Can another language become more important than English?

Reasons for English: The future of English 1

This is the transcript for the first English with Stephen podcast episode on the future of English. Today, I take a look at if another language could replace English.

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Hello and welcome back to English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Today we have another episode in the series that I have called ‘Reasons for English’, but which, until now, could also have been called ‘The History of English’. There are many reasons why I didn’t call it the History of English, and one of them is the subject of today’s episode.

I am often asked by students and people who are just generally interested in languages about what they think the future is for English. It is difficult to make predictions, but there are some interesting topics and ideas associated with this.

I intend to look at one of the questions today, and others in future episodes.

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And now, back to the subject of the future of English, and more specifically, will English continue to be the main language used in the world for international communication. In a previous episode, I looked at why English became the world’s lingua franca, but I don’t talk about whether this would continue into the future.

If we look at the population for languages according to native speakers, then we see that Chinese Mandarin is way more common than any other language. There are about 900 million people who speak Chinese Mandarin as a native language.

A quick note on the phrase ‘native language’. There is a lot of debate about what this phrase means. Is it the language you learn as a child? What if you learn 2 or more languages as a child, are they both your native language? What if you learned 2 or 3 languages, but you are more proficient in just one of them? Can you start to learn a language as a teenager that then becomes more ‘native’ than the language you learned from your parents? In short, there are lots of problems with defining ‘native language’, but in general it is the best term we have for general use.

So, as I said, Chinese Mandarin has more than 900 million speakers. This is just under 12% of the population. Next on the list is Spanish, with 480 million speakers, or about 6% of the world. English is only third with 380 million, followed closely by Hindi with 340 million, Bengali with 300 million and Portuguese with 220 million native speakers.

As we can see from that list, there are more Chinese speakers than Spanish and English combined. Does this mean that Chinese Mandarin will become the next global language? With so many people already speaking the language it would make sense. China is also a fast-growing economy and a global superpower. One of the reasons English became so important was the economy and politics associated with the USA in the 20th century. Would China be able to do the same thing?

One of the problems holding back Chinese Mandarin is that it is only really spoken in one country, so if you are not doing business with China, there is no motivation to learn the language. If you want to do business in the USA, Britain, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand among many others, then English will be the language you need.

Another thing preventing Chinese from overtaking English as the world’s lingua franca is the alphabet. The English alphabet is shared by lots of speakers of other languages, mainly European languages but some others as well. This means that you do not need to learn another writing system, which takes a lot of pressure off students from languages with the same or similar alphabet.

Chinese, however, uses a separate character or ideogram for each word. It is a beautiful system, but not one that is easily understood by learners of other languages.

Another issue that will stop Chinese becoming a world language is just bad timing. English is the lingua franca. Due to the USA being the dominant country, militarily, economically, culturally, and so on, when globalisation occurred, English was in the right place at the right time.

The effect of this is that all around the world there has been investment in books, teaching methodologies, teacher training courses. There are generations of people who have learned English and are now happy to talk or write in the language. Companies have worked hard to translate their advertising and manuals into English.

For so many people, companies, and countries to change their direction of travel and towards another language would mean a huge loss of investment in both time and money.

As I walk around the city of Curitiba, here in the south of Brazil, and I pay attention to my linguistic landscape, I see, obviously a lot of Portuguese and quite a bit of English. I see some Spanish, occasionally Italian or German. There are one or two Japanese restaurants that include Japanese writing. I even saw some Korean a couple of weeks ago. I don’t remember ever seeing Chinese, though, when walking around the city.

So this would suggest to me that Chinese is not in a position to become the world’s language.

This might even be supported by the fact that there are more English students in China than there are native English speakers. If even the Chinese authorities have invested in English, it is hard to see other places not continuing to do so.

But what about a different language growing to take over the place of English?

There are many countries that have Spanish as their number one language and there is a growing number of Spanish speakers in the USA. However, most of these countries are based in the same geographical area of the Americas, so maybe this means Spanish will not overtake English. In addition, many of the countries that speak Spanish are not economically powerful like China or the USA. A similar thing could be said about Arabic.

There are artificial languages, like Esperanto, that might have an advantage because they are not associated with one set of people or an ideology. However, while I love the idea of Esperanto, I cannot see it being more than a niche language for a long time to come.

All of this means that I cannot see any other language other taking over the place of English in the world. This does not necessarily mean that English will continue to keep its place as the language that everyone needs to learn. However, I don’t have the time to discuss this now. Instead, I will save my ideas on this for a future podcast.

If you have any questions about the future of English, please drop me a line. You can find me on my site EnglishwithStephen.com, or on Facebook and Instagram as English with Stephen. And please, if you can, leave a review or a rating of my podcast or my social media. It really does help to spread the word.

Thank you for listening. I hope to speak to you again next week.

So long.

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