World Language

25 October 2004

A (Much Resented) World Language

By Gwynne Dyer

Predictably, the French were furious. A national commission looking into the future of the French education system recommended last week that English, which it called “the language of international communication,” be made compulsory in French schools, and the usual suspects erupted in outrage. It would be the final surrender, an acceptance that English had definitively replaced French as the international language, and they were damned if they would let it happen.

Most of the world thought that this battle ended about fifty years ago, shortly after the Second World War, when America emerged as the new superpower and its language became the normal medium of communication in international business and diplomacy throughout the West. English had been gaining ground on French since Britain replaced France as the reigning superpower over a century before, and the rise of the United States pretty well settled the issue. Except in France.

It’s hard losing an advantage that your country has enjoyed for a long time — Americans would also dislike it if they had to learn French or Chinese in order to be understood when they travel abroad — but the French just went into denial about it. Some 97 percent of students in France study English at some point, but there is little official pressure to learn it well, and the French lag well behind their German, French and Spanish neighbours in their command of English. This has a serious effect on France’s ability to compete in international business, and the commission was merely suggesting a remedy.

Foolish commission. They should have known. Politicians and intellectuals queued up to denounce them as defeatist in the French media. The dominance of English is merely a transitory thing, they argued, and should not be pandered to. Typical was Jacques Myard, a member of parliament for the ruling UMP party, who announced: “English is the most spoken language today, but that won’t last.” Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish would become increasingly important, he predicted, and the position of English would erode.

You could tell why they like this prophecy so much. They all hope that the rise of these other languages and the relative decline in the importance of English will lead to a polyglot world where French would at least regain a position as one of the equal leading languages. (French has only 75 million native speakers in the developed world, but there is a huge additional reservoir of potential French-speakers in the former French colonies in Africa.)

Is this just wishful thinking, or is it really the shape of the future? Size matters: no language has ever risen to become the regional or global lingua franca without having a lot of speakers and a powerful state behind it. But once a language has achieved that dominant position, it is such a useful device for international intercourse that it doesn’t necessarily fall into disuse when the power of its original speakers declines. A thousand years after the Roman empire in the West was overrun by barbarians, educated Europeans were still using Latin to communicate with one another.

The United States does not face the fate of Rome, but it will bulk much less large in the world in fifty years’ time than it does at the moment: other economies are growing much faster, especially in Asia. If there is more business to be done, many more foreigners will take the trouble to learn Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish — and Portuguese, Russian and Indonesian — than do so at the moment. But nobody is going to learn them ALL: everybody will still need a common language, and it will still be English.

It helps, of course, that India, which is destined to be the most populous nation of all, already uses English as a lingua franca within its own borders to cope with the multiplicity of other official languages in the country. By 2050, when China will be the largest economy, the United States will be second, and India will be third, two of the three most powerful countries in the world will be effectively English-speaking for international purposes. But this merely reinforces a phenomenon that has already gained huge momentum.

Over the past twenty years, the switch to English as the first foreign language taught in schools has accelerated worldwide. In the formerly Communist countries of eastern Europe it has replaced Russian, and in Russia itself English is now obligatory in the schools. More recently it has been made compulsory in Chinese schools: it is now practically impossible to gain admission to a Chinese university without a decent command of English. To the intense irritation of the French, it has even become the de facto working language of the European Union, although only two out of twenty-five member states (Britain and Ireland) are mainly English-speaking.

An avalanche has occurred, and avalanches are irreversible. A globalised world needs a common second language so that Peruvians can talk to Chinese and Hungarians can communicate with Ethiopians. It is an accident of history that the dominant global power was English-speaking at the time when this need became apparent, but the investment that hundreds of millions of people have already made in learning the language guarantees that this accident will have permanent results.

However, it does make the French very cross.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“You…Africa”; and “It helps…momentum”)