English in Decline as a First Language, Study Says

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But it is the languages of the rank just below—such as Bengali, Tamil, and Malay—that are now growing the fastest.

Meanwhile, the world continues to rapidly lose older, rural languages. There are roughly 6,000 languages existing in the world today. Yet 90 percent of these may be doomed to extinction, with much of this loss happening in the coming century. One language may be lost every day, Graddol says.

"Languages spoken only in small, traditional, rural communities are being lost as the communities themselves are transformed and connected closely to the wider society," Graddol said. "Linguistic diversity is being lost at a faster rate than biodiversity."

Science's Lingua Franca

While many rural languages are going extinct, new urban hybrid languages may help to maintain global diversity. Hundreds of new forms of English have already been spawned around the world.

Some traditional languages are losing their practical use as much communication—economic, cultural, and political—becomes international. "Swedish, like many European languages, is now more a local language of solidarity than one for science, university education, or European communication," Graddol writes.

In an accompanying article, Scott Montgomery—a Seattle-based geologist and author of The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science,—shows that English has established itself as the preferred world language for science.

"Because of its scale and dynamism, science has become the most active and dynamic creator of new language in the world today. And most of this creation is occurring in English, the lingua franca of scientific effort," Montgomery said.

Montgomery believes the future will almost certainly see a continued expansion of English use in science, especially in international settings, though not to the final exclusion of other tongues. Already, more than 90 percent of journal literature in some scientific fields is printed in English.

"More and more scientists who are non-native speakers of English will need to become multilingual," Montgomery said. "[This constitutes] an educational burden in some sense, but one that has much historical precedent in the cases of ancient Greek, medieval Latin, and medieval Arabic."

Next Must-Learn Language

Graddol, meanwhile, predicts that English will play a crucial role in shaping the new linguistic order. But, he says, its major impact will be in creating new generations of bilingual and multilingual speakers around the world.

"English is becoming a major mechanism for social and economic exclusion and creating new divides," he said. "In many parts of the world, English is now regarded as a basic skill, like computer skills, which children learn at an early age so they can study through English later."

Businesses whose employees are not multilingual will find themselves at a disadvantage, Graddol says. In fact, employers in parts of Asia are already looking beyond English. In the next decade, the new must-learn language is likely to be Mandarin.

"Chinese is demographically huge, but when the Chinese economy has overtaken that of the United States, no one will be able to ignore its global power," Graddol said. "We know from the past that great languages of science can be overtaken. Latin was preeminent when modern science began in the 17th century."

In the future, the study predicts, most people will speak more than one language and will switch between languages for routine tasks. Monolingual English speakers may find it difficult to fully participate in a multilingual society.

"Native English speakers—particularly monolingual ones—have been too complacent about the status of their language and the lack of need to learn other languages," Graddol said.

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