The data would seem to be in: China is poised to become the world’s economic leader within the next few decades. But there are those under the impression that this will mean a sea change in the world’s linguistic terrain as well. Certainly, any human being who seeks education, influence, or power should be learning Mandarin, right?
Wrong. The world’s de facto international language will continue to be English. The language spoken by the whole world will not be the one spoken in the country that runs it—a new and hybrid linguistic world order.
Or not. The world has long known empires running things in the language of the conquered. The Persian Empire stretched from Egypt to India, but conducted business in Aramaic, a desert tongue of the Fertile Crescent. Genghis Khan and his Mongols ruled China with no interest in spreading their language, happily leaving Chinese in place.
So it will be with China and its impending hegemony: English is astride the globe to stay. Yes, history recounts many languages in a similar position that evaporated into marginality once the powers behind them fell into eclipse. As Alexander the Great mopped up the Persians, no one would have dreamed that Greek would not be a world language forever.
But things are different with English. The issue is not some vaunted “flexibility” inherent to the language along the lines touted by Robert McCrum’s book, Globish. English began as one of several obscure languages spoken by illiterate Germanic tribesmen in the mists of northern Europe. Its place today as the most useful language to know out of 6,000 is a quirk, due largely to Western European geography and the technological innovation it encouraged. With another roll of the cosmological dice the world’s language would be Tagalog.
English is permanent because it came to reign amidst print, widespread literacy, and eventually an omnipresent media. All of these make a world’s lingua franca more drillingly present in minds the world over than was ever possible before. As such, English will remain the international language of choice for the same reason keyboards retain the ungainly QWERTY configuration—it got there first.
Improvements in translation technology will not change this by making it less important to learn second languages at all, despite claims such as Nicholas Ostler’s in The Last Lingua Franca. Languages are not just differing codes, but subjective symbols, associated with issues such as coolness, sophistication, and broader horizons.
Thus if French is the language of love and German is associated with severity, English is American pop, American movies, and American influence—even if that influence wanes ever more. An analogy: despite France’s world influence having waned massively since 1945, the American intelligentsia shudders at the eclipse of university French departments and still considers flirtation with French a marker of middle-class graciousness.
English dominance will also be assured by Chinese’s difficulty for foreigners. Grappling with expressing meaning through different pitches—“maÓ can mean horse, mother, scold, or hemp depending on this—is a nasty business if you aren’t born immersed in it. In Dreaming in Chinese, her loving chronicle of learning Mandarin in China, Deborah Fallows mentions it taking two years to be able to follow conversations even decently—this is not a language poised to become the world’s lingua franca. Plus, the writing system, based on pictures rather than sounds, is also a bear: to learn to read at an adult level is an almost Herculean labor for the foreigner.
English, meanwhile, is easy to get the basics of as languages go. Most languages challenge the learner with either tables of prefixes and suffixes (like Spanish) or tones like Chinese. English has no tones, and gets by with conjugation as simple as I walk, you walk, he walks. English is no Esperanto, but as world languages go, it is considerably user-friendly.
Parents shepherding their 6-year-olds into Chinese classes out of a sense that the world will soon be speaking Mandarin can relax. Learning some Chinese is fun, but we can be sure that for better or for worse, English, by sheer accident, is with us to stay, in a world that takes orders from China—given in English.
McWhorter is a William Simon Fellow at Columbia University and a contributing editor at The New Republic.