Sun may set on English language, experts say
February 27, 2004
By Randolph E. Schmid
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,"
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 Science.
The idea of English becoming the world language to the exclusion of others "is
past its sell-by date," Graddol says. Instead, the language's major contribution
will be in creating new generations of bilingual and multilingual speakers, he
A multilingual 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 the number of Chinese speakers increasing
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
"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-20th century 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 incomprehensible."
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 language.
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, the Internet was dominated by sites in English in its
early years, but in recent years there has been a proliferation of non-English
sites, especially in Spanish, German, French and Japanese.
Nonetheless, English is strong as a second language, and teaching it has become
a growth industry, said Montgomery, a Seattle-based geologist and energy
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 said.