Probably the best article I’ve read this week is Columbia University Linguist John H. McWhorter discussing how the languages of the World will look in a century. His broad hypothesis is that we will have fewer languages that will be simpler. Along the way, however, he touches on a particularly interesting question: will English continue to be the second language of choice?
Some may protest that it is not English but Mandarin Chinese that will eventually become the world’s language, because of the size of the Chinese population and the increasing economic might of their nation. But that’s unlikely. For one, English happens to have gotten there first. It is now so deeply entrenched in print, education and media that switching to anything else would entail an enormous effort. We retain the QWERTY keyboard and AC current for similar reasons.
Also, the tones of Chinese are extremely difficult to learn beyond childhood, and truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it. In the past, of course, notoriously challenging languages such as Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian and even Chinese have been embraced by vast numbers of people. But now that English has settled in, its approachability as compared with Chinese will discourage its replacement. Many a world power has ruled without spreading its language, and just as the Mongols and Manchus once ruled China while leaving Chinese intact, if the Chinese rule the world, they will likely do so in English.
As I now teach English for a living, I’ve got a financial interest in this being true. However, McWhorter’s case seems sound and if anything understates the situation.
What people discussing the impact of China’s rise tend to neglect is that India is also on the rise. Without a one-child policy it is likely to overtake China as the World’s most populous country. So while its people will remain considerably poorer than the world average, their sheer number will mean its economy will likely match the size of the US’s by 2050.
India is not an English speaking country per se but it is the language in which Indian commerce, academia and law are conducted. This is kind of inevitable as all of India’s indigenous languages (including Hindi) are only spoken by a minority of the population. As a result there may already be as many English speakers in India as in America.
The upshot of this is that for people whose native language is neither English nor Mandarin, the choice may well wind up being to learn an incredibly difficult language that allows you access to China or a relatively easy one that does the same for India and the US it may not be a tough choice.
Hat tip: IO9