Feb. 26, 2004
WASHINGTON - The world faces a future of
people speaking more than one language, with English no longer seen as likely
to become dominant, a British language expert says in a new analysis.
"English is likely to remain one of the world's most important languages for
the foreseeable future, but its future is more problematic - and complex -
than most people appreciate," said language researcher David Graddol.
He sees English as likely to become the "first among equals" rather than
having the global field to itself.
"Monolingual speakers of any variety of English - American or British - will
experience increasing difficulty in employment and political life, and are
likely to become bewildered by many aspects of society and culture around
them," Graddol said.
The share of the world's population that speaks English as a native language
is falling, Graddol reports in a paper in Friday's issue of the journal
The idea of English becoming the world language to the exclusion of others "is
past its sell-by date," Graddol says. Instead, it's major contribution will be
in creating new generations of bilingual and multilingual speakers, he
A multi-lingual population is already the case in much of the world and is
becoming more common in the United States. Indeed, the Census Bureau reported
last year that nearly one American in five speaks a language other than
English at home, with Spanish leading, and Chinese growing fast.
And that linguistic diversity, in turn, has helped spark calls to make English
the nation's official language.
Yale linguist Stephen Anderson noted that multilingualism is "more or less the
natural state. In most of the world multilingualism is the normal condition of
"The notion that English shouldn't, needn't and probably won't displace local
languages seems natural to me," he said in a telephone interview.
While it is important to learn English, he added, politicians and educators
need to realize that doesn't mean abandoning the native language.
Graddol, of the British consulting and publishing business The English
Company, anticipates a world where the share of people who are native English
speakers slips from 9 percent in the mid-1990s to 5 percent in 2050.
As of 1995, he reports, English was the second most-common native tongue in
the world, trailing only Chinese.
By 2050, he says, Chinese will continue its predominance, with Hindi-Urdu of
India and Arabic climbing past English, and Spanish nearly equal to it.
Swarthmore College linguist K. David Harrison noted, however, that "the global
share of English is much larger if you count second-language speakers, and
will continue to rise, even as the proportion of native speakers declines."
Harrison disputed listing Arabic in the top three languages, "because
varieties of Arabic spoken in say, Egypt and Morocco are mutually
Even as it grows as a second language, English may still not ever be the most
widely spoken language in the world, according to Graddol, since so many
people are native Chinese speakers and many more are learning it as a second
English has become the dominant language of science, with an estimated 80
percent to 90 percent of papers in scientific journals written in English,
notes Scott Montgomery in a separate paper in the same issue of Science.
That's up from about 60 percent in the 1980s, he observes.
"There is a distinct consciousness in many countries, both developed and
developing, about this dominance of English. There is some evidence of
resistance to it, a desire to change it," Montgomery said in a telephone
For example, he said, in the early years of the Internet it was dominated by
sites in English, but in recent years there has been a proliferation of
non-English sites, especially Spanish, German, French, Japanese and others.
Nonetheless, English is strong as a second language, and teaching it has
become a growth industry, said Montgomery, a Seattle-based geologist and
Graddol noted, though that employers in parts of Asia are already looking
beyond English. "In the next decade the new 'must learn' language is likely to
"The world's language system, having evolved over centuries, has reached a
point of crisis and is rapidly restructuring," Graddol says. In this process
as many as 90 percent of the 6,000 or so languages spoken around the world may
be doomed to extinction, he estimated.
Graddol does have words of consolation for those who struggle to master the
intricacies of other languages.
"The expectation that someone should always aspire to native speaker
competence when learning a foreign language is under challenge," he comments.