the lingua franca of our times [WRITING]

article for ted x vienna

february 2019

 

The lingua franca of our time

Roughly a billion people speak English. International diplomacy is conducted in English, stocks are traded in English, almost all scientific journals are written in English and the majority of the internet is in English. When a Russian woman travelling in Brazil wants to know the cost of her bus ticket she asks her question and hears the answer in English. Despite the dominance of English in world communication, its strength doesn’t come from its number of native speakers (roughly 378 million)–Chinese tops that list with a convincing 908 million, well over twice as many English native speakers. Rather, it is the very fact of it being a second (or a third) language that makes it so prevalent. The communication between the Russian and the Brazilian is the very definition of a lingua franca–two people who don’t share a mother tongue using a third tongue to communicate.  

English hasn’t always reigned. You need only go back to the 19th century to see French and Portuguese being used as the lingua franca in their various colonial outposts. (Indeed, French came very close to becoming the global language English is today.) Throughout history, the drivers of conquest, religious missions or trade have brought languages serving as lingua franca along for the ride. The ancient languages Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Pali, Persian, Sanskrit and Sogdian have been a lingua franca. Sanskrit, in particular, enjoyed a lengthy and prestigious period as the language of administration and high culture for almost 1,000 years in India and much of Turkic Central Asia. None of these languages, however, attained the widespread reach that English enjoys today. They didn’t have the ally of globalisation. Due to this growing global interconnectedness, starting with the British empire's expansion beginning in the 16th century and the growing economic power of the US in the 20th, English began its day in the linguistic sun. 

Some believe this sun will never set. This argument for English remaining the global language is two-fold. Firstly, there is a lack of any serious contender. Secondly, it has transitioned from a colonial language forced on to its new speakers to a language people are choosing to learn because they believe it offers them more opportunities in the global community. English is no longer simply an administrative linguistic tool with which to more efficiently run a colony: it has become deeply embedded into the world's shared popular, political and scientific culture. Yet while it may be difficult to imagine a world with such widespread change, to do so would be myopic at the very least. Had a citizen of the Roman Empire sometime in the early 2nd century been told that in 200 years their empire would cease to exist, they would have had a hard time believing you. However, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the winds of time would blow the Roman Empire house down. Indeed, Emperor Charles V was reported to have joked in the 16th century about speaking English only with his horse and reserving other, better, languages (French, Latin, Italian) for better, nobler ears. Fast forward almost half a century and his joke would receive a confused silence and an awkward cough at the dinner table. 

 Many have proposed alternative scenarios. A study by a French investment bank Natixis predicts that 750 million people will speak French by 2050 and that eventually the language could surpass even Mandarin as the most spoken. This trajectory’s realisation relies on the continued economic growth of a continent where French is widely spoken as a result of its colonial past–Africa. The continent’s transition into an economic powerhouse also provides substance to the theory that Chinese could become a more desirable second language than English, at least for the millions of young sub-Saharan job-seekers deciding between the English or Chinese speaking job market. For Nicholas Ostler, another sequence of events seems more likely. In his book, The Last Lingua Franca, he argues that translation technology will improve to the point that English or any other shared language as a communicative tool will be abandoned as people converse cross-border by speaking their native language, translated to be understood by all. 

Predicting the future has never been easy. Perhaps the only reliable certainty is Heraclitis’s reasoning that the only constant is change (in 400 BCE, when the pre-Socratic philosopher wrote these words in Greek in his home city Ephesos, the lingua franca helping the First Persian Empire run smoothly was Aramaic). In this vein, it seems likely the world will come to know another dominant language and most likely at a time when the world is a very different place.