What Will Globalization Do to Languages? A Freakonomics Quorum

The headline says it all, although the unspoken question is: will globalization indeed result in the hegemony of English, as has long been promised/threatened?

We gathered up some wise people who spend their time thinking about such things — Christian Rolling, Mark Liberman, Henry Hitchings, and John Hayden — and asked them to answer our question. Many thanks for their insights.

Christian Rolling, senior interpreter and next chief of the French interpretation section at the U.N. in New York.

“The Internet has helped curtail English language domination.”

As an interpreter, I tend to focus more on spoken words; and I suspect (being French) that you would love to read that English is (finally) going to be the universal language thanks to globalization.

But No! The Internet has helped curtail English language domination: Just over half the number of Web pages are in English.

Rudimentary English might still be the most convenient means of oral or written communication between strangers of different cultures on planet Earth, but globalization is giving a new (virtual) planetary presence to hundreds of languages and cultures through millions of Web sites, mixing text and videos.

The big loser? Grammar.

With the proliferation of text messages, e-mails, emoticons, strange abbreviations (The French love CUL, which means a**) why bother about style or form?

Web sites are more polished, but even there, spelling mistakes abound.

John Hayden, president of Versation, parent company of English, baby!, a social networking site for English language learners around the world.

“English is like a cell phone provider offering the best plan. But if the dollar continues to drop, the most viable option could shift.”

Globalization is synonymous with homogenization. What does this mean for languages?

We’ll be losing all but one of them, and guess which one.

Although ludicrous, this point of view is common. My friends and colleagues question me from time to time about whether a website like mine that helps people around the world learn English is necessarily a good thing.

But last I checked, learning one language doesn’t cause you to forget another. More than half the world plays soccer, but other sports continue to thrive. Why should languages be any different?

In fact, it seems widely agreed upon that a person who speaks more than one language is worthy of admiration. The fact that nearly two billion people are learning English means that there are more bilingual people than ever before.

Though shared languages between countries are necessary for globalization to thrive, the popularity of English is incidental and could change.

English is a tool, just like a piece of technology. Much of the world’s economy is tied up in English-speaking countries and for that reason, English is like a cell phone provider offering the best plan. But if the dollar continues to drop, the most viable option could shift. Mexico and Korea don’t need English to communicate if Korea begins to find it profitable to learn Spanish.

This flexibility exists because other languages aren’t going away. It’s important to understand that English is growing as a second or
third language.

I’ve yet to hear of a country changing its first language to English to better compete globally and I doubt that will happen.

A Bulgarian woman might fly to the U.S. for a meeting, but will still walk to the grocery store. She might send American partners news via e-mail, but will still gossip on her neighbor’s porch, read and sing in Bulgarian, and speak it with her family — and with you if you’re smart.

Don’t underestimate the value of knowing languages other than English in a globalized world. Nothing makes a trip to Japan better than knowing Japanese and if you’re bidding on a contract in India, the proposal written in Hindi is sure to stand out. A philosopher who can read German articles before they’re translated has an edge on his peers.

In fact, globalization means that we have more reason than ever to learn a language. While globalization has its benefits and drawbacks, learning a language, like almost any other skill, is at best useful and at least a bit of personal edification (like learning Ancient Greek or fly fishing).

But at the moment, English is about as valuable as a computer in terms of the amount of cultural exchange and access to information it affords. Of course, the two are most powerful together, which is why we started English, baby!. It was a reaction to a demand.

More often than not, a new member’s first blog is something to the effect of, “This is the first day of my life,” which demonstrates a mind-boggling enthusiasm for, and faith in this language and technology.

Mark Liberman , professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, blogs at Language Log.

“If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result.”

The obvious things to say about this are, well, obvious. But not everything that’s obvious is entirely true, and there are some surprises behind the “duh”s.

It’s obvious that English promotes American power in the global linguistic marketplace — but a slogan of Li Yang‘s Crazy English movement is “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”

It’s obvious that globalization will tend to wipe out smaller languages and cultures — but if you search the web for “soomaaliya” or “gabay ka,” you’ll find more text from the world-wide Somali diaspora than was ever produced in the horn of Africa. It’s obvious that globalized communications and popular culture will tend to homogenize local language varieties — but some varieties of English seem to be diverging more rapidly than ever.

Much of today’s linguistic politics are rooted in the residues of colonial rule, itself an earlier form of globalization — but paradoxically, the recent spread of former colonial languages is sometimes driven by local resistance to domination by outsiders.

In 1950, the Indian constitution established Hindi as the official language of the central government, and the use of English as a “subsidiary official language,” inherited from the days of British colonial rule, was supposed to end by 1965. However, less than a sixth of the Indian population speaks Hindi natively, and for elite speakers of India’s other 400-odd languages, especially in the south, the imposition of Hindi felt like a kind of conquest, whereas continued use of English was an ethnically neutral option. So today, the authoritative version of acts of parliament is still the English one, Supreme Court proceedings are still in English, and so on.

The rise of English as the language of global economic opportunity just reinforces this pattern, which also applies in Pakistan, in Nigeria, and in several other former British colonies.

A particularly intense version of this sort of thing is happening in Iraq.

Kurdish officials resist being forced to do business with the central government in Arabic, and sometimes insist on English, even if their command of Arabic is excellent. They recognize that they can’t force the central government to deal with them in Kurdish, but they see English, the language of the former colonial power, Britain — and of the current occupying power, the United States — as a symbol of resistance to the cultural and political hegemony of the Arabic-speaking majority.

The situation in former French colonies is more subtle. French is the ethnically-neutral lingua franca there, and the linguistic gateway to opportunity and migration. But many individuals in the Francophone world are starting to see English as a better opportunity — and the rulers of some Francophone countries have begun to feel the same way — to the immense chagrin of the French government, which works hard by various means to keep the former colonies in La Francophonie. In that context, promoting (for example) English-language schools can become a form of resistance to neocolonialism.

And at the same time that big languages like English, French, Chinese, and Arabic have been spreading among present or past imperial subject populations, local linguistic nationalism has been increasing in strength, and winning some victories.

In Belgium — which is number one in the 2007 KOF Index of Globalization — Flemish cultural nationalism, very much based on language, is threatening to split the country in two.

Less dire versions of the same process have been happening elsewhere in Europe. Anyone who’s been in Barcelona recently knows that the dominance of Catalan there has been officially acknowledged, and Spain’s ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages has also led to co-official status for Basque and Galician in their regions.

As a result of the same European Charter, two centuries of French official suppression of minority languages came to an end, at least officially, in 2001. (Actually, France rejected the charter as contrary to its constitution, but the Ministry of Education decided anyhow that education in Occitan, Corsican, Breton, Basque, and so on could at least in principle be allowed.)

Paradoxically, the force that freed “regional and minority” languages throughout Europe was exactly the economic and political unification created by that poster child of globalization, the European Union.

If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result. And once you admit a dozen or so national languages to official status in the resulting union, why not throw in a hundred more — even if the local nation-states have been busily trying to promote national unity by suppressing them for the past few centuries?

Henry Hitchings, author of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, and his most recent, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

“One of the intriguing consequences of globalization is that English’s center of gravity is moving.”

“It’s interesting that we think of nature conservation as something rather sexy, but language conservation on the whole gets dismissed as naïve and backward-looking. “

This isn’t a question that belongs in the future tense; it’s happening right now, and we’re seeing dramatic change in the whole global system of languages. So the succinct answer would be “a lot.” But I’d like to expand on this.

Today there are about 6,500 different natural languages. Eleven of them account for the speech of more than half the world’s population. Those eleven are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, French, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, German, Japanese, Arabic, and — of course — English.

English is distinguished from the others in this list by having very significant numbers of non-native speakers, and, for reasons I’ll come back to, I think it’s going to be the one most affected by globalization.

At the opposite end of the scale there are languages teetering on the brink of extinction. More than half the world’s languages have fewer than 5,000 speakers, and there are many hundreds that have as few as a dozen. Languages are disappearing all the time — it’s estimated that a language becomes extinct roughly every two weeks. Some of those under threat are American languages — the likes of Kashaya, spoken in a small part of northern California, and Menominee in Wisconsin.

I think we can say that almost everywhere is part of the “world system” now, and the thing about any system that integrates people is that it benefits its architects. Yes, you’re going to see cultural cross-pollination, but, fundamentally, imported cultures are going to push out indigenous ones. We can look at the example of Canada: when it was colonized, more than sixty languages were spoken there, but English and French wiped almost all of them out, and only one, Inuktitut, has really clung on at all.

In the future, things that don’t happen in the world’s major languages are likely to be marginalized in favor of very possibly less worthy things that do happen in them. We see this a good deal already. For instance, we know that by and large a book published in English is going to have a far wider reach than one published in Czech, regardless of their respective merits.

One of the consequences is that, as students and scholars look to enhance their credentials and the visibility of their work, universities, which used to be national institutions, have become an international marketplace.

It’s clear that globalization is making English especially important not just in universities, but in areas such as computing, diplomacy, medicine, shipping, and entertainment. No language is currently being learned by more people — there may soon be 2 billion actively doing so — and the desire to learn it reflects a desire to be plugged into a kind of “world brain.”

To many people, then, the spread of English seems a positive thing, symbolizing employment, education, modernity, and technology. But to plenty of others it seems ominous.

They hold it responsible for grinding down or homogenizing their identities and interests. It tends to equalize values and desires, without doing the same for opportunities.

While English-speakers may think the spread of their language is simply a force for good, opening up the world and helping to advance things like feminism and human rights awareness in places they might not otherwise reach, to many other people this spread is a symptom of things they don’t want: the Christian faith, for instance, and political paternalism.

So far, so unsurprising, you might say; but globalization may well have a kind of revenge effect. There’s a distinct chance, I think, that it will actually undermine the position of the very native speaker who, by virtue of having a mastery of this obviously valuable language, thinks he or she is in a strong position.

Why? Because one of the intriguing consequences of globalization is that English’s center of gravity is moving. Its future is going to be defined not in America or Britain, but by the new economies of places like Bangalore, Chongqing, and Bratislava.

Internationally, English is becoming the language of the urban middle classes, and as the ability to use English becomes a kind of basic skill for such people, the prestige that attaches to being able to speak it with native fluency is going to shrink. People who have a stripped-down, second-language knowledge of it may start to cut native speakers out of the equation. At the same time we’re going to see a proliferation of what are sometimes called ‘glocal’ Englishes — noticeably different forms of the global language that preserve their local roots. One of the ultimate effects may be that native speakers of English will be at a professional disadvantage, because they’re seen as obstructions to the easy flow of business talk and they’re competent in just this one “basic” language.

Branching out beyond English, I think it’s safe to say that one of the things we are seeing, as technology breaks down borders, is that it is no longer sensible to think of a precise association between particular languages and particular territories.

Nobody owns languages any more. And this is likely to be especially troubling for anyone whose language is widely used by people who aren’t native speakers.

As it advances, globalization seems to be whipping up its own backlash, and I’m sure we are soon going to see language learning and language conservation become more contentious political issues. It’s interesting that we think of nature conservation as something rather sexy, but language conservation on the whole gets dismissed as naïve and backward-looking. My hunch is that if there’s one language in the top eleven I mentioned earlier that is really going to get squeezed, it’s German.

Realistically, fifty years from now the world’s big languages may be as few as three: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and English. Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and Punjabi will also be pretty big — but chiefly because of massive population growth on their home turf. Arabic, too, will have grown — for religious reasons at least as much as economic ones.

At the other end of the scale, many languages will have disappeared, irrecoverably, and with them will have disappeared their cultures.


So far, nobody has talked much about Anglicization of other languages; I'll bet that the word for "blog" in Yoruba is "blog". English has as a big advantage as a global language that even "Roger" can't deny; it has more words than other languages. A quick trip around the Internet suggested 5X more than neighboring languages. As scientists, doctors, programmers come up with new words to describe new concepts, they still do it mostly in English. As a result, the innovators in a society will tend to use English or at least Anglicisms in their "power" speech. At some point, the sheer size of the vocabulary makes a language difficult to replace as a "lingua franca" (pun intended)
I see English today as Latin was 400 years ago; a language of position rather than geography. Latin fell out of favor during the Reformation; perhaps English will fall out of favor when science is replaced as the reigning paradigm.


Bill Gregg


I think I didn't explain my second point very well. The world has shrunk considerably and will probably continue to shrink. Nearly every day now I work with people in India, a development that still amazes me whenever I stop to think about it. It's almost as if speakers of the world's many languages have been plucked from their countries of origin, set down in a very large village and are now settling on a way to communicate with each other.

In the past lingua francas did rise and fall, with a long lag as you say, according to the power and prestige of the country of origin. But at some point a sort of switch will flip and the sheer immensity of the human investment (native speakers + second-language learners + accumulated paper and digital texts) in that language will make it impractically expensive to switch to something else regardless of the world situation. (To tie this to my first point, if English ever begins to put down mother tongue roots in areas outside the current core Anglophone countries, it will only increase the momentum.)

It's very vpossible we haven't reached that point yet and the switch hasn't flipped. But if the figure of two billion English language learners worldwide cited above is anywhere near the mark, we may not be far from it.



My goodness, how all discussions these days inevitably devolve to accusations of cultural chauvinism and reverse cultural chauvinism! I think it's all fascinating, regardless of what anyone imagines will happen, or actually will.

Since I was taken to task earlier for saying that it always seemed to me that English, as a mutt language itself from the start, without any governing body (as French or Mandarin), might have had an advantage as a global commerce language. Is that just because of British, then American, power? Would it have become ossified and limited if it never spread beyond the shores of the British Isles? Who knows.

What I'm more interested in is how language shapes our way of looking at the world, and, if you read Chomsky or some neurolinguists, the very way our brains are wired (or is it the other way around?). But how do they do that? If learning multiple languages boosts your brainpower and adaptability, is it even more advantageous to spread that learning across different language families and types? Will an integrated world make us all more multilingual and smarter, or will it just make a few languages far more popular and a small bit dumber/simpler?

Also, if I can just add -- say what you will about American cultural arrogance, some of the people carrying on here about Mandarin and the inevitable rise of China sound like they're posting from the ministry of propaganda in Beijing. Just a hair short of "All Chinese are rich and have many cars and clean air and water and are tall and loved by oppressed peoples around the world!" Sheesh. I'm a big fan of Hungary (and Hungarian, a linguistic isolate with a fascinating history), but you don't see me carrying on like the rest of the world ought to kiss their kiesters!


Bill Gregg

"But last I checked, learning one language doesn't cause you to forget another. More than half the world plays soccer, but other sports continue to thrive. Why should languages be any different?"

Setting aside the faulty analogy (As long as enough players can be found for a sport there's no cost involved if several sports are played in a population, but there is a cost if several languages are spoken.), your time horizon is ridiculously short. If a prestige language maintains its prestige long enough, for many decades or a few centuries, amazing changes can take place.

The only example I know of in the modern era of a country whose mother tongue has been replaced is Ireland (and to a lesser extent maybe Singapore), but looking back further in history it's happened over and over. When an introduced prestige language permeates a national culture for generations, it loses its foreignness and nationalist resistance can be overcome. If this weren't the case, the French would be speaking a modern version of Gallic, residents of Anatolia Greek, Tunisians a North African Romance tongue, Egyptians Coptic, etc.

If English continues for generations to be a prestige internal lingua franca in some African and Asian countries, look for islands of mother tongue English to spring up in urban areas and expand outward. One can imagine something similar happening in Northern Europe given enough time. Arguments that English's position in the world is slipping based on recent changes in percentages of mother tongue speakers ignore this possibility.

Another dubious assumption is that English's fortunes will closely parallel America's geopolitical position. Once a global language is entrenched and the network effect takes hold, it won't easily be dislodged.



Having grown up in a country with three languages and countless dialects, I see the emergence of a hybrid language. It is already evident with English mixed with Spanish and becoming "Spanglish". Sure, grammar, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary will suffer but only from the perspective of the purists. Language evolves based on common use and interaction between different cultures. I'm sure someone from the 16th or 17th century England will not understand current English as it has developed over the centuries and places where it has taken root.


nice post- language evolves like everything else, so globalization will speed it up- I wonder about the difference between dialect formation and grammar devolution- it seems to me that regional dialects incorporating "rudimentary" english will abound on the internet (just like 'spanglish' and creole)- but this is different then jettisoning grammar/style/spelling for speed's sake- that is, I think there's something natural about our formation of dialects viz. the way our language generation adapts to a group dynamic- whereas, there's something completely artificial about changing language because texting/IM time constraints demand it- so I would guess dialects are good for our overall fulfillment of expression, but internet-speak will stunt our linguistic growth


It has been fascinating reading some of the comments esp Roger regarding the universality of english due to it's presumed superiority for some very specific (insert details here) reason. My personal experience has been somewhat different...

I live in a country that is predominantly english speaking. However, the area that I work in has 60 percent recent arrivals and has the greatest number of "community" languages spoken of any part of the country.

What has been noted amongst my group of friends, even going back years to high school, is that the english we speak, as natives, with our friends and families is very different to the english that we speak with people from other suburbs, schools, states and countries. We occasionaly even find ourselves conciously translating a message from one level or style to another in order to facilitate communication.

Even with a very high penetration of american pop culture on our tv's, radios and movie screens, not to mention that new fangled interweb thingy, the language with our friends and families does not absorb very much of this influence and evolves at different rate and in different directions to what one might expect. The language absorbs the phrases, words and grammatical conventions that are most useful to our time and place.

Our experience has mostly been that we speak with the most comfortable brand of english we have available and try to just nod and smile appropriately so we don't offend the weirdos when we have to deal with the inscrutable languages used in many parts of america and britain.



What I find interesting is that as English spreads, there will be a continuous new crop of mixed, creole, and pidgin languages with English as one of the influences (and these languages in turn could diversify into even more).

A German friend in Africa says she managed in many countries with such an English pidgin/creole language.

I think it is possible that such languages might grow and spread throughout the non-English (as a first language) world to such an extent that what we think of as proper English today could eventually become just one of many branches of English dialects, some of which may become unintelligible to native English speakers (which may contradict the idea of them being merely different dialects of the same language).

In short, the English speakers may lose control of the English language as it is co-opted and modified by the global community. And, just as fast as English spreads, it will break apart into new branches.

I believe that if English does become the world language, it could be a form of English not spoken today, and a form that might not even be understandable by many of today's native speakers (due to some combination in changes of pronunciation, accent, grammar, and vocabulary).


Miss Middle of Manchester


Cornish has been resurrected from being a language that died out about 100 years ago.


Miss Middle


Never understimate the power of learning mandarin ;-)


A vastly interesting topic! A couple observations:

Rolling: "The big loser? Grammar." Indeed. American English grammar has been going downhill for a while, and will soon become abysmal. I already see people on television whom I can barely understand.

Hayden: "In fact, globalization means that we have more reason than ever to learn a language." This also is true, but which language would be optimal to learn? His remarks and the rest of the article present many possibilities. Guess we'll have to mull that over a bit!

Hitchings: "Nobody owns languages any more. And this is likely to be especially troubling for anyone whose language is widely used by people who aren't native speakers." This means that languages will diverge more than they would otherwise ... and may produce a larger number of pidgins.

One aspect of globalization and linguistics that I didn't see addressed is, that languages now reach more people than they otherwise could have, and might take root in some far-flung places. Descendants of a diaspora, who may have lost their ancestral language over time, could encounter it again, and choose to resume using it, in some way or another. This has happened historically in some places -- due to circumstance -- but globalization might create more opportunities for this to happen, than did before.

By extension, this makes me wonder if there are any dying or nearly-dying languages that might be resurrected this way? Not that many, I'm sure ... but a few at least? Maybe?



If anyone watched the Eurovision Song Contest this past weekend, they will have noticed that most of the songs were in English. Please recall how many European countries have English as a first language. Not a whole lot. Almost none.

At some point the Bulgarian woman in the example above is going to get tired of speaking English to all her counterparts in all the other European countries and Bulgarian to her buddies. She's going to decide which language to specialize in. Saying "one liter of milk please" in Bulgarian is not really going to keep the language vibrant. At some point people are going to consider it extremely outdated. "All I can do in Bulgarian is ask for a liter of milk!"

I happen to speak the European language of my ancestors. It's even more obscure than Bulgarian. It's like a hobby language or a spy language that allows me to speak to my wife and family friend secretly even when we're out in public. But who cares. I'd rather be speaking to my more interesting American friends than the ones whose grandparents knew my grandparents in the old country. Or didn't.

Anyway, the French respondent above has missed two interesting things: First, the Internet is only growing in non-English pages because the non-English world is still catching up to all the English pages that were written during the first ten years. At some point everyone will be online and English will start displacing other languages. Second, France's entry in Eurovision also sang in English.



With the proliferation of text messages, e-mails, emoticons, strange abbreviations (The French love CUL, which means a**) why bother about style or form?

Interesting side-note: the letters: L.H.O.O.Q., when read aloud in French, make the sound of "Elle a chaud au cul," meaning, "She has a hot ass." Marcel Duchamp used the phrase for his infamous transformation of Mona Lisa: L.H.O.O.Q.

Duchamp was in the forefront of those working with modern technology to manipulate of image and sound, and can take some credit for the state of the language today.

Hillary L.H.O.O.Q., one of the most recognized images of the junior Senator of New York on the web today, was created on the same principle.


Tom Maddox

I'd just like to second and expand on Bob Gisborn's comment concerning grammar. In my experience (as teacher, writer, editor), in discussions such as these, most people mean "correct usage" when they say "grammar."

Usage is in fact prescriptive. And it's what typically gets noticed and commented upon when someone fouls it up--using "to" rather than "too," "loose" instead of "lose," forming plurals by adding an apostrophe before an s, misusing personal pronouns in a sentence, and so on.

(Side issue: does anyone know of any TV talking head in whatever role who can be relied upon to use personal pronouns consistently according to accepted usage? I suspect that TV does more damage to usage than the Internet, which is yet another issue.)

At any rate, correct usage, its limits and rules, is what's diminishing in the use of English by non-native speakers who aren't concerned with such correctness but who are trying to communicate effectively in a foreign tongue. And all best to them.

It also appears to be diminishing among an increasing number of native speakers whose creative violations of usage can be seen and admired online.

So I think that correct usage by whatever measures (along with those of us who recognize it) may be vanishing, not English grammar.


Johnny E

As the US loses it's dominance in world trade and politics the influence of English might not be as strong. Although English unites the world and becomes more universal because of modern communications media, it is also fragmenting into different dialects. Many of these dialects and accents are already unintelligible to speakers of standard American English. I would need an interpreter in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Barbados, or certain regions in North Carolina if the people were speaking the dialect they speak among themselves. Now there are even more forces fragmenting "standard" English. Text messaging is unintelligible to old email hands. Spanglish and Ebonics tend to exclude people instead of enhance communication. The language of science, medicine and other specialities is unintelligible to mere mortals. Different regions of the world will be adding words to their English from their native languages.

We can see from the Scandinavian languages how fast a language can divert from its roots. Old Norse broke up into several languages in a couple hundred years.

English is evolving very fast as more people speak it, besides having more new things to talk about because of the explosion of technology. Webster may have anchored American English for awhile by writing his dictionary but there are few unifying forces now to comete against political, economic, and social influences on our language.


Ramon Casha

I'm from Malta - the smallest country in the EU, less than half a million people, ex-British colony and strongly dependent on tourism. You'd think it's the ideal place for English to replace the Maltese language. Yet it hasn't. Neither did any of the other languages that passed through Malta in its long history of being occupied by someone or other.

In Malta, life happens in Maltese. You can get by without knowing it - as any tourist can tell you. But you can't integrate into a society where everyone speaks Maltese to one another, almost all local TV programming including the news is in Maltese and the majority of schools use Maltese as their working language. People will happily switch to English to address a foreigner, but will switch back to Maltese to speak to one another, meaning you can't participate in a conversation or simply listen to what's going on.

Here's the situation: Everyone speaks Maltese, and almost everyone CAN speak English... to a certain extent. The baker in his van knows all the English words that are useful in selling bread. A hotel receptionist will have a much better grasp of the language of course, yet English is, in such cases, a utilitarian language - as long as they get their message across, grammar is not that important. When a Maltese person needs to communicate with someone in Germany they'll use English. It might be terrible English, but English nonetheless. Ultimately, if you translate the words with a dictionary and string them together, the person on the other end will get your meaning.

In the meantime it is the English language that suffers. Think of the users' manual of a Japanese or Chinese product and apply that to the spoken word. THAT is the English language that will gain dominance... if you can still call it a language at that stage. It's more like the English vocabulary.

If you travel around anywhere off the beaten track of tour buses, English is not as universal as some people think.



Ray G wrote: "Perhaps in 20 years we will all be speaking some odd form of globalized, tech-morphed English, but it will be English.

To think otherwise simply flies in the face of logic."

Ray, I'm one of the people who will call you on this and strongly disagree. I know where you're coming from-- believe me, decades ago when I was starting out in import-export, I thought exactly like you. In fact, this was supposedly the "built-in advantage" I had as a native English speaker compared to my competitors, since I spoke "the global business language" of English.

And the funny thing is, anybody who works in this business learns otherwise, and awfully darn quickly if we want to survive. We often learn it after getting burned and having our own "baptisms by fire." Others don't-- and they wind up in bankruptcy proceedings. An inside-joke among those of us in the business is that we can almost instantly identify the guy who's going to go out of business within a few years-- he'll be the monolingual English speaker who refuses to take other languages seriously.

The truth is, the vast majority of the "English-hegemony people that I know"-- i.e., the ones who think that English is and is destined to remain the world's global language (nevermind the fact that such an assessment is debatable even today)-- are themselves monolingual English speakers, or have at best a passing ability to function in other languages and cultures. Assumptions about English dominance, truthfully, do tend to coincide with relative ignorance about the prestige and extensive use of other languages. Conversely, the more one absorbs other languages and cultures, the more one realizes how ridiculously exaggerated are the claims of English predominance.

I'm not saying this is the case for you Ray. But among my fellow American friends who've succeeded in the business and have actually lived abroad in several countries, and learned the local languages and cultures, there's not one of us who would ever buy into the notion of "global English" as anything other than a vastly overrated myth perpetrated by some media in English-speaking countries.

I've cited reasons for this above (and reasons for my own 180 degree shift from my prior beliefs on this issue) and I won't repeat them here, but the upshot in terms of driving forces for this is three-fold:
1. Anglophone countries and particularly the USA, just aren't enjoying the kinds of cultural and economic dominance and prestige that we used to, and people in other countries know that. Remember, despite the breadth of the British Empire, French was the global lingua franca even at its peak-- the very notion of "global English" dates to the rapid spread of American business and technological dominance and media across the world, from around the 1960's or so. (German e.g. was the main scientific language up to around 1962 or so.) As this level of American dominance wanes, so does our language as a standard.

2. Improved technologies, particularly in automatic translation and dubbing, are rapidly decreasing the "transaction cost" of conducting discussions and business in multiple languages. Even the free software currently available does a good job of providing rough translations that preserve the basic meaning of a contract, and professional translation software will successfully interpret 99.9% of foreign text. As this continues to improve, its cost will come down just as it has for other computer technology. This is also causing an erosion of "global English"-- if such cheap translation is available between languages, why allow English to displace one's native tongue as a vehicle of communication, let alone allow English to become a predominating standard?

3. China, China, China. Ray I'm sorry, but you're wrong when you presume there is no global competitor to English on the horizon-- Mandarin Chinese already has far more native speakers and is gaining adherents more and more every year. In South Korea where I frequently travel for business, English used to be almost an obsession among the young people-- parents would actually send their kids overseas to grow up in the USA, so that they could speak American English without an accent. Now, Chinese has almost completely displaced English as the "go-to language" among young Koreans. English camps are being replaced with Chinese camps, and Chinese proficiency, rather than English, is the distinguishing mark of an ambitious, forward-looking young person. So much so that now, in South Korea and Thailand, Chinese is more studied than English is.

Like I said, Chinese is displacing English as the "prestige standard" in both Hong Kong and Singapore. 20 years ago in both places, everyone spoke English on the streets-- now, the young people speak Mandarin with ever-increasing frequency, and this despite the fact that among Chinese dialects, Cantonese is more historically connected to these cities than Mandarin. In other Asian countries with colonial histories-- French colonies like Vietnam and Laos, British colonies like Malaysia, American colonies like the Philippines, Dutch colonies like Indonesia-- Chinese continues to gain critical importance as a common standard.

Even in Japan, which has obviously had a difficult recent history with respect to China, the Chinese language is increasingly gaining popularity. I was at a conference recently with a number of Japanese engineers, who pointed out that professionals in Japanese science and engineering institutes are increasingly inclined to publish their technical papers in Chinese rather than English. The reasons for this are quite obvious: For a Japanese laboratory to write a paper in English requires over a decade of grueling English study, work in a faraway country, and multiple revisions of the paper before it is ready for submission, and even then, hard-working and accomplished Japanese engineers and scientists are regularly "scooped" by other groups whose native tongue in English, due to nothing more than difficulties in writing formal English. Writing in a foreign tongue is much more difficult than reading in it, and Japanese scientists are at a tremendous disadvantage if they have to write in English-- their own native tongue is so different that, even among the tiny fraction of Japanese who can speak English with absolute fluency and spent decades learning it, written papers requiring formal English delay publication of their results by months. Whereas, if they write the paper in Chinese, they can spend perhaps 3-4 years studying the language enough to be quite proficient in it, and publish their papers immediately with far less danger of being scooped due to language delays. About 50-60% of Japanese vocabulary is of Chinese derivation, especially technical terms, and Japanese of course uses the Chinese characters (kanji) for the written language. In other words, for high-level, technical and sophisticated communication in thorough detail, it is orders of magnitude easier for Japanese to use a Chinese international standard as opposed to English, which is why they are gravitating toward it. Same with Korean and Vietnamese scientists-- even though Korean and Vietnamese don't use Chinese characters, these languages' vocabularies bear a heavy Chinese imprint, so it's much easier to write in Chinese than in English.

I know a lot of Westerners try to claim that Chinese is just "too difficult to learn," but even on this I disagree. I speak only rudimentary Mandarin myself, but Chinese grammar is extraordinarily simple and logical, much more so than English, and written Chinese is in general much more concise than English-- a paragraph in English is often half its original size in Chinese. And as I said, the tones really aren't a problem-- there's a lot of leeway there, and you learn what you need just in the process of daily business. The characters can be tough to master, that's true, but not as tough as I used to think, and in any case for "lingua franca communication" with non-native speakers, we all just revert to pinyin whenever we need to. For example, while working through an invoice with a recent customer, I just typed in pinyin using IRC chat, while he either typed in Chinese characters (which I could translate using simple software), or in pinyin, which I myself could read or look up if I didn't know a word. Some of my American import-export colleagues, more sophisticated in Chinese, actually write in the Chinese characters themselves with standard additions to word processors, it's not that hard.

So Ray, as you can see, not only does Chinese have the prospect of replacing English as a global tongue-- this is already happening, right before our very eyes. Besides the excellent Kamusi Project link above, which I would recommend, here is another article on the sketchy prospects for English, "English's bleak future":

English is in no way threatened and will remain importantly internationally, but it's going to have quite a bit of company, with Chinese likely taking the top spot a lot sooner than we often appreciate. As someone who has worked in China, Taiwan and the Chinese communities in Malaysia and Indonesia, I've seen the industriousness and ingenuity of the Chinese people, and there is nothing to stop them from becoming essentially the world's standardbearers in the business world.


dePaul Consiglio

The most intimate form of language is sexuality and the act of sex. Like globalizaion sex sells. Language becomes intimacy.
Therefore it is not surprising that to become bi or multilingual makes one more intimate with those who speak your language and because of this more successful.Intimacy is lost by becoming to familiar. Hence the heterogenity of language. This is not too disimilar to procreation by prostitution as a means of sustaining the human race.
Intimacy will create. Distance will destroy.
Esperanto sought to make us utiltarian in design and function but would have stolen the relevance between us as humans by the death of all language except the artiticial esperanto. With relevance there is a need to communicate and the closeness between each of us sustains ourselves and propels us forward as a self. To lose any language of the tongue would mean to lose the language of the body and in the future losing all language would mean the loss of our bodies as part of the me myself and I that each of us is. You can argue further with Chartre that "I think therefore I am." You can also create "I think therefore I always am."
Globalization could destroy us in the end but if we continue to communicate intimately the more effective we will become at preventing our extinction. The only way to do this at least linguistically is to maintain an individual means of communicating with each other while at the same time keeping an identity that is uniquely our own by the langugage systems we speak.

dePaul Consiglio


Tarek Hoteit

Though I am a supporter of globalization for the wishful hope of eliminating poverty around the third world, I believe that whatever language first world countries (including China) possess is what will dominate the languages of the world. In my opinion, globalization today is making the rich richer and the poor poorer, because access to both, natural resources and the people, of poorer nations is now virtually free. The "language of the fittest", if we use Darwinian terms. Have you ever thought of the rich giving up their language in return for the language of the poor? It is usually the opposite.
To answer the question of this forum, "what will globalization do to languages?", I would say: money talks


Does a philosopher really need an edge over his peers?