What will be the language of the future?

12th Jul 2013

English, as we all know, is the leading international language. Everywhere you go, language schools are offering English classes, English language courses and English summer schools. However, what will be the situation in the future? Will English remain the only global language, or perhaps other languages will take its place, such as Mandarin?

No language has spread as widely as English and it continues to do so. Internationally, the desire to learn it is insatiable. In the twenty-first century the world is becoming more urban and more middle class, and the adoption of English is a symptom of this, for increasingly English serves as the lingua franca of business and popular culture. It is dominant or at least very prominent in other areas such as shipping, diplomacy, computing, medicine and education.

The planet’s most spoken languages are of course English and Mandarin. Globalisation and cultural homogenisation are making these two languages spread quickly all over the globe while many are dying in remote corners of the Earth

However, the dominance of English is now being challenged by the rise of China in Singapore. The Singapore Chinese Chamber Institute of Business has added Chinese classes for business use in recent years.  Students are being taught in Mandarin rather than the Hokkien dialect spoken by the older Chinese immigrants. Some businesses are already desperate for Chinese speakers.

Lee Han Shih, who runs a multimedia company, says English is becoming less important to him financially because he is taking Western clients to do business in China, therefore you need to learn English but you also need to know Chinese.

But can any language really unseat English from the throne? For centuries English has been the language of commerce, science, medicine and technology. There are far more people using English as a second language today than there are native speakers In fact, the spread of English has been so far-reaching that both China and India now have more English speakers than the United States. 

“If you were smart in the 18th century, you moved to France. If you were smart in the 19th century, you moved to England. If you were smart in the 20th century, you moved to the US. And if you’re smart in the 21st century, you move to Asia”.

- Jim Rogers

In the 21st century, China is positioning itself to challenge America for the position of the number one economic power in the world, but whether this will translate to linguistic dominance remains to be seen.

China’s economy will surpass that of the United States by 2035 and be twice its size by midcentury, a new report by Albert Keidel concludes. China’s rapid growth is driven by domestic demand—not exports—and will sustain high single-digit growth rates well into this century.

Neither political, economic, cultural, technological nor military mightalone can give one language international prominence. It takes a sustained combination of all these powers to achieve that. As a case in point, Japanese did not become a dominant language internationally (although it did increase in popularity), despite Japan’s incredible economic success from the 1960s to 1990s.

To conclude, it appears China currently resembles the circumstances that brought the English language to prominence and as such will increasingly spread its culture and language throughout the world.  Its rise as a language more widely spoken than English will however likely to be delayed even once China becomes the largest economy in the world and as such a global super power that rivals the US, but the trend will not stop.  The US Empire commonly known as the Anglo-American Empire is currently in the opposite trajectory, one in decline.  With most of the Western world facing economic catastrophes due to their nations high debt/GDP ratios, rising unemployment particularly in the under 25 age bracket and their governments running budget deficits on top of maxing-out their credit cards to become the largest Debtor nations in the world, now forced to print/dilute their money supply to run their regimes, are all signs of a decaying Empire that resemble the fall of Rome.

China on the other hand along with other members of the Anti-Hegemon are the largest Creditor nations in the world with arguably freer markets and therefore are encouraging entrepreneurship and attracting human capital.  People are finding they actually do not need to live in China to access its markets and Singapore which is regarded as the Switzerland of Asia is rapidly embracing Mandarin in direct competition with English. 

China’s key prominence of growth has been driven by the US domestic demand for cheap Chinese made goods. Once Chinese citizens reach a critical mass of wealth it will focus on its own domestic demand and as such other economies will likely embrace Mandarin in order to trade with its 1.5 billion citizens. 

However, even though scholars have different opinions and stances on the subject, they all agree on one thing: one day we will all be able to understand each other, somehow.

As an active member of the China Britain Business Council (www.cbbc.org) and regular contributor to UKTI China events, Pearl Linguistics is well connected to help UK businesses looking to export to or enter this emerging market. For more information on our language services, from translating business cards into Mandarin or having a Chinese interpreter for a business meeting, call us on 020 7253 7700 or email us at sales@pearllinguistics.com.

Paulina Drewecka, Receptionist


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