English in Decline as a First Language, Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
February 26, 2004

It may be time to brush up on your Mandarin.

According to one new study, the percentage of the global population that grew up speaking English as its first language is declining. In addition, an increasing number of people now speak more than one language.

In the future, English is likely to be one of those languages, but the Mandarin form of Chinese will probably be the next must-learn language, especially in Asia.

"The status of English as a global language may peak soon," said David Graddol, managing director of the English Company in Milton Keynes, England, and the author of a new study on the future of language.

However, a separate study suggests that English's dominance in the scientific arena will continue to expand. While this trend has encouraged international collaboration, researchers warn it could also divide the scientific world into haves and have-nots, determining who can, for example, publish in international journals.

Both studies are published—in English—in this week's issue of the journal Science.

No World Language

Graddol argues that the world's language system is at a crossroads, and a new linguistic order is about to emerge. The transformation is partly due to demographics. The world's population rose rapidly during the 20th century, but the major increase took place in less developed countries.

Long gone is the idea, first suggested in the 19th century, that the entire world will one day speak English as a "world language." In fact, the relative decline of English is continuing. In the mid-20th century, nearly 9 percent of the world's population grew up speaking English as their first language. In 2050, the number is expected to be 5 percent.

"Population growth amongst speakers of languages other than English has been greater," Graddol said. But he adds that English is declining less rapidly than some other languages, like Italian.

Today, Mandarin Chinese is well established as the world's largest language in terms of native speakers.

The next four major languages—English, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, and Arabic—are likely to be equally ranked by 2050, with Arabic rising as English declines.

Continued on Next Page >>


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