How Long Will the Dominance of English Last?

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Will English remain the lingua franca forever? Unlikely. But what will be next? Nicholas Ostler explores this question in his book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, which Laura Marsh reviews at The New Republic.

Ostler thinks technologies like Google Translate and Babel Fish "will revolutionize global communications, and make foreign language learning a thing of the past." They're not perfect now, but they'll improve. If so, that's great for him, points out Marsh: Ostler "is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. A technological revolution could save declining tongues from extinction," since "those who now neglect their traditional regional language in favor of English would no longer need a lingua franca to access the same commercial and cultural opportunities."

Marsh adds that "one could be forgiven for entertaining the thought that massive media saturation ... has brought English to a point of no return." But Ostler thinks "historically considered, English has little chance of outlasting the economic and military dominance of Anglophone powers around the world." The problem, returns Marsh, is that he relies too much in his prediction of English being the last lingua franca on his grand theory of virtual language and instant translation. The intricacies of language are many, and Marsh isn't convinced a computer is ever going to prove reliable--particularly when it comes to translating art.

The ideal of effortless communication is understandable, but it is mythical. In reality, it means irritating misunderstandings, an impoverished cultural exchange, and technological dependency. This situation evokes the Babel story too, the disastrous confusion of a world in which there is no shared language. Such confusion should be avoided, even if the current dominance of one language seems overwhelming or unfair. The most interesting and responsible question now is what kind of lingua franca, or more likely lingua francas, will replace it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.