English in Decline as a First Language, Study Says
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 publishedin Englishin 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 languagesEnglish, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, and Arabicare likely to be equally ranked by 2050, with Arabic rising as English declines.
But it is the languages of the rank just belowsuch as Bengali, Tamil, and Malaythat 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 communicationeconomic, cultural, and politicalbecomes 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 Montgomerya 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 speakersparticularly monolingual oneshave been too complacent about the status of their language and the lack of need to learn other languages," Graddol said.
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