English Ebbs As World Language

The idea that English will become the world language is outdated, with the future more likely to see people switching between two or more languages for routine communications, a British language expert says in a new analysis.

The share of the world's population that speaks English as a native language is falling, David Graddol reports. Instead, English will play a growing role as a second language, he says in the journal Science.

The idea of English becoming the world language to the exclusion of others "is past its sell-by date," Graddol says.

Instead, its major contribution will be in creating new generations of bilingual and multilingual speakers, he reports. English-only speakers may find it difficult to fully participate in a multilingual society, he said.

A multi-lingual population is already the case in much of the world and is becoming more common in the United States. Indeed, the Census Bureau reported last year that nearly one American in five speaks a language other than English at home, with Spanish leading, followed by Chinese.

And that linguistic diversity, in turn, has helped spark calls to make English the nation's official language.

Yale linguist Stephen Anderson noted that multilingualism is "more or less the natural state. In most of the world multilingualism is the normal condition of people."

"The notion that English shouldn't, needn't and probably won't displace local languages seems natural to me," he said in a telephone interview.

While it is important to learn English, Anderson added, politicians and educators need to realize that doesn't mean abandoning the native language.

Graddol, of the British consulting and publishing business The English Company, anticipates a world where the share of people who are native English speakers slips from 9 percent in the mid-1990s to 5 percent in 2050.

As of 1995, he reports, English was the second most-common native tongue in the world, trailing only Chinese.

By 2050, he says, Chinese will continue its predominance, with Hindi-Urdu of India and Arabic climbing past English, and Spanish nearly equal to it.

Swarthmore College linguist K. David Harrison noted, however, that "the global share of English is much larger if you count second-language speakers, and will continue to rise, even as the proportion of native speakers declines."

Harrison disputed listing Arabic in the top three languages, "because varieties of Arabic spoken in say, Egypt and Morocco are mutually incomprehensible."

By Randolph E. Schmid