Will English Become the Universal Language?

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Some americans hope that 30 years from now English will be the universal language. It won’t. True, the United States is today a net exporter of English, and nearly all countries whose most common first language is something else are net importers. People in those countries value English because it is the language of innovation and prosperity and globalism and pop culture.

If we first-language English speakers lose our reputation for being forward-looking, obviously that will be bad news in its own right. But a corollary is that English will lose its competitive edge. Look what’s happened to Russian. Now that schoolchildren in the former Soviet republics are no longer required to learn it, they don’t bother. They’re learning English instead. Why? Because English is the language of innovation, etc.

True, too, even if people don’t admire us, they might value English if it were a global lingua franca. But the varieties of English in use are diverging. After the United States and the United Kingdom, the country with the third-largest number of English speakers is Nigeria— assuming you count Nigerian pidgin as English, as most but not all linguists do. (Sorry, Canada and Australia— your populations just aren’t large enough to put you ahead.) The country with the fourth-largest number of English speakers is thought to be India. Hardly anyone in either Nigeria or India, however, speaks English as a first language. In those countries, English is typically shot through with words and sentence patterns imported from local languages.

Not only that, but the world may soon have little use for a lingua franca. Software developers and linguists are inventing gizmos that will let people who lack a full command of English write it fluently. Others are at work on technologies that will turn writing into speech, and vice versa. Once solutions to those problems are found, we’ll be within easy reach of getting instantaneous translations out of machines. At that point, who will need to learn English—or any second language?

Note that there’s no hope whatsoever that English will become a universal first language. About three times as many people are native Chinese speakers as are native English speakers. The number of people who speak Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, or Arabic at home is in the same ballpark as the number of native English speakers. Those populations of native speakers of other languages are all growing faster than the population of native English speakers. Much the same is true within the United States. According to the 2000 census, about 18 percent of Americans speak languages other than English at home, and 4,361,638 households contain no one over the age of 14 who speaks only English or speaks it "very well."

The diversity of languages that immigrants bring us would be good news if the immigrants and their children would not only learn English (as nearly all of them do within a generation or two) but also retain their first languages. Among people involved in the world beyond their own communities, what’s really on its way to being universal is the ability to speak more than one language. Of course, we should resist any erosion of the cultural factors that help keep English strong. But instead of hoping that English will remain in demand no matter what, we’d do better to welcome the inevitable diversification of our nation’s, and the world’s, language portfolio.

Barbara Wallraff is a columnist on language for The Atlantic Monthly and the author of three books, including Word Fugitives, which will be published in March.



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