If you currently live in a country where English is the primary language spoken by everyone, you might not realize just how widespread English is becoming in countries whose primary language is not English, and how very many people whose first language isn't English communicate with each other in English. English is very much solidifying itself as the global lingua franca in the present. A lingua franca is a language that various groups of people who do not know each other's primary language learn to be able to communicate with each other. In former-Soviet countries, Russian is somewhat of a lingua franca because it was heavily pushed by the Soviet government back when it was around. In Southeastern African countries Swahili is a lingua franca that allows many different people of various tribes to communicate more easily. Mandarin was a lingua franca that brought together people from different Chinese regions who spoke different dialects in Late Imperial China before it was solidified as an official language under the Republic of China and then later the People's Republic of China. French was a lingua franca of European elites and scholars a few hundred years ago, and it could have ended up as the global lingua franca if the British Empire did not become the dominant global superpower. In this post I would like to talk about how English became basically the most important language in the world, how far it has reached in the present, and how it will continue to spread and likely stay the global lingua franca for a very long time, if not forever.
So the English language originated from what is now England about 1400 years ago after Germanic settlers moved into Britain from Northern Europe. Over time England became a more and more powerful kingdom until it started to become an Empire in the 1600s. Of course there were other European Empires during this time whose languages also had an opportunity to become the global lingua franca. However, England, later Great Britain, had some advantages over the competing European empires, one of which was the fact that it was on an island. England had been invaded and conquered before by various kingdoms and groups of people like the Romans or the French or the Vikings, but they had to travel across the sea to get to England. Because of that the English invested a lot of resources over time into the Royal Navy to protect itself and its interests, especially after the Spanish Armada. Not only was the Royal Navy useful for self-defense, but it also allowed England to control the seas. Other European empires could not dedicate as much resources to their navies as the English could because they also had to finance wars on land with other European powers, while the English only had to really worry about the Scots, whose own Scottish Navy ended up closely partnered with the Royal Navy and later merged with it. Partially because of this geographic advantage and its well-funded navy the British Empire ended up with the most powerful global empire which ruled the seas and controlled lot of strategically important locations and ports such as South Africa, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which made English probably the most important language for the world's international merchants to learn.
Another important advantage which gave the English and the English language a huge advantage was the history of the political and economic systems of England and four of its colonies that are now countries you may know today: America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. I recommend reading chapter 7 of the book Why Nations Fail (and also all the other chapters in the book) to really understand how this was important, but I'll give a brief overview of what went down. Basically, England was the first major country that ended up with a society that had pluralistic political institutions, good personal freedoms for the average citizen, and a large class of wealthy merchants and businessmen who were not closely connected to the monarchy. These factors are what led to the industrial revolution happening in England first, because English society gained the freedom to innovate thanks its greater freedoms. Due to the unique nature of how they got colonized, the four countries mentioned above also ended up with very similar free political and economic systems at the beginning of their history, and the industrial revolution spread to them very quickly. In a sense, the large amount individual freedoms some parts of the British Empire had made them more innovative and wealthier (compared to the other Empires with less freedoms) and also gave the English language itself more power.
The British Empire did eventually fall apart, but that was not the end for the dominance of the English language. For one, there were still plenty of people who spoke English around the world, and the momentum behind English didn't fall apart that quickly. And while the British Empire crumbled, a different English-speaking superpower rose and took its place, the United States of America, a former British colony. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! So the United States also had a huge geographic advantage like the British. It was protected by two huge oceans, and it didn't have to worry about invasions from Canadians and Mexicans being successful assuming they were even likely to happen. The United States also had a very powerful navy that allowed it to rule the seas and control important trade routes. With some exceptions for some demographics the United States also had a ton of personal freedoms for its citizens, which made it pretty innovative, and also attracted talented immigrants such as Nikola Tesla. All that combined with the fact that the United States was huge and had a ton of natural resources made it a super superpower. This gave the English language even more power as it was important to know if you wanted to trade with and deal with such a powerful country.
Post WW2 America really became involved with the international community, and also was pretty much the number one scientific, technological, cultural, and military superpower in the world. "Thanks" to the Cold War and the desire to prevent WW3 from happening, the United States made a lot of trade agreements with various countries, from the European countries that were recovering from WW2 to small developing countries that were considering trying out the communist thing and aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. The United States also pretty much either built or became a 400 pound gorilla within international organizations like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, etc. Then the United States also built a lot of military bases everywhere in the world, probably the most noteworthy ones being in Japan, South Korea, and Germany.
What's mentioned above created many different reasons for people to learn English. One reason was that a lot of the world's greatest minds either decided to move to the United States, or were recruited by the American government or even American corporations. America had a lot of "brain gain" (the opposite of brain drain) happen to it during the 20th century, boosting the scientific and technological power of English. Albert Einstein ended up in America and made important contributions to science there for a reason. Another reason was the rise of America's cultural exports with the likes of Hollywood and Disney and Rock 'n' Roll. One more reason was the increasing amount of American tourism thanks to international air travel becoming affordable for America's then-large middle class. Basically knowing English got even more important than during the glory days of the British Empire. Former British colonies also still had many English speakers and also continued to trade with the British, and also Americans. Having this common language, a lingua franca, between all of these colonies also made it easier to trade amongst themselves and the people learning English in countries that were dealing with America. China, when they started opening their economy up to international trade, international investment, and free markets in the 1980s created a bunch of Special Economic Zones. Probably the most important SEZ was Shenzhen thanks to the fact that it was right next door to Hong Kong (which was still a British colony when Shenzhen became an SEZ) and the close proximity made trading a lot easier. And English of course was a major language there, which definitely boosted English amongst people in China and people trading with China.
That's it for the brief history lesson. Let's get into the present. So English is basically everywhere now, no other language is this widespread across the whole world. Almost every time I see something written in two languages it is written in the local language and in English. When protests happen in non-English-speaking countries, people often write their protest signs in English so they can capture the attention of the international community. Basically every international conference is an English language conference regardless of what country it is held in. In India there's a weird sort of language/dialect called "Hinglish" which is a person speaking a mix of Hindi and English. I consume lots of Japanese media, and I hear or read tons of English within it wherever things are not translated. After WW2, Japan absorbed a ton of English and made so much of the Japanese language full of English loanwords. A similar thing happened with Korean in South Korea. North Korean defectors have mentioned how they had to learn many new words when they got to South Korea and how so many of them are of English origin. Even in modern Russian there are tons of English loanwords, especially among forever online Russian zoomers. A lot of the English loanwords in the above-mentioned languages, and in other modern languages, are words that only started being used in the 20th and 21st centuries, which is a clear demonstration of the political, technological, cultural, and trade dominance of English in our times. I could keep going with these kinds of examples of English being everywhere globally, but let's now look at some actual data and high-profile international endorsements of the English language.
So in the whole world, there are about 370 million native English speakers, but there are about 978 million people who speak English as a second language (stats link). There is no other language in the world with that many people who speak it as a second language. That ratio of natives-to-seconds clearly shows how important English already is to a ton of people. Putting those together we get a total of about 1.3 billion English speakers, but by looser definitions of "person who knows English" the total number of English speakers can be estimated to have as many as 2 billion speakers. According to Duolingo stats from 2020, English is the most learned language on the app and within 121 countries it is the number 1 most learned language. In the European Union, English is studied by around 95% of all students in Secondary Education, and this is outside of the UK (second section in this link). Finally the statistic that surprised me the most is that English is a mandatory part of national education policy in a total of 142 countries, and is available as an option in 41 countries. Now, the availability and quality of this English education may vary, especially within poorer countries, but basically every country having English being mandatory in or as an option in education is a very resounding endorsement of English.
Also if you look at the statistics for the number of English speakers in every country and sort by the percentage of English speakers there, you'll find a lot of countries with a surprisingly large percentage of English speakers there like Nigeria, Israel, and Germany. Interestingly there are more total English speakers in Germany than there are in Canada. Another neat fact is that English is the most common official language, with 50+ countries having it as one of their official languages.
There is an economic union in Southeast Asia called ASEAN which today includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. All of these countries have various different official languages and have about 1000 local languages/dialects, but in ASEAN they only speak and make agreements only in English. English is the only "working language" of ASEAN, in contrast to the European Union which has 24 working languages. This is quite interesting how such linguistically diverse countries have decided to pick English — an outsider language — as their unifying language instead of a language that comes from within their own borders. If you look at this list of official languages within different international organizations, English comes up the majority of the time.
So to give a final roundup of where English is before I move on to the next part, today English is the main international language of science, technology, aviation, business, basically almost everything international. At this point I think it is safe to say that everyone who chooses to learn English (assuming they were not required to learn it) no longer learns it solely because of the dominance of America or the former British Empire, it is genuinely a lingua franca that brings together non-English-speakers now. Everyone is learning English because everyone else is learning English basically. So now it's a good time to ask: could any other language take over English as the global lingua franca? Or could a regional or a continental lingua franca take over English like in Europe or in Asia?
Probably the biggest continental region where people say that English could stop being a lingua franca is within the countries of the European Union. The reasoning for this is the fallout of Brexit, which supposedly will mean that fewer people will want to speak English there as they would need to deal with Britain and British people less. In the EU organization itself this will not be the case. The EU is required to support the official languages of all its member states, but even without Britain's membership, English will still be a language of the EU organization, because Ireland still has English as an official language there. But even if no EU countries had English as their official language, the EU organization would still probably have English as an official language, for pretty much the same reason ASEAN chose English as its only working language: so many people in Europe speak English that it would be weird for it to not be an official language of the EU. English is actually the most spoken language by MEPs. And as I mentioned earlier in this post, about 95% of students in the EU study English either because it is mandatory or they have an option to learn it. And Europeans still trade with people outside of Europe, which will mostly likely mean that they would be speaking in English with them. So basically English is stuck in the European Union for now and it certainly doesn't seem like it will be replaced by any other European language.
Let's now get into the language that a decent amount of people seem to expect to replace English internationally: Chinese Mandarin (a.k.a. Putonghua). Mandarin has a lot going for it, the number of people who speak Mandarin is almost as large as English, China is a very dominant global economic power that's been rising and rising over the past few decades, and people expect China to overtake the United States by the most important measures. I've personally heard people expecting Mandarin to become as important as English as early as the mid-2000s, so the idea that China will become the top country and Mandarin will become the most important language have been around for a while. A lot of the reasoning behind the belief that China will overtake the United States is heavily political and ideological in my view. This political reasoning goes that China's calm and steady (??) authoritarian governance gives it an advantage over the chaotic and unpredictable democratic governance of the United States. And supposedly the United States is super in decline right now while China just will just keep growing, and when it overtakes the United States everyone in the world will just stop caring about English and learn Mandarin instead.
Okay, so maybe I am very biased, or maybe my sources of information are completely wrong, but I just do not see how China will completely overtake the United States, and if it somehow does overtake America, that English will be supplanted by Mandarin as the global lingua franca. Right now we are entering the realm of speculation and predicting what will happen in the future, which does not always pan out the way even the best futurists predict it will go, so it's important to take everything that anyone says about this with a grain of salt. My view right now is that China, under its current system, has run out of steam and will get very close, but will not overtake the supposedly declining United States. HOWEVER, this view of mine assumes no key turning points or breakthroughs will change the balance of power in China's favour in the mid-to-near future. For example, China could be first in the world to achieve a great breakthrough in super important technologies like fusion nuclear reactors, quantum computing, or artificial general intelligence. Any one of those things could be huge and if China were the first to get them, it would very likely put China in the rightful place as the dominant global superpower, and if China sustains that top spot for a decent amount of time maybe English would be supplanted by Mandarin. But again, we don't know if that will happen, we can't exactly predict what will happen in the future. With the "we can't know the future" idea out of the way, I would like to now make the case for why Mandarin will not overtake English in the future with what we do know today.
So I will talk a little bit about why I think China will not completely overtake the United States here, but I won't dwell on it too much (and neither should you) as I view China being the top country as irrelevant to English being or not being the global lingua franca, and this post isn't about which country will or should be the top country in the world. Anyways, so right now, even by the questionable official economic growth rate statistics that come out of China, China's growth rate has slowed down and it is right now growing at the rate that regular developing countries grow. If this remains the case, then purely by extrapolating, we can say China will never overtake the United States economically. This puts China into what some economists call a "middle income trap". Not a good situation for China to be in if they want to beat the United States. Of course, maybe this is a temporary situation, and it is very likely that China's GDP will overtake the GDP of the United States since they have so much human capital. However, China still has a very long way to go if it wants to catch up with the GDP per capita of the United States. Another thing that needs to be taken into consideration is that China has very recently switched from a Dengist free-market-style government to one that is more command-economy-like under Xi Jinping. Conventional wisdom among economists and other scholars says that this could damper the economic growth of China and could lead it to decline. Not enough time has passed to say if this is what will happen, we're sort of in uncharted territory right now with China's seemingly unique flavour of authoritarian state capitalism. But anyways, it could lead to China not being the top country economically. This blog post briefly summarizes China's economic situation right now and it roughly matches my thoughts on the matter.
Finally, with all that out of the way, here is my case for English never being overtaken by Mandarin as the global lingua franca regardless of whether China becomes the top country or not. Okay, so the key idea that holds everything below together is "network effects": more people using something makes it more popular, which makes more people use it, which makes it even more popular. Let's go...
In pretty much any part of the world where there are a lot of tourists, a lot of signs are written in English, and most people who serve tourists know English. So right now if you want to travel the world, it's best to learn English as you are most likely to run into English instead of your own language, even if "your own language" is Mandarin. Translator apps can help non-English speakers here, but they may not be as good as just knowing some basic English in a lot of places. There are (or at least were before the pandemic) a ton of Chinese tourists visiting places around the world, and a lot of the most popular destinations for them did have signs in Chinese, but there aren't very many of these places compared to literally every touristy place in the world. Even within China, there are plenty of signs in English in train stations and in their own touristy places. So tourism is one point which that helps reinforce the dominance of English.
Next up, let's look at media: fun fictional stories and talking heads and whatever. I could be wrong but as far as I can tell, there aren't a ton of people who learn English specifically to watch popular shows and movies in English, as a lot of them get official translations into a lot of widely-spoken languages before they're even released. But I do know for example that people have learned English so they could understand an English-speaking YouTuber that they liked, so there are definitely reasons to learn English specifically for understanding media. If anything I feel like people mostly watch things in English so that their own English ability gets better, rather than some deep appreciation for English-language media. There are a few languages where learning them to understand media is a huge motivator for learners. The best examples I know of is people who learn Japanese so they can watch anime, read manga or consume other kinds of otaku media, or people who learn Korean so they can understand K-pop songs or understand K-drama shows. There are definitely some really good Chinese movies, Chinese Dramas, Chinese webnovels, etc. out there with their own dedicated communities of non-Chinese people who enjoy viewing that stuff, but these communities are smol compared to the juggernauts that are the weeaboo and koreaboo communities that are out there. And since these communities are so small, you can conclude that not many people are learning Mandarin to view Chinese media. This point here isn't exactly a huge win for English as much as it is a loss for Chinese. I do believe that Chinese media is on the rise and there could eventually be some international Chinese hit movie that everyone and their mom talks about, however, there's not really a huge back catalogue of timeless classics that makes people itch for the next hit the same way weeaboo and koreaboo communities do. And I should mention that China's strict censorship policies also restrict the kinds of media that can be found and stories that can be told compared to the significantly less strict official censorship of Japan, Korea, and America. Again, this doesn't give a lot of people a reason to get into learning Mandarin.
Next, information technology. This sphere is completely unconquerable in my view. Partially because of the minimal amount of characters in English, and partially because of the fact that Britain and the United States were huge pioneers in early computing, English has become the lingua franca of computer programmers and the like. You can totally get by without knowing English if you want to get into things like programming, networking, etc. and there are plenty of non-English "hacker" communities out there that can help you out, but knowing English gives you a huge advantage as pretty much all of the best documentation and support you can get is in English. This blog post goes into more detail about this idea. Of course there are also things like the fact that most computer keyboards have the QWERTY key layout printed on them, even in languages that do not use Latin characters. And then there's the fact that all the biggest and most influential tech companies internationally are almost all based in America and the rest are based in countries where English is either the main language or a strong second language. Chinese tech companies do have some influence, but they don't seem to be widely popular internationally and they certainly aren't pushing Mandarin forward much if they are at all.
Another key factor that boosts English is the fact that knowing English allows you to reach a very large variety of people in a lot of different countries. Right now if you learn Mandarin, you can only really speak with people in China and with Chinese diaspora communities. That can be useful if you have a Chinese romantic partner or you're working at a company that works with Chinese factories to produce some product, but not so useful if you want to talk with someone who isn't Chinese. Basically in almost every country the number of people who can speak English outnumbers the amount of people who can speak Mandarin. For example there are a decent amount of Russians who can speak Mandarin because of Russia's close relationship with China, but you're more likely to find a Russian who speaks English than a Russian who can speak Mandarin. The same kind of situation is true of most European countries, most Latin American countries, and most African countries. In Asia, there are some huge Chinese communities in countries like Vietnam and Singapore, but they're the exception there, not the norm. This kind of "you're more likely to find someone who speaks English anywhere" situation means that pretty much all major international conferences in the world are mainly done in English. Key business discussions between groups of businesspeople of two or more non-English-speaking countries may have interpreters and translators that translate between their specific languages, but any international contracts that get signed will most likely be written in English and any contract disputes will likely be settled in Britain or maybe in America. Those countries are chosen primarily because of their reasonably fair legal systems and legions of lawyers that can help you to win any dispute you get into. Read this article if you're curious why "English Law" is often used for cross-border contracts. This kind of situation is not really helping Mandarin become more important.
Another point I am going to bring up is the openness of English, on a technical, social, and cultural level. A lot of languages in the world have regulatory bodies that decide what is and isn't technically proper to say and write in those languages. Some of these are official government branches, and some of these are just public institutions with a lot of influence. Regardless, they essentially control their languages. Of course people can choose to personally say or write whatever they want without any consequence, but if they're doing anything official or trying to get something published they probably will have to follow The Rules that the regulatory body decides. English on the other hand, does not have any regulatory bodies. There are definitely some organizations that heavily influence the editing and style guides of, say, book publishers, academic writing outlets, news media editing guides, etc., but overall English can be considered a decentralized and "open source" language that anyone can bend to their will without any centralized authority being able to declare that what they are saying is improper. Since English is so widespread around the world and nobody is in control there are many weird local, subcultural, and organizational flavours of English that you may run into. I think that this huge variety helps make English more culturally innovative, and it could partially be the reason that so many 21st century English words and concepts get adopted by other languages without it being forced upon anyone. I am not even sure if Mandarin has anything comparable to this kind of influence on other languages.
We live in a society, a very globalized society, where people wish to move to other countries or study abroad. A lot of people wish to move to western countries, and a lot of those people often want to end up in English-speaking countries. Some people may not view the United States as a favourable place to live in, but they may have very warm views on countries like Canada or New Zealand, both of which are countries where English is widely spoken and are also pretty open to immigration. Regardless, a lot of people either have ended up in or want to end up in English-speaking countries. In Canada the percentage of residents who were born outside of Canada is 21% (I am part of this statistic haha), but in absolute numbers Canada's immigrant population is about 8 million (stats link). The United States has 15% of its population born outside of it, but in absolute numbers the United States has the most immigrants of all countries with a whopping 50 million immigrants being residents of the United States. Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand have similarly large percentages of immigrants in their countries. This means that there are a ton of people in these countries who are living in an English environment and polishing their English language ability. The number of unique communities that come from specific countries living in these English-speaking countries is very close to the amount of countries there are in the world. All those people learned English, and while most will live normal lives in their new countries, a lot can end up as useful English teachers, interpreters, and translators for the language(s) of their own countries if they decide to move back, giving a boost to English. Since those people managed to end up in an English-speaking country, it also incentivizes people who may be related to them or are friends with them to also end up there, which means those friends/family have an incentive to learn English and also work to meet the immigration requirements of those countries. China, in contrast, has only 1 million non-native residents (only 0.1% of its population), and funnily one of the easiest ways to go live in China (at least before what happened this summer) was to be an English teacher or tutor there. As in the previous points, there's nothing here that really helps the case that Mandarin will overtake English as a lingua franca.
Okay, let's get into a little bit of linguistics here. A lot of people argue that English is way easier to learn than Mandarin, but there are a few other people that argue that they are equally hard or even that Mandarin is easier than English. I am interested in linguistics but I am definitely not a linguistic expert, and here I will just out a few key pieces of information that show how English is easier for people to learn than Mandarin. There are definitely a lot of weird English accents out there that make it sometimes hard for two English speakers to not be able to understand one another, but they can at least figure out what sounds or words they say differently and learn to talk. In general, English is resilient to slight mispronunciations, whereas with Mandarin (and other Chinese dialects) you need to pronounce the tones exactly to be able to be understood. Pronouncing a word slightly differently in Chinese can mean that you're saying something completely different than what you actually wanted to say. Despite the fact that a lot of native English speakers make fun of funny accents that non-native English speakers have, they can at least often understand what the accented person is saying. Of course there are a lot of English speakers out there who are used to weird accents and can easily understand people who talk in those accents. Chinese people are not as used to weird accents, and may struggle to understand you if you don't put a lot of effort into practicing your tones if you learn Mandarin. They may also make fun of you if you make a lot or even a few mistakes when speaking Chinese.
Another linguistic aspect that needs to be taken into consideration is the writing systems of English and Chinese Mandarin. English writing isn't exactly perfect as words are often not spelled the way they are written, but you can at least make a lucky guess at the pronunciation, and people might be able to figure out what word you're trying to say with your mispronunciation. With Chinese though you have to memorize the pronunciation of thousands of Chinese characters ("hanzi") with the correct tone too, and there's usually no way to know how to pronounce a character you've never seen before, though you may sometimes be able to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar hanzi if you look at its components. You need to look at the languages that people learning English already know to see if it will be easy for them or not. Right now about 70% of the world reads & writes with a Latin-based alphabet. The letter sounds that those languages make may be quite different compared to the letter sounds of English, but speakers of those languages sort of already know how to read English even if they don't understand what exactly it is they are reading. The only language that is like that with Chinese is Japanese, which does use hanzi (kanji), but the Japanese pronunciations of hanzi are completely unintelligible to Chinese speakers and vice versa. Also, Chinese people in mainland China use the romanized pinyin system when they type hanzi into their phones or their computer, which essentially means that it's easier for a Mandarin speaker get started reading English than the other way around since Chinese people can already read Latin characters. [Small side note: there actually is a pure Chinese phonetic system used for typing hanzi called Zhuyin (also called Bopomofo), but it's only really used in Taiwan.] I think in this situation it's clear that English is easier to learn for most people in the world despite its flaws and imperfections.
Before this point I've mostly been talking about reasons for people to learn a different language for their own self-interest, but people don't only learn other languages because they want to. Some people are required to learn a second language when they are in school, and as shown by this, the majority of countries require English to be taught by their national education policy, and most of the rest offer English as an option. In a few of those countries, you are required to learn a second language, but you get to pick which second language you learn. I don't have any data on this, but it seems to me like most students decide to pick English as their second language option in those countries. At this point I would like to ask probably the most important question in the "Mandarin vs. English" debate: Is China even interested in getting countries to offer Mandarin Chinese language courses in their schools and make English not mandatory, and what is it doing to make it so there are more people learning Mandarin?
You see, teaching English to people who are not native English speakers as a means of getting them to be more global or whatever has been a thing for basically a century or two, and since there have been so many people who have taught or got taught English for that long some people have tried to make the process easier and more streamlined as far back as the early 1900s. Basic English, a limited subset of English which has 850 words was made in 1925 as a way to make teaching English to people more easier to learn. The creator of Basic English, Charles Kay Odgen, went as far as saying that English should be the only language that should be known and other languages should be gotten rid of to achieve world peace after WW2. Jeez, that's kind of extreme, but basically my point here is that people have been trying to spread the English language globally for much longer than people have been considering the potential of Mandarin to overtake English, and all that has deeply embedded English everywhere in the world. That means that there is a very large amount of momentum behind English to overcome, and China would need to do a lot of work to get that done. Does China have any Odgen-like figures trying to make Chinese easier to learn for non-natives and who are crazy enough to think that it should be spread far and wide to achieve world peace? If so, what progress have they made? It doesn't seem like much to me so far. Chinese writing was "simplified" in the 1950s in the PRC to increase literacy by making Chinese characters easier to write and reducing the total number of characters that anyone needs to know, but it doesn't seem to me like that simplification made Chinese much easier to learn for non-natives than it was before. It would be a huge undertaking for China to try to make Mandarin overtake English in schools globally, and it could theoretically be done with a huge amount of money and manpower, but I'm not sure that China would be willing to spend those resources for the sole purpose of getting people to learn Mandarin everywhere instead of English. I think they would rather prefer to do what other non-English-speaking countries do and keep today's status quo of using local languages for national communication while using English for international communication, and just use those resources to strengthen China in other places.
So that's most of what I have to say about why English will not be overtaken by Mandarin. One could somewhat refute the above points individually, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts here. To even have a tiny chance at making Mandarin replace English, China would have to really boost the quality of its media, make Mandarin really easy to learn for non-native speakers, make China a super desirable place for immigrants to move to, build a ton of relationships with overseas schools everywhere to make Mandarin classes common, and maybe some other things, all at the same time. Maybe this could be done, but it doesn't seem likely, especially under the current Chinese political and economic system. China will definitely continue rising, which will make it so more and more people will learn Mandarin, but Mandarin at best will end up being important internationally the same way French and Spanish are super important internationally. The English global lingua franca is not at all threatened by Mandarin and is here to stay for a good while.
An interesting argument I've heard is that there will be no need for a global lingua franca in the future because improvements in machine translation technology will make needing to learn new languages no longer necessary. This is totally within the realm of possibility, but I'm not really sure if or when machine translation will become good enough to make learning a different language not needed. You see, a lot of languages carry information very differently and do not always carry all pieces of information with the same amount of precision or detail. Words with multiple definitions or words that don't translate directly are one thing but another problem is that some languages are very context dependent, with the context not being just what has been said previously in the conversation, but who is speaking to whom, who/what else is in the surrounding area, and where it is being said. This is a huge problem that results in some super weird translations with today's translation technology. This context problem is something that requires improvements in translation technology beyond just looking at the words that are being translated themselves, and starting to look at the entire surroundings combined with the words needed to be translated, essentially perceiving everything that a normal human would see when translating, and understanding what is being perceived. These two Tom Scott videos show how far away we are from getting there: Video 1 & Video 2. This maybe could be done with iterative improvements on today's relatively dumb artificial intelligence technology combined with advances in better computing hardware, but I feel that translation technology good enough to make lingua francas obsolete would require achieving artificial general intelligence (machines having the same thinking capabilities as humans), which right now is still theoretical and might happen a long time from now assuming it happens at all. So yeah, I don't disagree with the idea that better machine translation would make lingua francas obsolete, but in my opinion it's dependent on technology advancements that are currently theoretical and without any clear timeline on them being mass market.
Now that I've established that English will not be overtaken by any language as the global lingua franca under today's circumstances, we can now ask: How long can this English dominance last, and what could actually take the place of English in the future if it does fall? Nothing is forever of course, Latin was the lingua fanca of Europe for a good while even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but eventually people just stopped speaking Latin outside of historians and language nerds. I'm not sure how all the independent English-speaking countries spread out across the world could fall apart at the same time the way the Roman Empire did. And if they did that doesn't mean that people who are learning English because that's what everyone else is learning would just stop and pick up something else. To me the most likely scenario under current circumstances is that what we know today as English will "die" by simply evolving into some internationalized descendant of English the same way romance languages evolved from Latin. That evolved English descendant could be partially intelligible to today's English speakers the same way we can somewhat understand Shakespeare's English at first, but would likely end up unintelligible with today's English over a long enough time.
But actually that could end up not happening and far future English could be mutually intelligible with present English for an interesting reason: people communicating over the internet. Right now, a lot of people spend a lot of time on the internet listening to other people talk in English through video hosting platforms/apps, game voice chats, and online movies & TV shows. And since those people listen to that much English they start mimicking what they hear when they speak English. Both of those factors right now are creating a feedback loop which is sort of creating a standard international English accent that is slowly eroding weird regional English accents, especially among the younger generation. Since there is so much recorded English media that's only been around for about a century that is basically 99% intelligible to fluent English speakers today, and a lot of people listen to that media from across that entire time period, future English could remain pretty much the same as today's English because it would cause the least friction for everyone to understand this huge repository of content in a single "standard" language. But since it's only been a century and languages evolve over much longer periods of time it's still too early to know if this will be the case.
Okay so if the English global lingua franca never dies and stays the same forever, how many people will end up knowing English and what will happen to other languages? I definitely don't think that we'll end up with everyone in the world knowing English, but I do certainly think that one or two more billion English speakers would likely be added to today's already existing over a billion English speakers. This will be mainly due to the fact that countries will continue to develop and will continue to trade internationally and more people will just chat with one another internationally in English. As for other languages, it's clear right now that vocabulary and ideas that come from the English-speaking world keep sneaking into other major languages slowly. It seems too small to really affect those languages fundamentally, but it will definitely shift those languages into a weird English-influenced form of themselves.
A lot of what is written in this blog post is very speculative and assumes that the world won't drastically change in the future. Crazy unexpected events like wars or natural disasters could completely change things in unexpected ways, but I feel pretty confident based on what I know right now that the English global lingua franca will not be affected much by anything for a long time. I should mention that I don't necessarily view the English language as inherently good, special, or superior to any other language. Language is mostly just a tool that allows us to communicate and cooperate together, and English was in the right places at the right times to end up being the language that brings together the largest amount of people across international borders. This situation isn't super fair either as countries where English is the primary means of communication have a slight advantage over countries where people need to learn English because native English speakers can immediately absorb most internationally distributed information while non-natives have to learn to be able to understand that information. English natives also get the privilege of choosing the second language that they learn for international communication, while non-natives are pretty much forced to learn English as their language. Not that great, but it is what it is.
Thank you for reading. What are your thoughts on this subject?