Global English and Linguistic Diversity

Today roughly 1/4 of the world’s people speak English (1.5 Billion: 400 million people as a first language; 300-500 million as a second language; and another 750 million speak some English). There are about 3X more non-native speakers than native speakers. The IHT (April 9, 2007) article Across cultures, English is the world discusses the global dominance of the English language.

Riding the crest of globalization and technology, English dominates the world as no language ever has, and some linguists are now saying it may never be dethroned as the king of languages.

Others see pitfalls, but the factors they cite only underscore the grip English has on the world: cataclysms like nuclear war or climate change or the eventual perfection of a translation machine that would make a common language unnecessary.

Some insist that linguistic evolution will continue to take its course over the centuries and that English could eventually die as a common language as Latin did, or Phoenician or Sanskrit or Sogdian before it.

“If you stay in the mind-set of 15th-century Europe, the future of Latin is extremely bright,” said Nicholas Ostler, the author of a language history called “Empires of the Word” who is writing a history of Latin. “If you stay in the mind-set of the 20th-century world, the future of English is extremely bright.”

That skepticism seems to be a minority view. Experts on the English language like David Crystal, author of “English as a Global Language,” say the world has changed so drastically that history is no longer a guide.

“This is the first time we actually have a language spoken genuinely globally by every country in the world,” he said. “There are no precedents to help us see what will happen.”

“English has become the second language of everybody,” said Mark Warschauer, a professor of education and informatics at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s gotten to the point where almost in any part of the world to be educated means to know English.”

New vernaculars have emerged in such places as Singapore, Nigeria and the Caribbean, although widespread literacy and mass communication may be slowing the natural process of diversification.

“We may well be approaching a critical moment in human linguistic history,” Crystal wrote. “It is possible that a global language will emerge only once.”

After that, Crystal said, it would be very hard to dislodge. “The last quarter of the 20th century will be seen as a critical time in the emergence of this global language,” he said.

The spread of English comes, at least partly, at the expense of other languages. Today, 3,000 of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages are viewed to be endangered. 95% of languages are spoken by only 6% of the world’s people – 25% have less than 1000 speakers. This simplification of the world’s languages represents a huge loss of accumulated cultural knowledge, despite the richness that also emerges in the global diversification and richness of English. For more on endangered languages see Foundation for endangered languages, Cultural Survival, and Ethnologue (which lists over 500 nearly extinct languages).

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