europe. Educational trends in many countries suggest that languages other than English are already providing significant competition in school curricula. It may be the same like, for example, in Kazakhstan and other former republics of Soviet Union. There are still a great number of people who know and speak Russian, but later and later on their number will decrease and lately, probably, fully diminish.
But that is not all. As the world is in transition, so the English language is itself taking new forms. This, of course, has always been true: English has changed substantially in the 1500 years or so of its use, reflecting patterns of contact with other languages and the changing communication needs of people. But in many parts of the world, as English is taken into the fabric of social life, it acquires a momentum and vitality of its own, developing in ways which reflect local culture and languages, while diverging increasingly from the kind of English spoken in Britain or North America.
English is also used for more purposes than ever before. Everywhere it is at the leading edge of technological and scientific development, new thinking in economics and management, new literatures and entertainment genres. These give rise to new vocabularies, grammatical forms and ways of speaking and writing. Nowhere is the effect of this expansion of English into new domains seen more clearly than in communication on the Internet and the development of “net English”.
“But the language is, in another way, at a critical moment in its global career: within a decade or so, the number of people who speak English as a second language will exceed the number of native speakers.” [1, p.2] The implications if this are likely to be far reaching: the centre of authority regarding the language will shift from native speakers as they become minority stakeholders in the global resource. Their literature and television “may no longer provide the focal point of a global English language culture, their teachers no longer form the unchallenged authoritative models for learners.” [1, p.3]
At the same time we may observe some contradictory trends.
Many of the trends that are mentioned here are not simply “driving forces” whose impact and consequences can be easily predicted. And in so far as they are understood they appear to be leading in contradictory directions – tendencies to increasing use of English are counterposed by others which lead to a reducing enthusiasm for the language.
On the other hand, the use of English as a global language requires intelligibility and the setting and maintenance of standards. On the other hand, the increasing adoption of English as a second language is leading to fragmentation and diversity. “No longer is it the case, if it ever was, that English unifies all who speak it.” [1, p.3] These competing trends will encourage less predictable context within which the English language will be used and learnt. Therefore, there is no way of precisely predicting the future of English since its spread and continued vitality is driven by such contradictory forces.
Still there are people who think a lot of the future of English. To some of them it doesn’t look very promising. They think that English has been gradually simplifying for the last half century due to the fact that it has become a world-wide international language and is now learnt everywhere. The explanation of this thought is in the following: the main idea of learning foreign languages is to understand other people and to be understood by the community; so grammar, the right pronunciation and rich vocabulary are nothing for the majority of those who study English.
Can English unite people?
Probably, it can unite only linguists or students in class. People are more likely to be attracted by similarity in ideas, customs, believes and other things of the same kind. On the other hand, the more languages one knows the more friends he might find, as any language is considered to be a tool of communication (not the aim of it).
There were some attempts to fix and ascertain the English language made in the 18th and 19th centuries. They had never been entirely successful as the language continued to adapt itself swiftly to people and new circumstances. David Graddol considers English as a hybrid and flexible language. It has always been an evolving language and language contact has always been an important driver of change. First from Celtic and Latin, later from Scandinavian and Norman French, more recently from the many other languages spoken in the British colonies, the English language has borrowed freely.
So, we can be right when stating the fact that the language as a “living material” is constantly changing. And we are just to take it and get used to all the changes. Most of the students don’t understand why they should study and learn some things that are not used, e.g. in spoken versions of English, or some things that are used by the British but not used by the Americans and vise verse. It is necessary just to take the fact as it is.
One of the students was greatly interested in the fate of Esperanto: whether it is still in need or not. Is it still alive?
Few people mention Esperanto in everyday conversations. It almost seems that there is no such language anymore. Anyway, there appears a person who shows interest in it and makes you use the Internet to know its fate.
It’s fantastic but there are lots of sites ready to give information on Esperanto! It proves that the language is alive, in need and the number of people trying to learn it increases. It has literature of its own and more than a hundred of periodical editions.
While an object is in the centre of someone’s interest it will live. We may hope that it is the same about English. Probably, it will lose the status of international language but there still is a great number of people, native speakers who will use and develop it.
There is one more argument for us to stop worrying.
It is supposed that there has never been a language so widely spread or spoken by so many people as English. There are therefore no precedents to help us see what happens to a language when it achieves genuine world status. It is likely that the future for English will be a complex and plural one. The language will grow in usage and variety, and at the same time, diminish in relative global importance. The hegemony of English may be replaced by an oligarchy of languages, including Spanish and Chinese. To put it in economic terms, the size of the global market for the English language may increase in absolute terms, but its market share will probably fall.
The position of English as a world language may seem to be so entrenched and secure that agonizing over “where we are” and “where we are going” might be regarded as no more than a mere indulgence.
Britain’s colonial expansion established such pre-conditions for the global use of English, taking the language from its island birthplace to settlements around the world that it has grown up in contact with many others, making it a hybrid language which can rapidly evolve to meet new cultural and communicative needs.
Some analysts consider this hybridity and permeability of English as defining features allowing it to expand quickly into new domains and explaining in part its success as a world language.
One of the few certainties associated with the future of English is that it will continue to evolve, reflecting and constructing the changing roles and identities of its speakers.
1. David Graddol. The Future of English? The British Council 1997, 2000.
2. Graddol, D., Leith, D. and Swann, J. English: history, diversity and change. London. Open University. 1996.
3. David Crystal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge University Press. 1995.
4. David Crystal. English as a global language. Cambridge University Press. 1997.