Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

English, the Predominant Language

Written by johnleemk on 2:29:55 pm Jun 28, 2007.

A common theme in discussions of the future of geopolitics is which country will be the next superpower. Will it be China, India, Russia? And a common discursive corollary diverging from this subject is which will be the language of the future, the language to replace English.

It seems quite likely that Chinese — specifically, Mandarin (since there are so many dialects of Chinese) — will be the next predominant language. It might be a welcome change, considering the world has been dominated by the English language since the era of British colonialism.

But allow me to present the counterargument — that languages like Mandarin and Hindi (an Indian dialect) will become important, but not supercede English as the world's lingua franca.

That languages other than English have become critical for survival in a globalised world is very clear. Even Americans are being forced to become bilingual, as seen in the United States where many communities now run on both English and Spanish.

(Strangely enough, opponents of cultural globalisation are more than willing to overlook this leveling of the language playing field, and to make exaggerated claims of white Anglo-Saxon culture taking over the world.)

I myself am bilingual, speaking and writing both English and Malay — the influence of China and the Chinese is illustrated clearly, though, by my plans to learn to speak and write fluent Chinese.

But does all this mean that in a few generations, we will all be speaking Chinese, or some bastardised version of Chinese with words thrown in from other languages?

The latter is a likelier scenario, since no language in the world has remained pure after it has collided with other languages. (English itself is a bastard child of a variety of languages, and appears to be now adopting words from Hindi, if English as it is spoken and written in England is any indicator.)

But both scenarios, where Chinese or some descendant of it is the global lingua franca, are probably unlikely compared with the status quo of English predominance.

The influence of languages like Chinese and Hindi is on the rise, but as we have seen in England and India (and in many countries where English is commonly spoken alongside other languages, such as Malaysia and Singapore), all this has meant for now is that English adopts words from other languages, without the other languages actually gaining traction.

In the long run, the reason I think it is unlikely English can be toppled from its pedestal is because of a simple rule governing any network.

Take the telephone as an example. One telephone is completely useless. Two telephones mean you can chat with someone else. Six billion telephones mean you can chat with most of the world's population. The value of a network increases exponentially.

One effect of this law is that the first mover wins, unless it does something really stupid. This has been demonstrated on the internet — Friendster dominates in countries where it was the first social networking site to be taken up, Orkut dominates in Brazil where it was the first mover, and so on.

It is the same with languages. While the Indians were fighting each other in a series of civil wars and the Chinese were closing their doors to the world, the British were conquering the world and spreading their language.

These gains were solidified by America's rise as the next superpower, toppling the British. As things turned out, the United States was an English-speaking country too, so the English language's status became even more impossible to dislodge.

Of course, one could argue that once a non-English-speaking country becomes the preeminent superpower, we will all be speaking that country's language. But I doubt this, because barring a nuclear holocaust, you cannot change the fact that more people on Earth speak English than any other language, and that these are the people who matter.

The result is that those people who want to matter end up learning English in addition to whatever language they already have. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, thanks to the rule that grants first movers an advantage in networking.

There are over a billion people in the world who can speak Chinese. But because of the distribution of demographics, the value of speaking English far supersedes that of speaking Chinese. You can speak English and find your way around about as equally well in Bogota as in Timbuktu, but the same cannot be said for a monolingual Chinese speaker.

That is why I think the predominance of English will remain. Its position has already been cemented by three centuries of English-speaking superpowers, and if English is to be budged at all, it will require something more groundbreaking than a new superpower which has to contend with an existing lingua franca.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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