We hear a lot these days that we’re transitioning from the American Century to a Chinese one. In my own lifetime I never anticipated the current groundswell for Chinese language classes. I grew up with the emphasis in schools and colleges on Spanish, French, and German. I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but my high school didn’t even offer Spanish, let alone an Asian language, though it did offer four years of Latin. The times certainly are a-changing.
While I’m strongly for learning another language in a world of shrinking distances and expanding global interchange, I still think English will remain the closest we have to an international lingua franca for some time to come. Even in China, English is seen as “the ticket.”
Language domination does shift over the centuries with the wax and wane of primary empires and modern nations. Before the rise of Latin, the language which defined linguistic universalism in the Western world was Greek, so much so that the New Testament was rendered in Greek to promote the new faith. Its antecedent was the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek.
We all know about the spectacular spread of Latin with the rise of Rome and its shaping several of Europe’s primary languages, including English.
With the reign of France’s Louis IV in the 17th century and the nascence of the Enlightenment, French began its ascendency as the language of diplomacy until English began its challenge with the birth of the Industrial Revolution in England and the growth of its Empire. English received a further boost with America’s emergence as a superpower in the 20th century.
While Chinese may have far more speakers than English, its users are primarily geographically confined, unlike those speaking English, a truly international tongue based on geography alone–UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Guiana, former African colonies, and much of the West Indies. We tend to forget that more than 300 million Indians use English daily.
In all of this, that so many opt for English as their second language doesn’t mean they like us anglophones, but that they find it the most useful for world communication.
What principally inhibits Chinese is its notorious difficulty as a tonal medium, despite a relatively simple grammar, and the virtual impossibility of mastering its written language. The Chinese, along with the Japanese, would do themselves a huge favor by transitioning to the Latin alphabet, as did Turkey in the last century, but they aren’t going to do that.
English musters a terrific advantage in its being largely inflection free, unlike German or Russian with their formidable declensions. While English features some irregular verbs, a vestige of its Germanic origin, it doesn’t exhibit the complexity of verb conjugations found in the Romance languages. Nonetheless, I’ve always maintained that while English is easy to learn, it’s hard to speak well. Only a relative few native speakers know how to distinguish lie and lay, farther and further, amount and number, etc. Then there is the challenge of its non-phonetic spelling. Imagine the challenge this poses for non-native speakers. Still more, there are all those nasty homonyms: horse vs hoarse, and the infamous to, too, two, etc.
Nevertheless, English remains relatively easy to speak, with only the Scandinavian languages approaching it in leveled or near absent inflection. Their speakers, however, are too few for it to matter. In fact, English has become so dominant in Sweden that a new language law was recently enacted (2009) to protect Swedish. In Sweden, virtually everyone speaks English well and you’ll find it abundantly in public ads and English language television and movies, which are seldom dubbed. Many young Swedes prefer English as more expressive and practical. If this is Sweden, can you just imagine the consternation of the French?
So despite what you may be hearing, English is still number one and likely to remain so for a long time to come. But do the language a favor by learning it well. After all, it’s the language of Shakespeare.