Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

English in 21st Century

The future of today’s global language, English, is more complex and less certain. It will retain its excellence in the 21st century and is unlikely to be displaced as the world’s most important language. Its usage is an intricate system in which many factors act together in ways that are not easily foreseeable. Just the same, recent progress in shaping the behavior of complex systems, like weather, could help us understand the patterns that may emerge in the globalization of English.

From north and south and east and west, there are more than 1,400 million people living in countries where English has official status. One out of five of the world’s population speaks English at some level of competence. Demand from the other four fifths is bumping up. English is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science technology, diplomacy, sport, international competitions, advertising and pop music.

Almost all those who are professionally associated with the English language worldwide acknowledge that there is no imminent danger to the English language, or to its global attractiveness.

Yet with the emergence of new world order and global transition, the next 20 years or so will be a critical time for the English language and for those who hang upon it. The structures of usage and public attitudes to English will have long-term consequences for its future.

The future of English will be more complex, more demanding of understanding and more challenging for the position of native-speaking countries than has up till now been thought.

The global popularity of English is in no immediate danger, but that it would be unwise to see in the mind’s eye that its predominant position as a world language will not be threatened in some world regions for use as the economic, demographic and political shape of the world as it transforms.

The future of English will however be a complex and plural one. The language will grow in usage and variety; yet simultaneously diminish in relative global importance. To put it in economic terms, the size of the global market for the English language may increase in absolute terms, but its market share will probably decline.

Additional reasons that have resulted the reduced fervor threaten trends of increased usage of English. The growing adoption of English as a second language, where it takes on local forms, is leading to disintegration and multiplicity. No longer will be the case, if it ever was, that English unifies all who speak it.

The future is going to be a bilingual one, in which a growing ratio of the world’s population will be eloquent speakers of more than one language. There is little to help us understand what will happen to English when the majority of the people and institutions who use it do so as a second language.

Native speakers may feel that the language belongs to them, but it will actually be those who speak English as a second language or foreign language who will determine its world future—the fact that 19th century futurologists failed to foresee that the growth in second and foreign language speakers would be a much more important phenomenon.

As the number of people using English grows, second language speakers will be drawn towards the inner circle of first language speakers and foreign language speakers to the outer circle of second language speakers. All through this status migration, attitudes and needs in respect of the language will change; the English language will diversify and other countries will emerge to compete with the older, native-speaking countries in both the English language-teaching industry and in the global market for cultural resources and intellectual property in English.

The future and globalization symbolizes a significant discontinuity with previous periods. The Internet and related information technologies, for example, may upset the traditional patterns of communication upon which institutional and national cultures have been put together.

In four key sectors, the present dominance of English can be expected to give way to a wider mix of languages: first, the global audio-visual market and especially satellite TV; second, the Internet and computer-based communications including language related and document handling software; third, technology transfer and associated processes in economic globalization; fourth, foreign language learning especially in developing countries where growing regional trade may make other languages of growing economic magnitude.

Computer technology has changed the way people act together both locally and globally. At the present we are at the core of personal and group communications. The Internet will remain the flotilla leader of Global English and it will be a quite different language from what it is today. Nevertheless, there seems to be developing a new, global English-speaking market in the knowledge-intensive industries.

At this point in time there is a significant increase in the numbers of people learning and using English, but a closer examination of driving forces suggests that the long term growth of the learning of English is less secure than it appears to be.

Overtly and covertly, the use of English language is most ubiquitous amongst professional groups and middle class families are most likely to embrace English as the language of the home.

By and by, no single language will occupy the monopolistic position in the 21st century, which English has—almost—achieved by the end of the 20th century. As communications infrastructure ameliorates and relative costs plunge, more telephone conversations around the world will be held in languages other than English.

English must keep up a range of corporate roles and identities and must be usable for both team working and service interactions. Not surprisingly, demands on an employee’s competence in English will rise.

The ELT industry needs to respond to changing international social values—to ensure that the reputation of English language is enhanced rather than diminished. Asif J. Mir, Organizational Transformation