The Future of the English Language as a Global Lingua Franca

Monday, February 20th, 2012 @ 9:10PM

–Article by Tyler McPeek

In some of my classes, students tell me that their professors in non-linguistics classes often wax-philosophical about the inevitability of Chinese as the next global lingua franca.  Sometimes they even present it as an imminent development that has already started to take a foothold, due to the rising economic power of the PRC and the increasing frequency of successful Mandarin speaking students matriculating in American and other Western universities.

I’ve been troubled by this assumption, and its lack of scientific grounding.  In fact, it reminds me very much of other non-scientifically-based assertions about language that were profligate in years gone by, such as the “Eskimos having a hundred words for ‘snow’ in their language” as evidence for how ones environment and culture shapes ones perspective on the world.  Language scientists, namely Geoffrey Pullum, have been crusading ever since, in vein, to try and dispel this fallacy about West Greenlandic Eskimo (which in fact has only 2 root words for the “snow”) ever since.  Still, non-linguistically trained academics of otherwise excellent intellectual quality continue to profligate the fallacy, as it makes for a nice opener to a lecture, talk, or speech.

There is little evidence to indicate that Mandarin Chinese is spreading around the world as a candidate for global lingua franca status as either a second or first language.  In fact, the Chinese government has had its hands full with roping in all of the mutually unintelligible languages, or “dialects” as the one-China policy motivated government likes to call them, and their speakers into adopting Mandarin as a national lingua franca at the second language level.  This has not stopped entities from journalists to professors to science fiction writers from making the claim, however, that Chinese is becoming the new global lingua franca.  Not even the most ardent Chinese nationalists themselves or other of the most enthusiastic promoters of the idea that China is the next, obvious, and inevitable super power of the globalized world argue that Chinese is going to be a lingua franca of such a theoretical Chinese-dominated world of the future.  There are many reasons, pointed out by level-headed linguistic realists, like John McWhorter and others, indicate that this is in fact not the likely scenario.  Nearly all of Asia, with China leading the pack, is increasing their English mandatory and voluntary education at a clip that is even faster than the growth of their economies in recent years.  People all over the world are giving up minority and even widely-spoken first languages in favor of the “killer language” suspect number one, English.  Globalization is a one time phenomenon (barring nuclear holocaust or some other catastrophic global tragedy that results in a reset to medieval times and a cessation of global connectivity).  English is the language, for better or worse; fairly or unfairly; through pure incidence of circumstance perhaps, that is carrying us through this warp speed transition from unconnected world to globalized, connected, united world status.  Internet, academic publication, road sign standards, public safety announcements, the global trade language, scientific standards and collaborative organizations, international language of air traffic control, and on and on—all English!

Friends and colleagues, I say this not out of self interest or linguistic pride, though I am a native speaker of Standard American English: English is here to stay.  All scientific evidence points to such a conclusion, and we are obligated as language scientists to proffer hypotheses and theories about our linguistic futures that are based on data analysis and application of the scientific method.  English is the communication tool, for the foreseeable future, of this new, emerging globalized world.  We have been assured in the not too distant past of the near-future global dominance rise of Russia, then Japan, as well as the continued dominance of America.  We are now assured by the popular media and pop-anthropologists of the day of the inevitability of the Chinese global super power.  They may well be right or wrong in this most recent assertion.  If that is the case, or if through twist of fate China stumbles as others did and Africa or some other struggling developer emerges as the new contender for replacement of American economic hegemony, we need to heed what history has taught us about government or other powerful entities’ attempts to assert control over natural language change—namely, it cannot be controlled, but instead is governed by natural forces.  These forces, when studied objectively, indicate that the English infrastructure currently being put in place for global communication into the future will be the tool of any future super power—whether it be China, the EU, Africa, the United Nations, or even a new Latino ethnic majority United States of America.  Any power that assumes the economic and military power mantel of this newly minted globalized world will use English as the language of government, to pass on their marching orders and profligate their “soft power,” whether it be their first or second language, by choice of planning or no.  English (in whatever form it exists by that time) will be the coded language of this new shining or tarnished world of the future, and the new leaders will be forced to use this code to propel and churn this new mechanism effectively.

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