Saturday 25 December 2010

How will the world respond to the decline of English?

Nicholas Ostler answers in The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel  (2010):

The decline of English, when it begins, will not seem of great moment.

International English is a lingua franca, and by its nature, a lingua franca is a language of convenience. When it ceases to be convenient---however widespread it has been---it will be dropped, without ceremony, and with little emotion. People will just not get around learning it, not see the point, be glad to escape a previously compulsory subject at school. Only those who have a more intimate relation to it, its native speakers, may feel a sense of loss---much as French people do today when their language is passed over, or accorded no special respect. And those who are conscious of having made a serious investment to learn the language---having misread the signs of change afoot in global communication---may also feel cheated, even disappointed, when others seem to be excused from having to know it. But the world as a whole will shrug and go on transacting its business in whatever language, or combination of languages, next seems useful. (xv)

See more from this book.


  1. I've always scoffed at automatic translators and other tricks to avoid English language on the internet, but now I am beginning to think that it might actually be a better option for a lot of people than learning English... there might be a resurgence of native languages across the globe gaining stronger foothold compared to English or other global languages, thanks to technology.

  2. The author looks at the history of lingua francas before English (Greek, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit) and predicts what will happen to English. While previous lingua francas were replaced by new ones, the author contends that English will be the 'last' lingua franca (this is the primary argument of the book), as the need for one global language will prove unnecessary and impractical in a highly technologised world.

    English is the world's lingua franca now, but its displacement, according to the author, is already in sight. However, its ultimate retirement won't happen in our lifetime, I don't think!

  3. SF, Tammy wrote the following on Facebook, in response to another comment:

    "Ostler writes: "When electronics removes the requirement for a human intermediary to interpret or translate, the frustrations of the language barrier may be overcome without any universal shared medium beyond compatible software."

    However, some people are not convinced about this particular point (see this article).

    Automated translation is not perfect now, but who knows what will happen in hundreds of years?

    Anyway, electronic translation is only one of the contributing factors to a much more multilingual future without a lingua franca."

  4. Did previous lingua francas enjoy such a large base and geographically widespread number of native speakers as English? This seems to be a pertinent question, and maybe a potential variable that messes with the "all lingua francas have declined, so English will too" formulation.


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