The future of language has already been imagined — and it might look like a world with just a small handful of dominant languages, a brave new paradigm created by emerging technologies and demographic shifts, or perhaps even a future of multiple Englishes. The future of language has been preemptively engineered — just think of Esperanto, a constructed language that was supposed to bring the world closer together. The future of language is also near — the rapidly developing language recognition features of artificial intelligence is but one indicator of this.
But in terms of global linguistic diversity, we’re currently looking at a future of diminishing returns. The Endangered Language Alliance predicts that a “significant percentage of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are set to vanish before the end of the century,” and linguist John McWhorter surmises that by the year 2115, only about 600 may be left.
It’s not really a question at this point that we’re currently looking at a global consolidation of language, and one that’s occurring on an unprecedented scale. But does it make sense to worry that this trend will continue indefinitely into the future until there’s no linguistic diversity left to speak of? Can the future ever be monolingual, or is there a limit to how much extinction can occur among the dialects of the world?
First, consider this: English may be the dominant lingua franca of the world, given that it’s spoken in 101 countries. But combined, the Chinese dialects have more native speakers than any other language. Hindi and Urdu come next, and then English. Displacement and immigration are also due to reach historic highs over the next 100 years, largely due to climate change. Add to that the consideration that languages like Chinese, Hindi, Bengali, Spanish and Arabic are spoken in the world’s fastest-growing emergent economies, and you can begin to appreciate why it might be complicated to predict which language would potentially defeat the rest in an imagined winner-takes-all future of language.
We interviewed three language experts to get their take on whether a monolingual future is remotely possible — and whether our growing ability to understand each other will negate the loss of diversity.
“Streamlining Should Not Be Taken As A Sign Of Decline”
John McWhorter, Contributing Editor at The Atlantic and host of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, isn’t too worried about a linguistic mass extinction event.
In a Wall Street Journal piece, he ruminated on the year 2115: a time when languages would be fewer in number (but also less complicated).
“The very things that make these languages so fabulously rich also makes it hard to revive them once lost — it’s tough to learn hard stuff when you’re grown, busy and self-conscious,” he writes. And it’s not that ancestral languages in their original form won’t be passed down — they’ll just be passed down with smaller vocabularies and more streamlined grammars.
As minority tongues die out, what we’re also currently witnessing is the birth of “lightly optimized versions of old languages,” such as Kiezdeutsch in Germany, Kebob Norsk in Norway and Singapore’s Singlish.
In McWhorter’s view, the question of whether English or Mandarin will rule us all is kind of moot on both ends.
On one hand, English is too intimately woven into print, education and media — to overhaul it now (or in the near future) would take an enormous amount of work. Plus, he points out, it’s not unheard of for a world power to rule without spreading language: “If the Chinese rule the world, they will likely do so in English.”
On the other hand, “fears that English will become the world’s only language are premature…it is difficult, after all, to interrupt something as intimate and spontaneous as what language people speak to their children,” he writes. “The spread of English just means that earthlings will tend to use a local language in their own orbit and English for communication beyond.”
We followed up with him over email and asked for his take on the year, say, 2800. Would all of this still hold true?
“I just don’t see how, say, Finns would stop passing Finnish on to their kids, short of some ecological global warming disaster (quite possible) that moves massive numbers of people inland rather suddenly, in which case a new generation would speak the old language only partially — like many immigrants’ kids today — and their kids wouldn’t speak it at all. In Asia, the same thing could make Chinese, Hindi and Indonesian the only languages left,” he answered.
“Even then, I suspect that Europe would collapse into, say, French, Spanish and German, though. How English would eat up big ones like that I can’t even imagine. Same with Chinese, Indonesian…”
“Human History Has Always Been Characterized By A Diversity In Cultures”
Dr. Rita Santoyo Venegas, Spanish/Portuguese Editor for Babbel’s Didactics team, isn’t really worried about a monolingual future either.
“Even if we lost half of the languages that we currently speak in 500 years, we would still have 3,250 languages,” she said. “Furthermore, it is safe to assume that the dominant languages, such as English, Spanish or Mandarin, will still be around in those years.”
Venegas predicts that the world’s current leading languages will maintain their dominance into the distant future because of several factors: the number of speakers, their cultural impact, and the role they play in politics. Even with English in place as the “lingua franca par excellence,” languages like Spanish, French and Portuguese will become increasingly vital.
“Human history has always been characterized by a diversity in cultures, ultimately rooted in the different languages we speak,” she said. “Currently, we do have a modern lingua franca, English, but people still use their mother tongues and still enjoy learning other languages. Even the development of more sophisticated and accurate instant translator apps can only go so far. They have not yet grasped the cultural differences embedded in language, and I don’t think they ever will.”
Even if it were likely that we’ll end up in a monolingual society, Venegas points out that working out the logistics of this is another complicated problem.
“Who would decide what this common language would be? How would this decision be made? What would the process be like? Esperanto was one of the most well-known efforts to create an inclusive language that was also easy to learn. Even L.L. Zamenhof, its creator, argued that he wanted to promote peace and international understanding among the inhabitants of this planet with Esperanto, which means “the one who hopes.” However, the process to select or develop this common language would be extremely arduous.”
“It Is Necessary To Be Aware Of The Difference Between Mere Dialects And Entire Languages”
German linguistic expert Dr. Ulrich Ammon, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen, conducted a 15-year-long study of the world’s eight main languages and their demographics, as well as a number of factors that could affect their international standing in the coming decades.
He won’t throw around any specific figures about the distant future, but he’s pretty sure about English being firmly established as the world’s lingua franca — mainly because it’s by far the most prevalent choice for foreign language study around the world.
“This standing is bolstered by and stabilized in a feedback relationship with [its] function as the dominant language of economic, diplomatic and scientific international communication, but also for informal contacts,” he said. “To dethrone English would require unimaginable, coordinated efforts by various other language communities, which are highly unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.”
Though Ammon predicts English will maintain its primacy, Chinese, Spanish and French are also emerging as top languages to know — both right now and in the near future. French may no longer be the first language many people think of in this regard, but it would really only take an economic boom in West Africa to secure its prominence. In other words, just because English will continue topping the rankings doesn’t mean other languages can’t also function as important unifying tongues.
Additionally, Ammon doesn’t believe that predictions of minority language extinction should foreshadow the extinction of majority languages.
“It is necessary to be aware of the difference between mere dialects and entire languages (as sets of dialects),” he pointed out. “The published numbers of “languages” (often around 8,000) mostly include huge numbers of mere dialects counting them as entire languages. Since communication between dialects of the same language is usually possible and often happens frequently, the linguistic differences (or distance) between the respective dialects, which can cause difficulties, tend to be watered down. Therefore, dialect differences and numbers of dialects within languages will most likely decrease or disappear, while a great [number] of the languages will be maintained for a long time.”