Indo-European languages dominate Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, South Asia and much of Northern Asia, the southern tip of Africa and numerous islands and other specks of land around the world. Economic and military forces have combined with simple accidents of history to enable those languages to capture most of the planet's land mass.
Let’s begin with the European Union, which has more official languages – twenty-three – than any other jurisdiction. English, French and German have been the main working languages of the European Commission since the mid-1980s. However, according to The Economist, a news magazine, “at that time half of all EU documents were drafted in English. Now it is around two-thirds, as enlargement to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe has created a bigger group of people with English as their first choice of second language. This points to an unsettling conclusion for advocates of multilingualism: in a union of many languages, increasingly there is but one language.”
Who Rules? This conclusion may apply to the European Union, which is staggering under translation and interpretation costs of $1.4 billion per year. However, it probably does not apply to the world.
Not surprisingly, they also dominate the global economy. If you make a table of how much economic activity the people in various native-language groups generate, the European language speakers as a group are, again, clearly in a league of their own. Here is a summary of the percentages of world GDP (Gross Domestic Product) based on the languages of the countries that created that economic output.
Table #1: Language and GDP
1. English 28.2%Clearly, it seems, the world’s economically important languages are European. And English is the economic top dog in the pack of world languages.
2. Chinese 22.8%
3. Japanese 5.6%
4. Spanish 5.2%
5. German 4.9%
6. French 4.2%
7. Portuguese 3.4%
8. Italian 2.9%
9. Russian 2.1%
10. Arabic 2.0%
11. Hindi 2.1%
12. Korean 1.4%
13. Indonesian 1.1%
14. Other 14.1%
The picture changes significantly, however, when you look at the numbers who speak world languages as their first or second tongue. The following list, which combines both native and second-language speakers, indicates the world’s ten top languages in terms of total users. Here we list numbers of speakers, in millions.
Table #2: Total Language Users
1. Mandarin 1,052By the measure of native speakers plus second-language speakers, English is in second place among the world’s languages. This is not too surprising, since China is huge, rather homogeneous, and controlled by a focused central government.
2. English 508
3. Hindi 487
4. Spanish 417
5. Russian 277
6. Bengali 211
7. Portuguese 191
8. German 128
8. French 128
9. Japanese 126
But when you look at the native-speaker rankings, the numbers are sparser yet. Only 50 years ago English was clearly in second place, after Mandarin. Today, it seems likely that Spanish, Hindi-Urdu and English have broadly similar numbers of native-language speakers. According to David Graddol, English may actually have slipped to fourth place in the ranks, and it may drop another point in the world language leagues (after Arabic) in the next 50 years.
Straws in the Wind: You can slice and dice these numbers many ways. But taken together, they suggest shifts that roughly parallel many highly visible economic and geopolitical changes in the world’s power structure. Many kinds of power are shifting in the direction of the rapidly growing economies of China, India and Latin America, where the 800-pound economic gorilla is Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
Many observers have noted that these economic and geopolitical shifts are restoring balance to the world’s power structure. Fewer have observed that these changes are fundamentally altering the balance of power in the world language scene. World languages are jostling for place, and this is having a huge impact on educational policy and second language learning.
Which second languages are the world’s people learning?
Outside China English is still overwhelmingly number one, but the picture is changing. For example, the outside world is voting with its collective feet on Mandarin as a language with a future. Prospective learners from Sophia to Seoul are lining up for Mandarin language classes. And Brazil, surrounded by a Spanish-speaking market, now offers Spanish as an alternative to English in its educational system. This means English is one of two options there. In the past, it was required.
Here are some other straws in the wind. More than 25 years ago, Canada’s Québec province abolished English as an official language, becoming unilingually French as the rest of the country embraced French/English bilingualism. Then there is the case of the tiny Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Presently English-speaking, Trinidadians have made it a matter of policy to turn their country into a Spanish-speaking jurisdiction by the year 2020.
And so the story goes. Around the world, different languages are angling for competitive position.
Building Bilingualism: Another important part of the story is the growth of national languages, some of them new entries in the lexicon of human speech. This is having a critical impact on more traditional languages. For example, Indonesian (a Malay dialect only formalized and standardized with that country’s independence in 1945) is edging out tribal languages in its vast archipelago.
At present, most Indonesians are fluently bilingual. They speak Indonesian as a second language, and use a regional language in the home. All formal education and the national media use Indonesian, however, so the weakening of local languages is inevitable. Similar approaches to creating national languages are taking place in many developing economies.
The approach of educating young learners in a second language can be attractive in many ways. Consider two examples at different ends of the spectrum – the Republic of Ireland and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. For reasons of national interest, both countries have chosen to educate their children in an essentially alien tongue.
In the republic, schools teach Irish to children from the age of four to eighteen; it is compulsory. In order to enter university citizens essentially have to pass Irish in the final State exam. The point is to preserve Irish as a national heritage. Prior to Independence, it was a tongue at risk of dying.
Often described as the last surviving refuge of traditional Himalayan Buddhist culture, Bhutan is one of the most isolated nations in the world. It is a landlocked South Asian nation situated between India and Tibet, People's Republic of China. Its language of instruction in the public school system? English.
Content-based Instruction: In Indonesia, Ireland and Bhutan, the students are not learning language only. Their teachers are delivering most of their curriculum in a second language. Known as content-based instruction, this approach is fundamentally different from most of those being used to teach languages. It assumes that people learn a second language more successfully when they use it to acquire information. Another motivator behind this approach, in theory, is that learners wanting to acquire a second language need content that will help prepare them for academic studies.
Where is all this leading? According to Graddol, "bilingualism needs to be better recognized as a normal, rather than a special, condition….(This means) we need to recognize that, for an increasing number of children in the world, what the state may term ‘mother-tongue education’ is not in the language of the home." In his excellent study of these issues, Graddol argues that it is not only the world’s language learners that are going through a rapid transition. So are the world’s teachers and workers.
Increasingly, he believes, developing nations will use their domestic cadres of well-trained English teachers to take that language into the school system. This will reinforce local dialects of English as it reduces the demand for monolingual English language teachers from Britain and its grown-up former colonies. This will reinforce local dialects of English as it reduces the demand for monolingual English language teachers from Britain and its grown-up former colonies. This shift will take time to develop, but it is clearly in the cards.
The teaching of English is becoming a service which is no more specialized than that of, say, chip design or legal research. Not surprisingly, Asia, the largest market for English, is already looking for regional sources of supply.
In developing countries like Thailand, nationals with good English-teaching skills are already in high demand. As these countries develop better English skills – and greater confidence in their ability to use the language – the relative demand for additional native-speaking English teachers will decline.
In the meantime, their policy-makers are likely to pay increasing attention to educational systems in which students learn second languages as a matter of course. To a significant extent, this is because bilingual workers have competitive advantages over their monoglot colleagues.
Globalization is having big impacts everywhere, not least in language teaching and learning. Since globalization is driven by economics, this makes sense. After all, the languages we speak bring competitive advantages with them, and this reality is more likely to intensify than diminish. For language teachers, this is a good thing.