The Corner

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Is English Doomed as the Global Language?


As comment-bait on a slow day, how about this: Peter Schweizer over at Big Peace points to a new book by Oxford linguist Nicholas Ostler arguing that English will lose its status as the global lingua franca, and won’t be replaced by another. As the publisher’s site describes it:

Three trends emerge that suggest the ultimate decline of English, and lingua francas themselves. Throughout the world movements toward democratization in politics or equality in society will downgrade the status of elites. Since elites are the prime users of non-native English, the language will gradually retreat to its native-speaking territories. Moreover, the rising wealth of states like Brazil, Russia, India, and China will challenge and ultimately overtake the dominance of native-English-speaking nations—thereby shrinking the international preference for English. Simultaneously, new technologies will allow instant translation among major languages, enhancing the status of mother tongues and lessening the necessity for any future lingua franca.

I haven’t read the book, but a couple of thoughts: Though I think the author’s central claim is incorrect, he can’t be dismissed. They don’t let just anyone teach linguistics at Oxford, and he does have degrees in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. He also wrote an entertaining and informative book called Empires of the Word on the history of the spread of languages (which Derb reviewed for NR here.)

But his three trends pointing to the decline of English are suspect. First of all, the status of elites isn’t being downgraded, and won’t be in the future; it seems to me that greater meritocracy, by allowing more people of talent to rise regardless of social or cultural differences, actually strengthens elites. Second, there’s something wrong with a sentence that starts, “The rising wealth of states like Brazil, Russia, India, and China . . .” Russia is a doomed nation, Brazil is, as they say, the nation of the future and always will be, and everyone who has any ambition or enterprise in India and China is learning English. Finally, the point about technology is overblown — translation of the formal written word will indeed get better and better, but people will still need to speak to one another, and Star Trek’s Universal Translator and Farscape’s translator microbes and the Hitchhiker Guide’s Babel fish are merely literary devices to simplify the work of script writers. Nothing like them is ever going to exist.

And my last point is probably most important: Who cares if English “will gradually retreat to its native-speaking territories”? Gloating over the widespread use of English smacks of imperial triumphalism. Sure, it’s great if I need a cab in New Delhi and the cabbie speaks English, but if he didn’t what’s it to us? Our real concern should be that English persist precisely in those native-speaking territories, something that mass immigration and multiculturalism are working against. In fact, the global expansion of English might be a bad thing; the Bolsheviks used Russian as the medium of communication in their empire but suppressed the Russian nation itself. Likewise, the spread of Latin along with the Roman Empire went hand-in-hand with the eclipse of the Romans as a distinct people; and the goal of Turkish nationalism was to leave behind a multinational empire that used Turkish as its common language.

How about we formalize English as our own official language before we worry whether goat herders in Kreplakistan want to learn it?