"English is likely to remain one of the
world's most important languages for the foreseeable future,
but its future is more problematic -- and complex -- than most
people appreciate," said language researcher David Graddol.
He sees English as likely to become the
"first among equals" rather than having the global field to
"Monolingual speakers of any variety of
English -- American or British -- will experience increasing
difficulty in employment and political life, and are likely to
become bewildered by many aspects of society and culture
around them," Graddol said.
The share of the world's population that
speaks English as a native language is falling, Graddol
reports in a paper in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
The idea of English becoming the world
language to the exclusion of others "is past its sell-by
date," Graddol says. Instead, its major contribution will be
in creating new generations of bilingual and multilingual
speakers, he reports.
A multi-lingual population is already the
case in much of the world and is becoming more common in the
United States. Indeed, the Census Bureau reported last year
that nearly one American in five speaks a language other than
English at home, with Spanish leading, and Chinese growing
And that linguistic diversity, in turn, has
helped spark calls to make English the nation's official
Yale linguist Stephen Anderson noted that
multilingualism is "more or less the natural state. In most of
the world multilingualism is the normal condition of people."
"The notion that English shouldn't, needn't
and probably won't displace local languages seems natural to
me," he said in a telephone interview.
While it is important to learn English, he
added, politicians and educators need to realize that doesn't
mean abandoning the native language.
Graddol, of the British consulting and
publishing business The English Company, anticipates a world
where the share of people who are native English speakers
slips from 9 percent in the mid-twentieth century to 5 percent
As of 1995, he reports, English was the
second most-common native tongue in the world, trailing only
By 2050, he says, Chinese will continue its
predominance, with Hindi-Urdu of India and Arabic climbing
past English among 15-to-24 year olds, and Spanish nearly
equal to it. Graddol said he focused on the 15- to 24-year-old
group in 2050 to give an indication of the future past that
Swarthmore College linguist K. David
Harrison noted, however, that "the global share of English is
much larger if you count second-language speakers, and will
continue to rise, even as the proportion of native speakers
Harrison disputed listing Arabic in the top
three languages, "because varieties of Arabic spoken in say,
Egypt and Morocco are mutually incomprehensible."
Even as it grows as a second language,
English may still not ever be the most widely spoken language
in the world, according to Graddol, since so many people are
native Chinese speakers and many more are learning it as a
English has become the dominant language of
science, with an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of papers
in scientific journals written in English, notes Scott
Montgomery in a separate paper in the same issue of Science.
That's up from about 60 percent in the 1980s, he observes.
"There is a distinct consciousness in many
countries, both developed and developing, about this dominance
of English. There is some evidence of resistance to it, a
desire to change it," Montgomery said in a telephone
For example, he said, in the early years of
the Internet it was dominated by sites in English, but in
recent years there has been a proliferation of non-English
sites, especially Spanish, German, French, Japanese and
Nonetheless, English is strong as a second
language, and teaching it has become a growth industry, said
Montgomery, a Seattle-based geologist and energy consultant.
Graddol noted, though that employers in
parts of Asia are already looking beyond English. "In the next
decade the new 'must learn' language is likely to be
"The world's language system, having
evolved over centuries, has reached a point of crisis and is
rapidly restructuring," Graddol says. In this process as many
as 90 percent of the 6,000 or so languages spoken around the
world may be doomed to extinction, he estimated.
Graddol does have words of consolation for
those who struggle to master the intricacies of other
"The expectation that someone should always
aspire to native speaker competence when learning a foreign
language is under challenge," he comments.