Thanks to the wide expansion of the British Empire and the post-war rise of U.S. businesses, English has a pretty strong hold on the role of global lingua franca. American and British popular culture, in the form of music and films, further cemented this status throughout the 20th century. English, despite its grammatical oddities and orthographic idiosyncrasies, is easily adapted into other languages, allowing hybridized “Spanglish” and “Hinglish” – Spanish and Hindu “versions” of English, respectively – to further spread the use and popularity of English. Recognized as the language of business and frequently of tourism, young people in countries as disparate as China and Mexico strive to learn to the language to increase their earning power. So widespread has English become, that by the 1990s, research showed that 80 percent of online content was in English.
Yet, less than a decade later, that number fell to 45 percent. To some degree this is a result of more widespread access to the Internet as well as technology that supports localization of content, including the language in which a web site is presented. However, this shift also reflects the changing reality of languages spoken around the world. Looking towards the future, English speakers may have to come to terms with the possibility that English may be less universally spoken as global demographics change and new economies emerge.
A recent report from the UK-based thinktank the British Council looked into more than 20 growth markets and their primary languages, finding that Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and Indonesian will dominate large portions of the business world by 2050. Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Russian will also become more prevalent. The report looked at demographic changes in emerging economies such as China, Brazil, and India. Already, the Chinese dialects combined have more native speakers than any other language, boasting 1.39 billion. Another 2004 study showed that the percentage of the global population that speaks English as a first language is on the decline.
Historically, a lingua franca, or international language of trade, is imposed by conquerors on those conquered, and if the conquerors create a powerful enough empire, inhabitants of that economic sphere choose to learn that language to increase their earning potential, further cementing the language in its position. Now that the economy is global, a lingua franca is a global language. Native English speakers are accustomed to thinking of that primary position as unassailable. No doubt the Romans viewed Latin in the same light. But changing economics and the rise and fall of the fortunes of nations, could affect the universality of English, or any dominant language.
Typically, a dominant language is just that: a dominant one among others, and indeed, in many places like India and Indonesia, English is a second language to most of the bilingual population. As such, of course, it can be replaced. In fact, since such languages are often imposed to begin with, people are often more than willing to drop it, as a reminder of colonial occupation.
What factors could affect the dominance of English? The most salient one is the economic status of the primary English-speaking world powers, Britain and the United States. Both countries have recently made political decisions that have stunned the world: Great Britain by choosing Brexit, and the United States by choosing to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.
To the world, this latter decision was nearly unfathomable. If the Earth becomes uninhabitable, the language of business becomes irrelevant. Fortunately, most countries did agree to the Paris agreement, and many countries are creating or participating in initiatives to create clean, safer energy sources.
Why is this relevant to the dominance of English?
The Earth is in a crisis right now, standing on the cusp of ecological disaster, but still at a point where damage can be contained, and possibly, eventually, reversed. It doesn’t take a prophet to see that a country that can create clean energy sources and implement them successfully, will have an opportunity to become a strong economic power in the coming century.
Great Britain’s colonial exploits and ensuing economic ascendancy were instrumental in spreading English around the globe, and the United States, as the primary economic power since the decline of the British Empire, continued to solidify English as today’s lingua franca. But if the United States, by turning its back on the Paris Accords, loses its position as a world leader in science, technology, innovation, and business, another country will be ready to step into that position.
Currently, China is investing much more money and effort into developing clean energy sources than the U.S., and China is already a strong economic power, and getting stronger. Investment trends in India, another rising economic power, have trended toward renewable and clean energy as well. The UAE has invested in clean energy plants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and Mexico has created the 396 Megawatt Juchitan de Zaragoza onshore wind farm. It is likely that the nation or region that wins the clean energy race will be the next major economic power… and it is also likely that the next lingua franca will be that of the next great economic superpower.
The United States, famously poor at teaching and using other languages, might do well to consider this possibility as they withdraw themselves from the Paris Climate Agreements… and from the rest of the world.