English may now be the world's lingua franca, but according to a review of Nicholas Ostler's latest book in The Economist the future is uncertain:

English is expanding as a lingua-franca but not as a mother tongue. More than 1 billion people speak English worldwide but only about 330m of them as a first language, and this population is not spreading. The future of English is in the hands of countries outside the core Anglophone group. Will they always learn English?

Mr Ostler suggests that two new factors—modern nationalism and technology—will check the spread of English.


English will fade as a lingua-franca, Mr Ostler argues, but not because some other language will take its place. No pretender is pan-regional enough, and only Africa’s linguistic situation may be sufficiently fluid to have its future choices influenced by outsiders. Rather, English will have no successor because none will be needed. Technology, Mr Ostler believes, will fill the need.

This argument relies on huge advances in computer translation and speech recognition. Mr Ostler acknowledges that so far such software is a disappointment even after 50 years of intense research, and an explosion in the power of computers. But half a century, though aeons in computer time, is an instant in the sweep of language history.

What do you think? Are the days of English as a global second language numbered?


Translation has gotten vastly better than it used to, but it will never replace human language comprehension because of the same reason that human translators can't replace human language comprehension - people rarely express themselves in a clear, unambiguous way, except for trivial concepts.

The problem is more fundamental than learning to express oneself more precisely - people often possess their thought precisely, and only through the interchange of context and conversation is it made clear. Computer translation will help, but as long as there is human communication, there will be a language barrier. A dialect barrier, even. So there will be a lingua franca.

Will it be English? The lingua franca is a function of economic power...non-linguists learn a foreign language because it is generally in their economic interest somehow. If English-speaking countries continue to predominate economically, then English will be the lingua franca. The show Firefly proposed that in the future, the lingua franca would be English sprinkled with Chinese phrases...not quite a pidgin, but definitely with a strong Chinese influence.

A useful predictor might be the total non-distinct number of pages published in a given language. If those patterns change, that might predict the rise of another lingua franca.

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