Will English Destroy All Other Languages?
Though difficult to fathom, just 1,500 years ago, English was a wisp of a language, spoken by a smattering of Germanic tribes as they migrated from mainland Europe to the island of Britain. Today, linguists whisper and wonder: will English eradicate all other languages?
To do so would be a tall task. English's 339 million native speakers are outnumbered by those who speak Spanish (427 million) and Mandarin Chinese (897 million).* What's more, English's native speaking population has been decreasing steadily. While this situation seems to suggest that English is on the way out, globally, it's actually ascending. That's because 510 million people from all over the world have elected to learn English as a second language, and more start learning every day. No other language comes close.
In science, business, and the media, English dominates. Learning the language is a cheap price of admission to join an increasingly interconnected world.
A side effect is that other languages are starting to fall by the wayside. Prominent linguist David Graddol estimates that as many as 90 percent of the world's 6,000 to 7,000 languages will go extinct this century. His learned guess is echoed by John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University. Backing them both is evidence from a study published in 2014. Researchers modeled declines in hundreds of languages and found that, on average, a language is going extinct every two weeks. If this trend continues to play out over the next century, 2,600 languages will be gone. The researchers suggested that a burning desire to benefit from economic growth is what's causing lesser-spoken languages to go up in smoke. More and more, education and employment hinges upon being able to communicate in modern society. This means that parents are not passing on rarer, obsolete languages to their children.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, McWhorter had this to say on the situation:
"It is easy for speakers to associate larger languages with opportunity and smaller ones with backwardness, and therefore to stop speaking smaller ones to their children. But unless the language is written, once a single generation no longer passes it on to children whose minds are maximally plastic, it is all but lost. We all know how much harder it is to learn a language well as adults."
So as esoteric tongues die, vastly fewer will remain. But will English emerge on top?
"Some may protest that it is not English but Mandarin Chinese that will eventually become the world’s language, because of the size of the Chinese population and the increasing economic might of their nation," McWhorter wrote. "But that’s unlikely. For one, English happens to have gotten there first. It is now so deeply entrenched in print, education and media that switching to anything else would entail an enormous effort... Also, the tones of Chinese are extremely difficult to learn beyond childhood, and truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it."
While Chinese may remain the most spoken language on account of the large and growing native population that speaks it, English certainly isn't going anywhere. One of the chief reasons is that it has cemented itself as the defining cosmopolitan language of our time. In a 2010 study, Gary Lupyan of the University of Pennsylvania and Rick Dale of the University of Memphis found data to suggest that as more and more non-native speakers learn a language, they inadvertently hack away at the extraneous edges. Over time, the language grows more streamlined and simple to learn. There's no question that English has evolved considerably over the years. Just compare the flowing prose of John Adams and Abraham Lincoln to the simplified of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Of course, linguistic evolution could be completely shaken up by technological advancement. A Star Trek-style universal translator is one of the holy grails of science fiction, and companies like Google are hard at work trying to craft it. If such a device ever enters the realm of reality, it could dismantle the Tower of Babel for good.
*Sentence updated 3/21 to reflect 2016 statistics from Ethnologue.