British linguist Nicholas Ostler says the English language’s days as the global lingua franca are numbered despite even as it enjoys unheard-of global dominance. In his recent book “The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return to Babel” he reaches the conclusion after tracing the rise and fall of one-time international languages Aramaic, Phoenician, and Persian.
Ostler majored in Latin at Oxford University and has a doctorate in Sanskrit from MIT.
The reasons are what he calls the “Three Rs” — ruin, relegation and resignation. Language is surprisingly easily influenced by political factors, he says, and the influence of English will weaken with the diminishing power of the world’s sole superpower, the U.S. Russian, which was understood by around 10 percent of people in Central Asia in the early 20th century, soared to almost 100 percent in 1959, just after the region became communist, but the proportion plummeted with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its fate was similar in Eastern Europe.
As for English, some 300 million out of the 7 billion people in the world have English as their primary language, and that has been the case for some time. Already some countries like Sri Lanka and Tanzania have removed English from its list of official languages on a surge of nationalism.
The economic prowess of Anglo-Saxon countries that were behind the spread of influence of English in the last three to four centuries is falling. In emerging economies like China, Brazil and Russia, foreign investors need to learn the local language as English is not enough to communicate.
From a sociological perspective, the age of the Internet put English in a similar position to the one Latin faced when printing technology was developed. The printing press boosted demand for books in local languages and accelerated the fall of Latin. By the same token, the past decade saw an explosion of languages other than English across the web, such as Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish.
Ostler predicts that the demise of English will make learning a foreign language a thing of the past. Due to the development of voice recognition and instant interpretation technology will do away with the need for people to translate and interpret, he claims.
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