English, Lingua Franca, and "Usefulness"
I have seen a lot of people who are a few years my junior in the past few months giving English a lot of criticism, and saying that it is not necessary at all, or even that they wish they didn't know or speak it at all for that "reason." Now, I at one point had decided that English was largely useless, and I had wished that I had rather been born a native speaker of German, Russian, Polish....etc. etc. etc. However, I learned a few things, had a few experiences, and encountered a few people who changed my mind.
The biggest impact for me on this subject was that of my international friends. They communicate with each other and with me in English. Cultural and language barriers are all crossed to reach this kind of “meeting point” where everyone knows what the other one is trying to say. The minority of my international friends who speak no English at all tell me that they have a very strong desire to learn it, as it is the “language of international communication.” That’s a pretty powerful statement! And, as my friend in Bosnia said the other day to one of his friends who is considering whether or not to learn English: “It is the language of education and success.” Now, honestly, I laughed a little when I heard this, as it was a pretty strong statement. And yet, at the same time, I can’t even count the number of English learners I meet who want to go to an English-speaking university and count this as a very necessary tool for their success in general life.
To all of the monolingual English-speaking readers, how many times has English saved you in a foreign country? Perhaps you had some difficulty at the airport...how thankful were you to find someone who was proficient in your language? It’s very useful indeed. So, to those who say that they don’t need it...be careful what you wish for. Most of us native English speakers would have been lost without it more than once!
Then we reach the very important point of worldwide facts. Over half of the internet is in English. That is more than any material in every language online combined! English is spoken by 400 million people as a native language (and an estimated 1.5 billion total), and is the language of 53 nations worldwide. It is also the most common second language to learn for non-native speakers, all over our planet. In addition to being a near-necessity in the global business workforce, English also dominates media: movies, books, and the videos you watch every day. It is estimated that by 2020, two billion people in the world will be studying English. This speaks volumes as to how it is valued in the international view of dominant world languages.
Respect to the English language! Its span is broader and more powerful than we can imagine. It is a tool that is far higher in value than most of us know.
What are your thoughts on English as the "lingua franca" in today's world? Share your thoughts and reflections in the comments. I appreciate all viewpoints. :) Best of luck to you all in your language journeys!
Sorry to be so nitpicky, but I guess I just can't help myself (take it with a grain of salt). There is no year 0. But I know what you mean (year 1 anno domino). At that time the lingua franca was Greek. At that same time, there was another minor lingua franca: Aramaic. In Western Europe, vulgar Latin became the lingua franca in the early middle ages. Classical Latin was never a lingua franca. French became the lingua franca of Europe around the time of the Renaissance, but vulgar latin was still the language of science and religion and remained so until recently. English has replaced French entirely and also has become the language of science, but Latin remains the language of the RCC.
Finally, if Gaelic becomes the next LF, thumbs up on the kilts, bagpipes and whiskey, but 2 thumbs down on haggis. Just sayin'...
(Okay, I am bracing myself for the inevitable downvotes) I think that if/when English is supplanted as the universal language machine technology will be so good that we won't need a universal language. We will all have Babbelfish ears. A few people will still work as professional translators, but for most of us, instant translation will take the place of a lingua franca.
Well you make a good point here. Our Babbelfish are likely to be a version of Google translate in the AIs we are all using by then. So....we are all going to be hearing other languages directly translated by Google translate or similar translation software - oh heavens!! I hope they have improved it by then. :o)
It's highly unlikely. It is one of the hardest languages to learn. There's a better argument for Chinese, but it, too, is extremely difficult.
One factor for both languages is the written form of the language.
It is far more likely that a language with an alphabet will be the next lingua franca.
I don't think a certain type of writing system will keep a language from becoming a lingua franca that much. English spelling is a mess, and French spelling isn't simple either, yet that hasn't stopped them from being global lingua francas. Chinese characters have been used continuously for thousands of years, in part because they're pretty useful and not as hard as you'd think once you get used to them.
Difficulty probably isn't that big of a factor either. English grammar is full of irregularities and quirks, as is French (which also has numerous conjugations for each verb). Grammatically, Chinese is actually pretty simple.
I think influence of countries that speak a certain language will be the main factor. Chinese was the lingua franca of East Asia for thousands of years since they were a great military and cultural influence in that region, I don't see why it couldn't reclaim that role in a global context today. In the end, it doesn't matter how difficult a language is; if people need to learn it or will open up opportunities and gain benefits by learning it, they'll learn it. Necessity is probably one of the greatest motivators when it comes to learning languages.
All languages are full of quirks. And, paradoxically, spelling difficulties may be one reason why English and French retained long term status as lingua francas - the spelling doesn't change with the way the word is pronounced in different regions, so the language retains more cohesion. Chinese uses the same feature across their huge country, where the SPOKEN language can't be understood from one part of the country to the other, but the WRITTEN form is. Seriously, lingua francas don't necessarily depend on political or economic power - france was never THE power at any time, although it was powerful, Rome fell long before Latin fell out of favor as a lingua franca. It will take a long time to turn the ship around, so English will probably be the lingua franca for another 100 years or so.
But France was still very powerful. Only England could really compete "back in the day", maybe a bit Austria. But I really think it had all to do with political and economic power. Because why else would you bother learn the language? You also have to remember that France, unlike England, is really in continental Europe, so it helped a lot along its influence. And the fact that England was invaded by the French, the elite might have kept using the language, especially for diplomacy.
I mean, the whole reason English is now the lingua franca is because of the power and influence of the United States. There is simply no other reason. They are the no. 1 economic superpower. This means you have no choice but to do commerce with them, and you are sure to be the one learning English, not the other way around. This also means that they have the biggest army, and that diplomacy has to shift to English. Then it is only a matter of time until it propagates into the other spheres of life.
Latin might have taken some time to fell out of favor, but you have to remember that there's an inertia to such big changes. It is not obvious at first if you have to change the lingua franca, and to which language! The elite all speak latin, it is then more of a hassle than anything to learn another language. Remember that all the important documentation is already in latin! In a world where translating is much more complicated than now. All the science books are in latin, the political documents! Much easier to keep learning the language than change to another one you are not sure the other peoples you deal with will change to, if they change to another language. And add to this the fact that after the fall of Rome, it took a bit of time for Europe to get back on its feet. For a lingua franca to establish itself, you need a "motivation". It is always somehow forced on you by the circumstances.
Yes, all languages have their quirks, so I don't see why certain languages would be kept from achieving status as a linga franca due to their quirks. As for spelling/pronunciation variation, that happens in every language, and is why we have standard languages.
I never said there was fast turnover between lingua francas. While I think it's possible that this time period could be the start of a decline in English's status as a lingua franca, I think it's gonna be a very long time before it's actually replaced. I imagine it'll still be very widely spoken throughout the rest of my life (though it might be losing steam towards the end). In 2118, maybe English will still hold onto a small remnant of its former international status; it'll be on its way out of the role of lingua franca, but won't have completely lost that position.
the spelling doesn't change with the way the word is pronounced in different regions
This is vital. (And one reason why English vowel are pronounced different from the rest of Europe - the spoken language changed). Imagine trying to read "sumfink" in one dialect and "something" in another. (The silent "e"s in English were developed to mark long vowels)
That is a very good point. English spelling is practically just really wide Chinese characters... People who speak different dialects can communicate by writing. The best thing that I could quickly find about this topic was https://www.quora.com/Is-it-true-that-speakers-of-different-Chinese-languages-can-communicate-by-writing but I think that there is probably more than that on the internet.
I am aware that Japanese is a very hard language, and it actually has two syllabaries in addition to kanji, which probably makes it the language with the most complicated writing system.
Japanese has gotten to be a somewhat popular language to learn, so that is why I think that there's a possibility that it might one day become a lingua franca.
Sometimes it feels boring to be an English speaker. It feels like my character is the default race of an MMO. Like you, I had wished my native language was something else or that I had grown up bilingual.
I've gotten over this and now just learn languages for cultures that vibe with me. Even though the languages I'm learning don't impact my quality of life or status, they do allow me to consume new forms of entertainment.
However, even now I'm waiting for the pendulum to swing and to see another language become the lingua franca, maybe French again.
I know how you feel. I wish I had grown up bilingual (though, I was speaking Spanish at 9 of my own accord, and I suppose this is as close as I will get). However, when my friends in other countries struggle with English, and its irregularities, I am thankful that I am a native English speaker...wouldn't hurt to know another one at the same time, though, actually I would love that! But...I'd rather start from here. On top of this, we as English speakers have a ton of resources with English interfaces for exploring our world, good news!
Thank you for your comment, :))
"English is spoken by 400 million people and is the language of 53 nations worldwide."
Just to clarify, although it's difficult (impossible) to have 100% accurate numbers, there are about 400 million native speakers of English in the world, but as many a billion more have some proficiency in the language as well, ranging from a few words and phrases to being able to carry on a high-level conversation.
One source (Babbel) puts the number of "English speakers" at 1.5 billion.
Here's another source with 2006 figures that also puts the number of "speakers of English globally" at "definitely above 1.5 billion."
Wikipedia gives the number as 1.212 billion
We have two constitutionally protected official languages, French and English, here in Canada too, though in reality French is spoken in Quebec, parts of New Brunswick and pockets of Saskatchewan and English everywhere else, so nowhere is truly bilingual. These is why this fact about the States really surprised me. Is English not an official language in New Zealand at all than? I would have thought it was, being a fellow Commonwealth country.
English is an "utility language", we, those who don't speak it as our own we know it. However, i think it's most common to find English speakers who don't want to learn any other language because "they don't need it, the rest should know speak English" (As in the movie: Bedazzled)
I'd have to disagree. It's true that there are some English speakers who will refuse to adopt a new language because 'they don't need to,' but I feel that's largely applicable to older generations. At least in America - particularly in Southern California - more and more English speakers are bilingual from childhood. We have such a large population of bilingual or even monolingual Spanish speakers that Spanish in the media, in advertising, in business, in entertainment, in practice is becoming exceedingly commonplace.
Just yesterday, I was having trouble in a grocery store car park. The sign (written in English) recommended that I go and speak to the guard on duty. I was fully expecting him to speak English because of this, only to find that he didn't. Not even a little. He spoke Spanish, and only Spanish. It was pretty cool. I'm certain that in the very near future, Southern Californians will have to learn Spanish to communicate with others in their local communities. There's no longer any real need for Spanish speakers to learn English here - unless they really want or need to - and it definitely wouldn't hurt native English speakers to learn a second language.
Andres, I consider you one of my nicest international friends. And, you have also just hit a great point...many of the same types of people who will say that they don't need English are also the kind who would never learn another language and insist that we all cater to them. I think that this mindset shuts doors and pushes away friends one could have had! Thanks to Duolingo it might die :)
english is nice. i understand why young people rebel against it; however, in all fairness any language could have been - and could very well be, for that matter - the lingua franca. i think it's totally fine if people don't want to speak english.
as a native speaker, though, i'm extremely grateful that my mother tongue is english, even if i am one of those folks whose ancestors were forced to adopt the language.
edit: it does bother me when foreigners all but disown their own language in favor of english because of its 'usefulness'. for ex., most of the norwegians i've spoken to in depth (and that's admittedly only a handful) prefer to speak in english when we talk. they'll comment on how 'useful' english is before asking why i'd ever learn norwegian, and that's always a bit upsetting. i'm really, really fond of norwegian. i'd hate to see it die out.
Yes, I agree with you, and I think this also needs to be expanded a bit. You're right, any language could be the the lingua franca. And, how was it really chosen in the first place? Well, I think most of those origins are from the fact that the largest part of the internet and its corresponding resources are in English. Many parts of the internet are not even useful without the understanding of English! Also, I would like to bring up the influence of media, especially for young foreigners...most of the largest film industries, etc. are built on English. So, people who learn English can watch our films, listen to our music, and understand, so on. This has been a big reason for many of my young friends in Europe, who are most often huge fans of American film stars or artists.
...even if i am one of those folks whose ancestors were forced to adopt the language.
hashtag metoo. And we are some of many....actually, it all begins somewhere, as we didn't all start out in our separate regions speaking the same languages...history is full of changes and takeovers all over that gave us our past, good or bad, ahaha .
Thank you so very much for your comment! I wish you luck! <3
English is the lingua franca because the English Empire grew in importance just when the French Empire was crumbling.
For English to stop being the lingua franca, two things have to happen. First, the current domination of world events by the United States had to end, AND that level of domination by some other non-English speaking nation must happen.
If only the first happens and the world is full of roughly equal nations, the lingua franca won't change.
We live in interesting times. If we have a world filled with cheaper devices created by China and Korea it is conceivable that at some point those nations extend trade and business investment to the point that they could simply become more dominant.
If we bought devices that forced us to interface with them in Chinese, we would find ourselves absolutely bound to adapt fast - just a thought, a far flung thought.
This book addresses a lot of the points OP made as well as thoughts brought up in the replies:
I read it a few years back and found it a bit rambling, but thought- provoking and informative. It's likely available in libraries as well.
I think native English speakers are "spoilt rotten", as my Nan would say. It is changing, but there has indeed been an element of "why should I bother?" when it comes to other languages.
I won't even bother gathering proper data here - I'll just relate what I have noticed personally on my own twisting British path:
Most native English speakers only learn a little of a couple of other languages, at school (because they have to, or they get punished). Quite a few, but still a relatively small percentage, go on to learn other languages in more depth, sometimes academically or for personal or pleasure reasons, but usually out of some sort of acute and specific work-related necessity.
By contrast, a comparatively huge percentage of people in foreign lands seem to be multilingual, with English being just one of their languages.
One point to consider is the unequal utility of learning a second language.
For a speaker of Hungarian, for example, learning English opens up the possibility of communicating with over a billion new people all over the globe.
For a speaker of English, learning Hungarian allows you to speak with about 13 million new people (minus however many of those Hungarians already speak English).
My point is, for most people around the globe, it's pretty easy to see which new language would be the most useful to learn (usually that would be English). For speakers of English, there is no clear choice. It all depends on where you'd like to travel or work or which culture appeals to you.
Yes, we Americans are a bit language lazy and do unfairly expect everyone to speak English when we travel, but to be fair, it's a tough choice to pick a particular language to devote years to. I think there's some fear of picking the "wrong" one and "wasting" a lot of time. Which, in my opinion, is a shame. Everyone should definitely learn at least one other language to fluency for a number of reasons.
You make a valid point about people not wishing to potentially "waste time" on a language, and it is indeed a shame.
I'd go as far as to say that many of us are now terrified of wasting time on anything which doesn't directly relate to our career and image - or, perhaps ironically, doesn't provide some instant gratification to take our minds away from the uncertain and terrifying future which we are so desperately striving to carve into certainty.
I shall read your book, by the way - I like a good thriller. :)
Hi, Kevan! I'm actually an "amateur translator", having done much goodwill work (French to English, English to French), and it's an exercice I generally love.
I lack connections to make it professional.
Bookworm, bookaddict, bookmaniac, you name it, and I try very hard to be a writer. A bunch of short stories working to become a book, some children stories, poems and two ideas for novels (one one third writen). And plenty of head/heartaches ;)
Italian is on my list, after Esperanto. And I'm French! I never dreamt I could learn as many languages as I wish, given time and courage :)
Yeah, I do a lot of commercial (business) translation, but also a good bit of literary translation. If you enter my name in Amazon (Kevan Houser) you'll see a few things I've done. I'm especially proud of my translation of Gerolamo Rovetta who has been all but forgotten, particularly in the English-speaking world where his work isn't (until now) available in translation. Now, for quite possibly the first time, you can read Rovetta in English.
Anyway, to be good translator, you have to be an avid reader, a diligent researcher, and a skilled writer, imho. Practice, practice, practice.
As some might know I spend my summers in Europe - mostly in Hungary. Although English is of limited use outside of tourist areas in Hungary, it is the most common shared language for foreigners I have met - both other Europeans and Asians. It has been a rare group where most (or all) could not speak pretty good English.
I kind of dislike being English native and having no reason to learn another language young. I would always say "what's the point in learning French, I'll never need it!" in school. But now I have started learning it in my personal time and I love it. I wish I didn't feel that way about its utility before and just enjoyed learning.
I find it really fun to read through what non-native English speakers think or thought about English while they were learning it as a foreign language. Really eye-opening, for example I found a lot of Chinese and Thai speakers talking about how many synonyms or variations of descriptive words English has.
Having been born an English speaker I am acutely aware of how lazy English speakers are to learn other languages AND, now that I am trying to learn to speak Swedish in Sweden, I wish all the wonderful helpful kind lovely Swedish folks would not switch instantly to English when I struggle to find the right words. :o)
Thanks so much for your wonderful kindness, openness and sheer warmhearted graciousness as a nation. But.... I REALLY NEED to struggle on and get experience speaking Swedish.
On the business side, speaking English I would say is very dependent on the field of business/profession and country you are in. I forget the stats now, but it is highly likely there are far more Chinese and Indian speakers than English, so English on the internet may well be a flawed reasoning if you are working in China for example.
Having worked in South Africa where there are 11 official languages, 9 of them African languages, English becomes a default language but a painful one. The local African folks would love education to be in their language but the courses and learning materials do not exist in their mother tongue/s. The result being they struggle all the way through their education, through university, as English is very often their second, third or fourth language in some instances. This seriously hampers their ability to achieve their full potential academically and then obviously in their chosen profession - and they obviously have a very low level of language proficiency (close to nil) in any language spoken outside of South Africa either. So moving internationally to aid them in this situation leaves them in a similar or worse dilemma.
English empowers people in an immeasurable way if you are in the Western World and is very useful, I would guess, in any region globally where there are distinct differences or dialects in the languages spoken, yet English is still studied in schools so it easily becomes the only, single common language to the greater number of people.
To all the English first language speakers out there. Be kind and patient to all those with a different first language. Be like the Swedish :o) (that is not that there aren't wonderful kind patient helpful people in other nations, it's just there is such a distinct difference I am experiencing here in Sweden compared to my own personal previous experience.
now that I am trying to learn to speak Swedish in Sweden, I wish all the wonderful helpful kind lovely Swedish folks would not switch instantly to English when I struggle to find the right words
I know that feeling! But can understand it because usually non-English speakers speak way better English than I speak Hungarian (or French). I know they are trying to be helpful (or maybe just speed thigs up). That's why being dropped into a situation with absolutely no English speakers can be a blessing in a way.
The English Language is indeed special, think of Shakespeare, Byron, and Pope, no disrespect to Swahili, but I doubt that those works would sound the same in Swahili. English is a beautiful language. BUT, there are other languages that are on the rise, the increasing demand for Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and even other languages like Indonesian, Portuguese and Swahili are all high in demand, I think people who say "we only need english" are putting a limit on themselves that will hinder them their entire life.
Global connectivity and the ability to share news instantaneously worldwide (broadcast media for a couple of decades, more recently the internet) and for trade and business transactions electronically facilitated to any corner of the globe has changed the way we use languages fundamentally and possibly forever.
In the past if you landed on the shores of a foreign land and wanted to trade for supplies, you jolly well learnt the language of the locals over subsequent trips. So the languages in those regions changed slowly with the inter-pollination of new settlers with existing locals over time.
But we have sped everything up. Now we consume movies and some books the same day they launch across the globe. We download them instantly without even having to get up from or seats. The American movie and television industry has fundamentally impacted on all our lives. We literally purchased appliances that transmit a foreign language into our homes and the dominant language was English because those who control the media control the language of distribution.
It is becoming, those who design the devices and develop the AI machines we will become dependent on are designing our new future global language.
We are only recently becoming aware how much the owners of media are designing what we see, hear and think via fake news and manipulation of the truth. The way Facebook and Google algorithms tailor our searches to receive 'more of the same' and filter out things the formula deems 'less likely to match' your previous behaviour. We are literally being groomed to think that everything we see is everything there is and that our own thoughts and worldview are constantly fed back to us, so it becomes our only worldview. Even if we google/actively search for the purposes of learning and diversifying our worldview, more of the same will be fed to us first. This is an exceptionally limiting and ultimately divisive phenomenon
And it happened relatively fast in the scheme of our human history - the last 5-8 decades (think the moment radio broadcasts became widespread into homes and silent movies gained speech. And then came TV).
It's happening exponentially faster now because of our dependence on the internet for being a global citizenry. We don't just live in our village and speak only the dialect of a 20 mile radius any more. Precious few people live that way.
So if media and technology dominate our language exposure and preferences, and if we have translation software that can translate any language we encounter to our choice of language, what does that say for our prognosis in languages morphing as they have throughout history and also for the way we do trade and interact with other people.
It becomes mediated via appliances and devices with people not having to learn another language but relying on the translation software available as an app or pre-loaded on a device.
So....in essence it is not in our hands, but in the hands of the techno-giant and software developers. English is currently no longer English-English. It is American-English with different spelling and nuances (how many of you noticed I spelled behaviour with an 'iour' as in the oxford dictionary. But when you type it in here it is underlined as incorrect.) Online English is morphing in it's own way too by dominant users and shortening due to our widespread use of texting.
English risks becoming some form of combination between a shortened text format and emoticons/iconographic symbols. It may be in 20 years time we no longer speak to each other, we will text and add pictorial symbols.
For my own interest I would love to learn ancient languages so that I could personally read the texts at archaeological sites and on written scrolls, etc. But who will these learned people be once the current age of professors have passed on and we no longer have sufficient numbers of students studying those languages to warrant the courses and the lecturers on the payroll of universities. How much will we lose?
The more we can stay curious and engaged with both the languages of the past and the relative purity of spoken languages, altered only by daily contact and necessity as they were in the past, the more we can hold onto the richness and diversity of our combined culture and history.
For this reason, I hope a dominant lingua franca does not take place. I hope we can hold onto all of our collective human experience, culture and history. We will be so much the poorer for the loss of it.