Is English the Language of the Future?

After centuries of dominance, the planet's lingua franca may be facing some stiff competition.
New York City is home to as many as 800 languages, making it the most linguistically diverse city in the world. (Photo: Getty Images)
Nov 10, 2011· 1 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

For all the talk of its demise, it's unlikely that English is about to lose its dominance over the planet just yet.

Sure, there's Chinese, with its billion native speakers and skyrocketing growth rate in schools. Then there's Spanish, which seems poised to share national language duties with us here at home. French President Sarkozy is even cozying up to Arabic, calling it the "language of the future, of science and of modernity."

But can any language really unseat English from the throne? For centuries English has been the language of commerce, science, medicine, technology. There are far more people using English as a second language today than there are native speakers—a surefire sign of a lingua franca. And it's spoken on every continent.

In fact, the spread of English has been so far-reaching that both China and India now have more English speakers than the United States. According to author Henry Hitchings's latest book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, this pervasiveness is simultaneously threatening the language while ensuring its longevity:

"The embrace of English in the world’s two most populous countries means that the language is changing. . ." says Hitchings in an excerpt in Salon. "The 'English-ness' of English is being diluted. So, more surprisingly, is its American flavour. English’s centre of gravity is moving; in fact, in the twenty-first century the language has many centres."

In other words, in the future we may all speak English; we just might not understand each other. In one sense, this is already true. Speaking English in the U.S., England, India or Singapore are very different experiences, shaped and influenced by each region's geography, native tongues and culture. Why should English be any different than Chinglish and Spanglish?

This splintering off of a lingua franca has happened before. Like English, Latin spread across Europe through the standard channels of commerce, religion and political might. Over the centuries, it dissolved into the Romance languages—French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and Portuguese—and was never replaced by a mother tongue.

"There have always been mutually unintelligible dialects of languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Latin," said Braj Kachru, a linguist at Ohio State University, to the Daily Mail. "There is no reason to believe that the linguistic future of English will be any different."

It's worth noting, however, that unlike those languages, English has a economic and linguistic strongholds on virtually every continent. And unlike French (which enjoyed three centuries as the lingua franca of the European intellectual elite), there is no ruling body jealously preserving our language's purity and preservation. This porousness has allowed us to steal from other languages, create neologisms, and adapt to vernaculars with astonishing speed. If we have any chance of enduring it's because of this.