Gwynne Dyer: English triumphs over other languages

The second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one.” It is destined “in the next and succeeding centuries to be more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age.”

It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English-speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the eastern seaboard of North America. They were barely one percent of the world’s population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams’s prediction doing now?

Well, it took a little longer than he thought, but last week one of the most respected universities in Italy, the Politecnico di Milano, announced that from 2014 all of its courses would be taught in English.

There was a predictable wave of outrage all across the country, but the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzoni, simply replied: “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language. Universities are in a more competitive world. If you want to stay with the other global universities, you have no other choice.”

The university is not doing this to attract foreign students. It is doing it mainly for its own students who speak Italian as a first language, but must make their living in a global economy where the players come from everywhere—and they all speak English as a lingua franca.

Many other European universities, especially in Germany, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia, have taken the same decision, and the phenomenon is now spreading to Asia. There is a huge shift underway, and it has become extremely rare to meet a scientific researcher or international businessperson who cannot speak fluent English. How else would Peruvians communicate with Chinese?

But wait a minute. Peruvians speak Spanish, the world’s second-biggest language, and Chinese has the largest number of native speakers of any language. Why don’t they just learn each other’s languages?

Because neither language is much use for talking to anybody else. Chinese won’t get you very far in Europe, Africa or the Americas—or, indeed, in most of Asia. The same goes for Spanish almost anywhere outside Latin America. Since few people have the time to learn more than one or two foreign languages, we need a single lingua franca that everybody can use with everybody else.

The choice has fallen on English not because it is more beautiful or more expressive, but just because it is already more widespread than any of the other potential candidates.

Mandarin Chinese has been the biggest language by number of speakers for at least the last 1,000 years, and is now used by close to a billion people, but it has never spread beyond China in any significant way. Spanish, like English, has grown explosively in the past two centuries: each now has over 400 million speakers. But Spanish remains essentially confined to Central and South America and Spain, while English is everywhere.

There is a major power that uses English in every continent except South America: the U.S. in North America, the United Kingdom in Europe, South Africa in Africa, India in Asia, and of course Australia (where the entire continent speaks it). All of that is due to the British empire, which once ruled one-quarter of the world’s people. For the same reason, there are several dozen other countries where English is an official language.

Of course, the British empire went into a steep decline almost a century ago, but the superpower that took Britain’s place was the United States, another English-speaking country. After another century during which everybody dealing in international business and diplomacy—indeed, any independent traveller who went very far from home—simply had to learn English, the die was cast. English had become the first worldwide lingua franca.

There have been few languages in world history that were spoken by more people as a second language than as a first; English has had that distinction for several decades already. Never before has any language had more people learning it in a given year than it has native speakers; English has probably now broken that record as well.

Most of those learners will never become fully fluent in English, but over the years some hundreds of millions will, including the entire global elite. And the amount of effort that is being invested in learning English is so great that it virtually guarantees that this reality will persist for generations to come.

No other language is threatened by this predominance of English. Italians are not going to stop speaking Italian to one another, even if they have attended the Politecnico di Milano, and no force on Earth could stop the Chinese or the Arabs from speaking their own language among themselves. But they will all speak English to foreigners.

Comments (14) Add New Comment
dru
I liked this article. What Mr. Dyer wrote is what I've been saying for a long time. "Learning" the structure of a foreign language is fine, but perfecting the fluency really isn't easy. I feel (very) fortunate to be a native English speaker.
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McRocket
I just want everyone to be able to speak to everyone else.

If English is the language that fulfills that hope - eventually - power to it.

The world can only be a better place to live in if we all understand what each other is saying.
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KiDDAA Magazine
Bottom line once again Dyer is right whether its Irans non existent nuclear weapons, Israels 200 nukes, US wars that cause misery, African dictators and poverty. Dyer is right English is the language of choice and people need it to communicate with others. But the reality is the new world you got to have a second or even a 3rd language to really be great.
I have seen a few white people in Canada when we joke you should learn Punjabi or Cantonese. In reality the US is a Spanish speaking nation and Canada is also French. Dyer and the Straight keep up the though provoking editorials and ignore Shaw Canwest nonsense.
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Petar Ticinovic
Notice he never mentions French or France once-what a surprise.
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PJ Houston
Excellent.
I live in Italy. Yesterday, Sun 20 May, I had a discussion with my partner Laura re the decision to use English as the official language at one of Italy's top Universities. Your article prompted me to post the following on my fb page: '.......She was annoyed and indignant when I expressed approval at the Isituto Tecnico di Milano's recent decision to conduct all degree courses in English. "In an Italian University,...... why not use Italian in Italy?", she said. So I thought, 'Paese che vai, usanza che trovi' (in English; 'When in Rome, do as the Romans')..... 'Esattamente' she replied.....completely misunderstanding me.
The following article (your article linked to fb) explains why Romans, and not just Romans, speak English in Italy. Will she ever forgive me?....'
So, thank you, and 'Complimenti' to Gwynne Dyer, for combining intelligence with common sense, you deserve a wide readership, and Laura now agrees with me!

PJ Houston,
pj.houston@voiplanguages.com
www.voiplanguages.com
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Dennis Ryan
I wonder what the soverignists in Quebec, and many of them are fluently bilingual, would think of Gwynne's article. Probably see it as confirmation of their long belief as English being a threat to French. I see great benefits to being bilingual; I wish I was better at it. I can only count myself fortunate that it's my own language that's becoming predominant. But I can see where others, and not only French quebecers, would be angry at the idea.
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greggron
And meanwhile in Quebec this week, an English speaking home-for-the-aged was raided by that province's tongue-troopers for daring to have English notices posted on the communal bulletin board.
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Ron S.
I was a consultant in Egypt in the early 1980's. One of my friends there was from France. He was in charge of Wagon Lit servces for Egyptian National Railways. One day he told me he had a visitor from the French Embassy and they were enquiring as to how they could have French spoken more in foreign countries like Egypt. He told me that he answered them in perfect english, "You're too late"!
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Vancouverite1212
This article gets into the concern of English as a killer language: http://mylostwords.blogspot.ca/2012/02/english-as-killer-language.html

worth a read as it gets into the topics that Mr. Dyer avoids (cultural colonialism, linguistic domination and death, grassroots revival and preservation efforts)
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R U Kiddingme
I just wish they would speak English in the States. Everytime I go there, I am constantly meeting people who speak like they are auditioning for ethnic humour stereotype of the week. Fo reals.
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Dan Bashaw
I doubt that English as the global language has more than another decade ahead of it. Voice-to-voice machine translation is improving so rapidly that the concept of having to actually speak the same language to communicate may soon be a quaint notion. You speak Mandarin, I speak English, and we both let our tablets do the heavy lifting so we hear each other in our language of choice. Call it Polyglot Planet.
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Reality Checker
Somebody tell les Quebecois. Give them something else to bang their pots and pans about.
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ErnestPayne
English is a pirate language. It is more than willing to use a foreign word if it is more useful than an English phrase. Tsunami - one word for an "earthquake induced tidal wave". English aren't worried about protecting the "sacredness" of their language. One reason it is such a language of confidence.
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Teedeer
Commercial pilots must speak English at every major airport in the world. Even in Russia who are now the ipso facto United States space station transport firm. Aeroflot Pilots and Second Officers must be fluent in English before they are allowed to fly outside Russian borders.
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