Tuesday, October 18, 2011
This forum thread started a few days ago has a lot of interesting discussion on the second most useful language after English (whichever it is), future potential, and by what criteria one judges this. The thread is of course focused on 'objective' criteria - pretty much anything but personal interest and one's personal situation with family, friends, etc.
The three languages most voted on are Spanish, French and Chinese. If I could pick all three I would have gone with those three too. A short explanation of the strengths and weaknesses for each of the three, plus what may make or break their future standing, are as follows:
Spanish: very broad, shallow strength. Spoken in a huge number of countries; only a few of these have an economy of a size worth mentioning. What will make or break Spanish's future as an influential language (not in any specific order): the economy of Mexico and how it resolves its drug war, its status in the United States, and its status in South America, namely whether many or most Brazilians end up with a functional fluency in the language.
French: a combination of a great amount of centralized strength (France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, etc.) and a lot of unknown potential in sub-Saharan Africa. What will make or break French's future as an influential language is the latter area, the one area where it is seeing phenomenal growth (7 million or so extra speakers a year). By 2050 there should be about a half billion extra people in that area, and what role French plays + the economic prosperity and overall well-being of the region is crucial.
Chinese: almost entirely centralized strength, besides the large diaspora. The future of the Chinese language rests almost entirely on a single country, and a single government. In the forum thread nway (our friendly neighborhood poster here as well) argues for Chinese as the most influential second language, and in the (near) future this could certainly be the case. It will require one thing though: the wowing of the rest of Asia. Chinese cannot simply be the language that you want to learn to make a buck in trading or what have you, it has to have a certain appeal that English holds at the moment - the promise of a better life, career fulfillment, access to knowledge you can't get anywhere else, access to an intelligent and refined culture. China is still seen in many Asian countries as a producer of cheap goods. Tons of high-speed rail, an expanding space program, investments in alternative energy etc. are beginning to change that.
One other point made (on page 5 or so I think) is also very good: that the relevance of a language other than English depends a lot on the usefulness or uselessness of English in the region. German for example has a fairly low level of influence as a language simply because it is so easy to find good English speakers there - learning German by non-Germans is done by people that really like the country or the language, not people that just want to get by. On the other hand Russian, Chinese etc. are spoken in places where it is often quite hard to find anyone that speaks English, and they have an extra use in their own countries that languages like German/Norwegian/Danish/etc. have a hard time with.
The best part of the thread though is this:
(and the first page, but I think there was a problem with image hosting there)
It's chart after chart comparing the influence of certain languages and their various economic benchmarks in much greater detail than I have ever done. They go by:
Film industries by monetary value
Projected GDP growth
Life expectancy per GDP per capita
Busiest container ports
Business and wealth
...and a few others.