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The days may be numbered for English as a universal second language

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

How long will English last as a major world language? The answer must be: a very long time.

How long will English remain dominant worldwide as a second language in schools and universities? I believe it will be for one more generation — max.

These two answers may appear to present a paradoxical muddling of logic — but not so, I would argue.

First the background.

Language has been the primary tool of ethnicity, nationality and culture ever since humans began to speak. It is the way we have always identified people as not belonging to our own group, as not being “one of us.” Looks alone, particularly of people from neighboring ethnic groups, may not be sufficient to make a rapid judgment.

It has always astounded me how quickly and thoroughly — often in the space of a few generations — dialects diverge, often leading to the establishment of different languages. In terms of ethnic discrepancy, though, this makes sense: It’s easier to look like you than to sound like you. Ethnic groups even go so far as to discriminate among their own on the basis of something as superficial as accent.

Basically, we are wary of people we cannot trust to identify with our own, or our group’s, narrow interests. We have an instinctive aversion to people “who don’t speak the same language as us,” which is a phrase in English that means “we are not seeing eye to eye.”

The Russian word for “a German” derives from the word niemoi, which means “dumb” in the old but now pejorative sense of “someone unable to speak, in particular due to deafness.” Some years ago, I asked a Swedish student of mine whether immigrants were accepted in Sweden. “If they speak Swedish very well, they are,” he replied.

I would say that this applies today, to a less universal extent, in Japan. Japanese may be anxious about foreigners who do not speak Japanese because they are afraid they themselves may be misunderstood and thought ill of. They also believe that foreigners who do not speak or read Japanese may not comply with the many codes of behavior that maintain social harmony in Japan. However, once they feel assured that foreigners are fluent in their customs thanks to a profound understanding of their language, they rest more easily and are generally willing to accept them into the social circle.

Language, though, has not only been a passive tool to distinguish among ethnicities, to determine who is friendly and who may not be. It has been a weapon of subjugation, arguably the most lethal of all, short of genocide.

Conquerors and colonial powers have, through the ages, snuffed out the native language of their subjects and substituted their own. This, more than anything else, has ensured the effects of subjugation — even long after the subjugator has retreated.

Take away the language of a people and you rob them of their independence and dignity. You may try to make amends, as in the case of the white people in Australia who subjugated and ethnically “cleansed” the Aboriginal population; but once the living language as a tool for maintaining ethnic integrity has been eliminated, even the most admirable political and social policies provide only partial success. Languages, and hence cultures, simply don’t reinstate themselves.

“Assimilation” has been a byword in many countries. But what this may signal is linguistic deprivation. The Romans spread their language as the sole medium of cultural development; but when the shackles of authority cracked, the importance of the language, Latin, receded, until it eventually died out. Now it is used only by a church that has adopted the old empire’s gilded appurtenances.

French, too, was once a universally admired language — indeed, it was the unchallenged sine qua non of diplomatic patter, such that the very term lingua franca came to mean “language in common.” This mantle has passed on to English in the 21st century, thanks to the spread of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries and the extensive reach of U.S. influence since World War II.

Is English any different from Latin and French? Will it cease to be the force around the world that it is today, the indispensable medium of communication for commerce, industry and travel?

If the new world empire is to be the Chinese one, will Chinese displace English? Few people expect it to, and even fewer would dare predict that, centuries hence, some languages that now use an alphabet will switch to Chinese characters for their words.

Of course, there is no linguistic reason why this could not happen. Americans could conceivably write the word “horse” with 馬 and pronounce it “horse,” just as they write 3+39=42 in symbols that have even less in common with the actual quantities involved than 馬 has with “horse” — at least the character has something like legs. Arabic numerals are no more than characters; and we have no problem with recognizing them instantly and pronouncing them in our own languages.

Nonetheless, I don’t expect that Chinese, however powerful the empire may become, will become a lingua franca, let alone provide a writing system for alphabetic languages. But I do expect that English will cease to be a universally studied language around the world, and that this will happen a lot sooner than later.

The game-changer is the very thing that has turned English into the phenomenal medium that it is today: digital technology. It was the digital revolution, spurred by the disseminating power of the Internet, that enhanced the role of English around the world … and that ongoing revolution will reverse the course of that language’s role.

It is now likely that interpreting will soon routinely be done digitally, both rapidly and to a high degree of accuracy. People involved in international discussions, travelers and even students doing distant learning will avail themselves of practically simultaneous interpreting via a computer or smartphone.

Of course, translation on a cultural or highly technical level will still need to be done in the traditional way. I cannot conceive of a device that renders the haiku of Shiki Masaoka or the plays of Anton Chekhov into a foreign language. It’s not a matter of just getting it technically right. However, basic English competency that is drummed into struggling students in Japan and every other non-English-speaking country will be fulfilled digitally, freeing them to study other subjects, including other languages.

Actually, this will have the effect of emphasizing the importance of foreign-language study. How better to appreciate another culture than by delving into the most crucial aspect of that culture, the very core of its existence as a unique entity? Those people who have a natural affinity for another language will be free to pursue the languages of their choice.

I chose Russian, Polish and Japanese, not to exploit any strategic advantage, but because I found great beauty and lyrical secrets in them. In the end, they suited my temperament and enriched the aspirations that I developed as the years passed.

The age of the dominance of ancient Rome, Paris and London is a thing of the past, as someday it will be for the United States of America. Long live the English language as the repository, both passive and active, of culture and ethnicity … for its days are numbered as a medium of universal understanding. It is on the way to being replaced, not by another lingua franca but rather by electronically generated signals.

Hence the digital revolution might, ironically, be the savior of ethnicities otherwise forced into obscurity or extinction by single-language imperialism.

  • YourMessageHere

    I have a different theory: study of English will indeed decline as machine translation increases in speed and accuracy. Then it will increase again.

    Why will it increase again? Because, as noted concerning plays and poetry, electronic auto-translation and interpreting cannot convey the full range of subtleties of a language. But this limitation is not something that will only preserve language learning for the purposes of high culture.

    Just think back to the last time you had a serious conversation in your native language. Think of all the things you said, and how you said them. To do something like that requires just as fine control of language as poetry appreciation or watching a play. How can a machine translation possibly hope to pick up cultural inference, sarcasm and irony, tonal intonation and stress, variant body language? Even if such a thing were possible, how could it then communicate it to the user of the machine? That itself would require encoding it into a different language of symbols and signifiers that the user would have to learn. Even if that were somehow acceptable, how could a conversation be continued at a realistic pace?

    All that aside, for this to be a practical technology, it will require full-time connection for its user. Who will want to employ someone who needs to be wired into their computing device of choice for the whole workday simply to understand the people around them? Who will want to talk to someone if they are jacked into some cyberpunk rig of automatic translation gear? Would an employer not rather hire someone who had shown the dedication and mental agility and fortitude to learn a second language, than hire someone who just bought a machine?

    No, there may be a momentary dip in English study, but once people come to understand the inherent limitations of this technology it will come right back, and may even increase. That kind of technology will aid holidaymakers and business travellers, certainly, and its applications for rescue workers and authority figures are obvious too. But for actually understanding a culture and language at a more than superficial level, a working understanding of the grammar and inferences of a language, independent of a machine, is absolutely vital. I’ve long believed that learning another language is tantamount to learning a new way of thinking, and no machine can do that for you.

    • JusenkyoGuide

      Have to agree with this, the reality is that machines are having one hell of a time translating thing. Google Translate, which is currently one of the best ones out there, still manages to make elementary mistakes that humans would catch automatically. Given subtle variations in meaning, tone, and phrasing, it’s unlikely that we’re going to get a good computer based translation any time soon, at least not for areas that go into detail and shades of gray, say diplomatic relations.

  • WithMalice

    Some great points raised by both Josh and “JusenkyoGuide”… additionally, the fact that within the business/political/social worlds, English was the primary language at the commencement of the now massive internet age, it will largely remain so. The primary language to communicate internationally via the web is still English… there’s very little likelihood that this will change.