English is NOT going to become the world's second language

Thursday, June 12, 2008

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The British council's English Next publication from 2006 is available online as a pdf, and shows a clear trend that English, though still by far the strongest language in the world, is not accelerating anymore but rather coasting, and that in the next few decades should weaken even further. Here are a few parts from the paper backing this up:

First from the introduction:

I have suggested in this book that the current enthusiasm for English in the world is closely tied to the complex processes of globalisation. If I am right, then the future of English has become more closely tied to the future of globalisation itself. Global English is still not a ‘done deal’.

It is already possible to see another story unfolding, within the present century, in which present forms of globalisation give way to greater regionalism and more complex patterns of linguistic, economic and cultural power.

Next is English on the internet:


An analysis published in November 2005 by Byte Level Research concluded:

This data makes clear that the next Internet revolution will not be in English. While English isn’t becoming any less important on the Internet, other languages, such as Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese, are becoming comparatively more important.
Now another chart:

How about in international business then?


English is by no means the only language in global business. Davis (2003) observes:

While English is a major language, it only accounts for around 30% of the world Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and is likely to account for less in the future. Neglecting other languages means ignoring quite significant potential markets.
And another interesting part showing that it's not true that once you go English you never go back:

The growing importance of Spanish is apparent in other parts of South America. Trinidad and Tobago declared in 2005 that it aspired to become a Spanish-speaking
country by 2020, setting a target of having at least 30% of public employees to be proficient within 5 years. Ironically, Trinidad and Tobago has been a popular study destination for Venezuelans learning English, but the language trade may now reverse with a shortage of qualified Spanish teachers on the islands.
I also love this part that, while not directly related to the status of English, addresses a point I've often brought up about children and language learning. Children really are not that impressive at learning languages: they can't write well, they don't want to do things you want them to do, and the only reason they are good at one language is that they have complete and utter immersion in the language for a decade and a half before they get at all good at it. Take an adult in the same situation and it would never take over a decade to learn a language. The only reason adults often take more time is that they have other things to do in their own language. They communicate with back home, they take care of the mortgage, they work, and just don't have time for 24 hours of immersion a day.

One rationale for teaching languages to young children is the idea that they find it easier to learn languages than older students. In practice, young learners face obstacles that older learners do not. They are still developing physically and intellectually; their emotional needs may be higher; they are less able to take responsibility for their own learning.
Later on in the paper it goes on to claim that in the future English will have moved from a language that gives a nation an advantage to one that will become mainstream, thus giving no advantage when known and a disadvantage when not known. This is based on the idea that in the future most people will have a knowledge of the language and that it will have reached a point where those that don't know it have become the minority.

But there's one point that the paper doesn't address, and that is that for some people and some countries English simply doesn't take. An article in the Korea Times a week or so ago shows that in spite of all the money and effort Korea has poured into learning the language, they are still second from last behind the UAE:

The Korean private English education market is estimated at as much as 15 trillion won ($15 billion). On top of students, office workers are bent on studying the language.

About seven in 10 office workers are showing signs of ``English addition syndrome'' where they feel uneasy if they are not studying it, according to YBM Sisa.
The leading language institute surveyed 1,837 office workers and more than 40 percent of respondents said they spend over 100,000 won ($100) per month on English education. More than half of those surveyed answered that they are currently studying the language.

Asked whether they feel the need for English studying, nearly 97 percent said, ``yes.''

Mired at Rock Bottom

Despite this frenzy, Koreans are showing no marked improvement in international scores on English tests.

The British Council announced Tuesday that Korea ranked 19th on the general training module of the IELTS among 20 countries ― Korean applicants averaged 5.21 out of a full score of 9.
One thing I'd like to see countries like Korea and Japan focus on is learning other languages that do take as an alternative to English. Keep the focus on English as a main subject, that's fine, but bring up some other languages as an alternative for those that want to focus on other areas or just don't have an easy time with languages like English, because you see people here in their 40s and 50s that have been working on English for decades now and just can't seem to get past the awkward learning stage. Korea should study more Japanese, Japan should study more Korean, Chinese is doing fine promoting itself on its own so no worries about that, but Turkish/Turkic (Turkish is another language not too hard for Koreans or Japanese to learn) should be an option in these countries too if we're looking at the situation in the long term:

Economic yearly growth rate of Turkish and Turkic-speaking countries:
  • Azerbaijan: 31%
  • Cyprus: 10.6% (not unified with the north yet, but with a new president in the south it's looking more probable all the time)
  • Kazakhstan: 9.5%
  • Uzbekistan: 8.1%
  • Turkmenistan: 7% (Turkmenistan is completely new on the scene after its president-for-life Niyazov suddenly died in 2007 and with its new president Berdimuhammedov is now starting to open up for the first time)
  • Kyrgyzstan: 6.5%
  • Turkey: 5.1%
At the present their combined economies do not add up to much more than that of the Netherlands, but this is quickly beginning to change.

One more note on why sometimes English doesn't take: countries like Korea have become very comfortable. When a country reaches a certain level of development life becomes easier, and subjects like English change from a necessary tool for survival and competition into more of a cultural object, something that would be great to know if the chance to leave the country and travel a lot were to come up, but since things are good back home and everybody's busy, English study keeps getting put off.

At the same time, companies that deal with other English-speaking countries around the world have an interesting situation. These companies that deal with people in Korea, Japan and other non-English speaking countries do not demand perfection in their English; they're used to dealing with English that isn't perfect but good enough to get the point across, and the companies in the countries over here don't suffer from grammatical mistakes as long as they can get their point across well enough. That lowers the bar for English as a tool of communication from 'native English speaker' perfection to just good enough, and anything beyond this point is a bit of a luxury. Nice to have, but certainly not necessary for a company's everyday needs.


Unknown said...

Hm, concerning the efforts of Koreans trying to learn English, what do you think the results would be had they put all that effort in trying to learn an IAL based mostly on European languages, for example: Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, etc.

alciono said...

Hm, concerning the efforts of Koreans trying to learn English, what do you think the results would be had they put all that effort in trying to learn an IAL based mostly on European languages, for example: Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, etc.

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