English is fast becoming the language of science around the world, but what is its future among everyday speakers? One expert points out that the percentage of native English speakers is declining globally while the languages of other rapidly growing regions are being spoken by increasing numbers of people. But English will continue to remain widespread and important.
Just 10 years ago, native English speakers were second only to Chinese in number. But British language scholar David Graddol says English will probably drop in dominance by the middle of this century to rank, after Chinese, about equally with Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu, a south-Asian tongue closely related to Hindi.
He points out that the decline will not be in total numbers of English speakers, but in relative terms. "The number of people speaking English as a first language continues to rise, but it isn't rising nearly as fast as the numbers of many other languages around the world simply because the main population group has been largely in the lesser developed countries where languages other than English have been spoken," he says.
In a recent article in the journal Science, Mr. Graddol noted that three languages not now near the top of the list of the most widely spoken might be there soon. These are Bengali, Tamil, and Malay, spoken in south and southeast Asia.
But another expert on the English language says Mr. Graddol underestimates the future of its dominance. David Crystal of the University of Wales, the author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, says about 1.5 billion of the world's six billion people speak it as a second tongue compared to the 400 million native speakers.
"Nobody quite knows what's going to happen because no language has been in this position before. But all the evidence suggests that the English language snowball is rolling down a hill and is getting faster and faster and faster and accreting new foreign language users unlike any language has ever done before," he said. "I don't myself see that process stopping in the immediate future. David Graddol thinks even that momentum will die in the near future, but personally I think there is no sign of this.
David Graddol does not dispute English's expansion as a second language, but his sense of proportion differs. While Mr. Crystal says more than three times as many people speak it as a second language than as a first, Mr. Graddol says that only recently have the second language speakers surpassed the number of native English speakers.
Whatever the total, he disagrees with the notion that English's growth as a second tongue means it will become the world language to the exclusion of all others. "We have grown up with the idea of dominance meaning that a language actually pushes out other languages and takes over the world. That's not actually what seems to be happening. Precisely because people are learning English as a second language, they are not actually giving up their first languages. They are becoming bilingual or multilingual. So the spread of English around the world is actually creating a greatly increased bilingualism and multilingualism," he says.
Mr. Graddol says this will put people who speak only English at a competitive disadvantage. In the new linguistic world order, he says most people will switch between languages for routine tasks and monolingual English speakers will find it difficult to participate fully in society.
"In India, for example, someone might speak five, six, even seven languages and not think that is a particularly unusual thing. But there will be some activities like going down to the market and buying vegetables that they might be able to do only in, say, Tamil. Then when they go home, they will talk to their family in another language, but when they go to college they will use probably English," he says.
Mr. Graddol notes that employers in parts of Asia are already looking beyond English. In the next decade, he says the most important language to learn for job opportunities is likely to be Mandarin Chinese.