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November 29, 2005

A Dystopian Future for The English Language?

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"He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." ~ George Orwell

Any science-fiction fans out there? Ok, forget Orwell's thought-police and NewSpeak for the time being.

In Ridley Scott's bleak film Blade Runner, the futuristic world society of planet Earth has evolved into one with a distinctly Asian cultural flavor. In the short-lived television series Firefly, the future is one where the English language has become synthesized, to certain degree, with the Chinese language (especially for profanity). In the also discontinued series prequel to Star Trek, Enterprise, a multicultural crew of near-future Earth denizens (who routinely speak English) frequently employ the services of their star linguist in an attempt to communicate with the "other" (who are not interested in the English language in the least). So, even in fiction, it seems, Western civilization critiques its own history with linguistic imperialism.

It comes as no real surprise then that the English language, our current lingua franca, especially for the internet, will someday give way to another. History teaches us that the Hellenistic world gave way to Latin which decades later was forgotten as French moved into that spot as the dominating Western European tongue. Why even those wily Anglo-Saxons eventually co-opted large chunks of the language of the Normans, et al. The precedent has already been set and it's just plain silliness, in my opinion, to think that the tongue of our own chosen profession, ESL, can or will last indefinitely as a viable market force.

Whether or not this occurs in our own lifetimes is, of course, debatable.

These old, pessimistic concerns were resurfaced for me recently after an October post entitled "Planning for the Future" on our friend Patricia Dean's ESL School blog here. In it, she smartly remarks on how easy it is, especially for native-speakers abroad, to sometimes feel that they already "own" the language they speak and to take it for granted that the reliable business of teaching it is here to stay. In one part of her article, she says:

Although English seems to have strength as an international language at present, will this be true when China starts to influence global business or when the Spanish speakers of the Americas flex their linguistic muscles? . . . One influence that has no historical precedent is the Internet, where English is undoubtedly the dominant language. But we have no way of knowing if that dominance will continue.

In fact, many of us have either worked at language schools abroad that already teach secondary language systems other than English or find that our own employers consider themselves in a competition for a language market that has the option of utilizing other language institutions such as "Der Goethe Institut," for example.

So, what say ye, wise colleagues and friends? Will we someday have a better chance finding work teaching, say, Spanish as a Second Language, or Chinese as a Foreign Language rather than English? (I'm betting that it WON'T be Esperanto).

Is our trade in an upward spiral or is it heading in some different direction? It's not hard for me to recall my old Polish counterparts (Russian Language Teachers) in the early '90s lamenting the bad old days when a different language held the market dominance in Central Europe, for example (they had to be re-educated). Are we living on borrowed time or is this theoretical issue something that we can pass on to the Y and Z generations to deal with later?

Consider your comments solicited.

Live long and prosper and may the Force be with you,

Lee Hobbs
ESL Instruct, Editor-in-Chief

Posted by lhobbs at November 29, 2005 03:49 AM

Readers' Comments:


I quite agree that linguistic "dominance" changes with political and economic conditions. We owe our jobs in part to the long runs of the British and American Empires.

But I think that there is another force emerging that will make the whole point moot. Computer translation will put us all out of work long before another language steps onto center stage. Up until now computer translation has been fairly weak- not unlike computer chess was twenty years or so ago. Faster computers and more sophisticated, statistics-based software is rapidly changing that sorry state of affairs.

So what happens to the ESL teaching profession when people can communicate effectively without having to learn a common language like English?


Posted by: Nigel Fogden at November 29, 2005 04:26 PM


Note from Lee:

Nigel, a very perceptive aspect of technology you bring into this discussion.

There already exist fine examples of digital text language conversion software available (at still exorbitantly high fees) for businesses and professional document translators (like Systran, for example, which goes for around $1000 USD). With a little proof-reading by a native speaker, the results of this software are often quite useable.

We've discussed technology on the blog before, e.g. Spellcheckers and services like www.turnitin.com to detect plagiarism, PowerPoint presentations, grading software and teacher observation software but the possibility of reliable translating software has gone unmentioned in this forum.

This scenario definitely ties in to the Sci-fi theme of a personal translator that all language users carry on their person, for example, to understand all the known tongues.

You're absolutely right. If such technology is really within our grasp (do you think in our own lifetimes?), will spending valuable time, effort and money really be a concern for the language-customer demographic of the future? It might be a non-issue for the common layperson. Better to spend the same money on the translating device and thereby regaining the lost time and effort, right?

Of course, there will always be some academics and linguists needed by the industry to actually write/program the software but how much ESL business (in the sense that we know it now) will actually be needed in a future where portable, battery-operated "interpreters" can be built right into, say, mobile-phone software? As an early prototype, think of the goofy, electronic travel language dictionaries already available. You punch in what you want to say, it comes out in another language, complete with "voice" so you won't run the mistake of mispronunciation.

I wonder if blog post responses might also someday be written by artificial-intelligence software. (There’s no question that my intelligence is artificial, lol!)

Thanks again Nigel for bringing this topic to our attention. It does make for some interesting discourse.

Posted by: Lee at November 29, 2005 04:46 PM


The only time that English becomes unpopular is when it is NOT anymore used as an international language. At present, more than 900 million people around the globe speak English either as a second and/or foreign language. If other international languages like French, Spanish, etc. can surpass that figure, then that's it.


Posted by: Edna Salcedo at November 30, 2005 09:39 PM


Note from Lee:

Edna, that does seem to be the conventional wisdom. In 1998, 885,000,000 people on this planet spoke Mandarin Chinese as their first language (source: The New York Times Almanac, 1998). I don't know off-hand how many speak Mandarin as a SL in 2005, but how ever many there are, it only adds to that number.

When that total surpasses the English mark, then what? Doesn't mean English will disappear, just means it will have a hearty competitor.

There's a good discussion going on at Google regarding the question of "Best Languages to Learn" at http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=313881

Thanks for your comment. All opinions are appreciated here!

Posted by: Lee at November 30, 2005 10:06 PM


I have no use for a language where it is not spoken by many many people. I mean what good is Madarin for me here in Korea or America or South America, etc.

People are not going to beat their brains out learning Mandarin, perhaps, certain company reps may. How about Hindi and Urdu? Not useful either. It's not trade or the numbers of speakers that determine language use.

You see, we are taking English to them, much in the same way that Spanish is brought to us by the Hispanics in America. A real person speaking a real language is better than any tech thing, which is limited available.

Tech things don't do idioms or slang very well, nor do the robotics do stress. English is here to stay. A language dies only when children are not learning it.


Posted by: William Roger Jones at December 30, 2005 06:24 PM


Though it is becomming more vogue in certain industries to learn Mandarin, and yes, there one-point-however many billions of people who speak it, the truth is that Mandarin Chinese will probably never be a bridge language like English is or French was.

It is highly unlikely in the next hundred years, even as China becomes surpasses the US as the world's prevailing power, that two people from, say, Germany and Japan will meet each other in a bar in, say, Vietnam and start speaking Chinese to each other. In countries all over the world people learn English not just to be able to communicate with people in the US and Britain, but also to communicate with people from everywhere else in the world who are doing the same thing.

And despite the growing popularity of Chinese film and the presence of Chinese people all over the world, their language still hasn't really caught on. I think you need to know some 2,000 Chinese characters to be able to get the gist of a simple newspaper article. You think anybody is going to pledge to tackle that on a whim?

While the US will eventually wane in political, economic, and military might, the language it speaks will not. In 100 years there could be 1.5 billion speakers of Mandarin, but there will still be more people studying English and Spanish because it can be used in more places. Hell, I teach at a university in Thailand. Students here start studying English at a young age, but I have many who have also study a third language. And even though China is right around the corner, you know what language they chose to study more often than not?



Posted by: Joe at January 11, 2006 01:12 PM


Anyone who thinks Chinese is going to take over as a language has there head on backwards. If you've never lived in China, don't comment on it. One can go from one province to another, and the people can't understand each other. That is a fact!

What is all the commotion about. English or any language isn't going to die out over night. My goodness, is anyone thinking out there? ESL is important because people all over the world want it. Why the fuss? When people don't want it any more, we teachers will all go home.


Posted by: Bob at January 12, 2006 01:18 PM



Could Mandarin be our competition as the next world language?

Look at this article from The Seoul Times


Posted by: Morf at January 15, 2006 01:51 PM

Note from Lee:

Readers, an update on this story via the BBC I found on Sharon's blog at: http://spaces.msn.com/members/applegrass/blog/cns!1pp7oGtY4XsviAyeBNiCcU7A!1104.entry?txtName=Lee

I took the liberty of reprinting in below:



An independent school has become the first in the UK to make Mandarin Chinese compulsory for pupils, reflecting the growing importance of China on the world stage. But it's not an easy language to master.

China used to be called a sleeping giant. Now, as the world's fastest growing major economy, it is well and truly awake.

British exports to the country are expected to quadruple by the end of the decade and the government wants every school, college and university to be twinned with an equivalent in China within the next five years.

An estimated 100 schools in the UK are now teaching Mandarin, China's official language, according to the British Council - the UK's international organisation for educational and cultural relations.

Brighton College, an independent school in East Sussex, this week became the first to make the language compulsory, alongside French, Spanish and Latin.

But it is a tough language to learn for Westerners. There are two main reason for this, says Dr Frances Weightman, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds.

Firstly, the script poses problems. There is no alphabet, just thousands of characters. There are so many that no one can give a definitive total, but it is believed to be around 60,000.

Secondly, the tonal system is hard for Westerners. While the meaning of English words does not change with tone, the same is not true for Mandarin.

Four-and-a-half tones are used, meaning a single word can have many meanings. Ma, for example, can mean mother, horse, hemp, or be a reproach depending on tone. How tones are used also varies extensively from province to province.

"The tonal systems can result in a lot of ambiguity for people learning the language," says Dr Weightman.

Westerners have the reputation of using the fourth tone exclusively for all words. It is a sharp falling sound, a little like how the end of a sentence with an exclamation mark sounds.

Pinyin, a system of transliterating Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet, is used by Westerners to learn basic Mandarin. Things get tougher when students start learning characters, but language experts say a person only needs roughly 5,000 to be literate.

'It's like singing'
One thing that is easier in Mandarin is the grammar.

"The grammar is not nearly as complicated as many European languages," says Dr Weightman. "For example there are no verb tenses, no relative clauses, no singular or plural."

The number of people in the UK learning Mandarin has gone up considerably in recent years, she adds.

"It really appeals to kids, they find the different characters fun and grasp the different tones well, it's like singing for them. The more we demystify the language, the more people will learn it. At the moment it is still seen as exotic and a bit strange, which can put people off. But that's changing."

GCSE entries for the Chinese languages of Mandarin and Cantonese crept up to just under 4,000 last year. Even with its falling popularity, however, the number of entries in French still hit 320,000.

Ann Martin, a Mandarin teacher at the Ashcombe School in Dorking Surrey, believes part of the problem is the exam system, which isn't designed for non native speakers and is hard for them to gain good grades compared to native speakers.

"As far as schools are concerned head teachers are reluctant to timetable Chinese because it is not achievable for non-native speakers," she says.

Business experts are in no doubt about how important Mandarin will become over the next few years.

BBC business reporter Mary Hennock says students speaking fluent English and Chinese are going to be the executives of the future.

"China's economy is growing so quickly and becoming so influential in the world economy that people can't afford to ignore it. People who want to be ahead in whatever industry need to think about China and learning Chinese."

Source: BBC news

Posted by: Lee at January 17, 2006 12:37 PM

Anyone exposed to Mandarin as an EFL teacher must be ROFL at the thought that it could ever become the world's lingua franca. Imagine, if you will, that English learners from their first attempt, had to have near perfect pronunciation to be understood! How many of your students would even try to speak? This is the case with Mandarin.

English is based on phonemes and we create syllables by combining these phonemes into, if not an infinite number, certainly many millions of different syllables. Mandarin only has some 420 syllables (not a typo!) which, when you add tones, increases to about 2,000. Each character is one syllable. Everyone likes to quote the venerable "ma" and its four meanings. In fact, "ma" has 16 meanings, and most other pinyin characterizations have at least 9-10. So, CONTEXT is hugely important. Just dropping a Chinese word into a conversation will usually elicit blank stares, even if perfectly pronounced and toned.

Native Chinese speakers know when tones are needed and when they are not. This comes from a full knowledge of the language and a lifetime of practice. If you try to properly tone every syllable, you will be speaking very, VEEEEEERY slowly!

Then, there are the characters! Perhaps you CAN learn a few thousand of them, which of course, is not going to help your spoken Mandarin one bit. Your next problem is the gulf between how one expresses himself in English as opposed to Mandarin. Grammar aside, the transliteration of one to the other produces gobbledygook. I teach writing to university students so, I know of what I speak!

I think we can relax. Mandarin is not going to take over, not now, not in the future.

Posted by: Mike in China at May 7, 2006 05:30 PM

Note from Lee:

Thanks Mike both for your comment and your insight into the intricacies of Mandarin Chinese. Sounds like yet another fascinating language rich with literature and culture. I guess it's had, at least, some influence on other language systems since the Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese languages all utilize writing systems that employ written Chinese characters (which I understand is much older than the various spoken dialects and Chinese language groups). I wonder how many countries colonized or influenced by China throughout history speak both their own tongue and some form of Chinese?

Good remarks though, and a dialogue that certainly begs for continuance with more authoritative responses than I'm qualified to vouch for.

Your mention of typical student errors in Chinese writing classes compelled me to share the following link I recently came across with readers from "The Language Project," a company that claims to be accredited by the British Council. To see "typical mistakes for Chinese Speakers" please click here:



Posted by: Lee at May 7, 2006 07:13 PM

hi nice site.

Posted by: alex at April 12, 2007 06:32 PM


I love what you're doing!

Don't ever change and best of luck.

Raymond W.

Posted by: Raymond Wazerri at April 20, 2007 07:18 PM

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