The future of English

Mother tongues: Mandarin is the most common form of Chinese.

Will English always be the language of the world? It is thought that 1.5 billion people around the world speak some English. But that number may start shrinking, for various reasons…

  • How many people speak English?

    According to the latest estimates, around 1.5 billion people — or one fifth of the world — speak some English. Most of these people speak English as their second language. Around 378 million speak it as their first language or mother tongue.

  • Which country has the most English speakers?

    China! According to one study, up to 350 million people there have some knowledge of English. This would mean that more Chinese people speak English as a second language than Americans speak it as their first.

  • Why is English important?

    As it is spoken by so many, English is a useful way for people with different first languages to communicate. It is the world’s main lingua franca — the name given to a language used between people who do not share the same mother tongue.

  • How did it become so important?

    English is the language of two of the most powerful nations in history: the US and the UK. Partly because of this, it has become the main language of science and technology. According to linguist David Graddol, 80% of the world’s electronic information is stored in English.

    It also has more words than any other language, which makes it very useful. English is a Germanic language (like German and Dutch), but it has also borrowed many words from French since England was once ruled by French speakers.

  • Could anything stop it?

    As China becomes more important globally, Mandarin (the main form of Chinese) could overtake English. The number of Americans learning Mandarin has doubled in the last decade.

    Translation technology is also advancing quickly. Soon, a French person and a Chinese person may be able to hold a conversation, each speaking their own language — their words will simply be translated by a machine. When this happens, people will have less need to learn English.

  • Could English ever disappear?

    Not in the near future. That said, around the world English is blending with other languages. In India, for example, you can find Hinglish (Hindi-English) and Benglish (Bengali-English).

    English will probably be the dominant world language for the rest of your life. But it may not be a version of English you recognise.

You Decide

  1. Would it be a good thing if there was only one language spoken around the world?

Activities

  1. Write one paragraph explaining which language you would most like to learn, and why. In pairs, share your ideas with your partner. You may ask each other questions.

Word Watch

Estimates
Rough calculations.
Mother tongue
The language a person has grown up speaking since childhood.
Study
By Cambridge University Press.
Lingua franca
The term is Italian for “Frankish tongue”, the name given to a language once spoken by traders from different backgrounds in the Middle East.
Translation
Converting words from one language to another. When this is done with speaking, as opposed to writing, it is also known as interpreting.
Dominant
Most important.

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