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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

But it's undeniable that English-speakers now have lower birth rates, on average, than speakers of Hindi and Urdu and Arabic and Spanish. And the countries where these other languages are spoken are, generally, less well developed than native-English-speaking countries. In 1996, according to United Nations statistics, 21 percent of males and 38 percent of females in "less developed regions" were illiterate in every language, as were 41 and 62 percent in the "least developed countries." Nonetheless, the gains that everyone expects English to make must come because it is adopted as a second language or a foreign language by most of the people who speak it. According to "The Decline of the Native Speaker," a paper David Graddol published last year in the AILA Review (AILA is the French acronym for the International Association of Applied Linguistics; the review belongs to the minority of international scholarly journals that still make use of another language in addition to English), the proportion of native English-speakers in the world population can be expected to shrink over the century 1950-2050 from more than eight to less than five percent.

A few more definitions will be helpful here. "Second-language" speakers live in places where English has some sort of official or special status. In India, for instance, the national government sanctions the use of English for its business, along with fifteen indigenous languages. What proportion of India's population of a billion speaks English is hotly debated, but most sources agree it is well under five percent. All the same, India is thought to have the fourth largest population of English-speakers in the world, after the United States, the United Kingdom, and Nigeria -- or the third largest if you discount speakers of Nigerian pidgin English. English is a second language for virtually everyone in India who speaks it. And obviously the United States, too, contains speakers of English as a second language -- some 30 million of them in 1995, according to an estimate by David Crystal.

"Foreign-language" speakers of English live in places where English is not singled out in any formal way, and tend to learn it to communicate with people from elsewhere. Examples might be Japanese who travel abroad on business and Italians who work in tourism in their own country. The distinction between the two categories of non-native speakers is sometimes blurry. In Denmark and Sweden the overwhelming majority of children are taught English in school -- does that constitute a special status?

The distinction between categories of speakers matters, in part because where English is a first or second language it develops local standards and norms. India, for instance, publishes dictionaries of Indian English, whereas Denmark and Sweden tend to defer to Britain or the United States in setting standards of English pronunciation and usage. The distinction also matters in relation to how entrenched English is in a given place, and how easy that place would find it to abandon the language.

One more surprise is how speculative any estimate of the use of English as a second or a foreign language must necessarily be. How large an English vocabulary and how great a command of English grammar does a person need in order to be considered an English-speaker? Generally, even the most rigorous attempts to determine how many people speak what, including the U.S. Census, depend on self-reporting. Do those years of French in high school and college entitle us to declare ourselves bilingual? They do if we want them to. Language researchers readily admit that their statistics on second- and foreign-language use are, as Graddol put it in "The Decline of the Native Speaker," "educated guesswork."

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

David Crystal, in his Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995), observed that only 98 million second-language speakers of English in the world could be totted up with certainty. In English as a Global Language, though, he argued that the true number was more nearly 350 million. Graddol put forward a variety of estimates in "The Decline of the Native Speaker," including Crystal's, and explained why each had its proponents. According to the most expansive of them, the number of second-language speakers was 518 million in 1995. From 98 million to 518 million is quite a range.

Estimates of the number of foreign-language speakers of English range more widely still. Crystal reports that these "have been as low as 100 million and as high as 1,000 million." The estimates would vary, because by definition foreign-language speakers live in places where English has no official or special status. They may or may not have been asked in a national census or other poll about their competence in English or other languages; they may or may not have had any formal schooling in English; their assessment of their ability to speak English may or may not be accurate.

This last point is particularly worth bearing in mind. According to recent "Eurobarometer" surveys described by Graddol, "77% of Danish adults and 75% of Swedish adults for example, say they can take part in a conversation in English." And "nearly one third of the citizens of the 13 'non English-speaking' countries in the EU 'can speak English well enough to take part in a conversation.'" However, Richard Parker, in his book Mixed Signals: The Prospects for Global Television News (1995), reported this about a study commissioned by Lintas, a major media buyer, in the early 1990s:

When ad researchers recently tested 4,500 Europeans for "perceived" versus "actual" English-language skills, the results were discouraging. First, the interviewees were asked to evaluate their English-language abilities, and then to translate a series of sample English phrases or sentences. The study produced, in its own words, "sobering" results: "the number of people really fit for English-language television turned out to be less than half the expected audience." In countries such as France, Spain, and Italy, the study found, fewer than 3 percent had excellent command of English; only in small markets, such as Scandinavia and the Low Countries did the numbers even exceed 10 percent.

So the number of people in the world who speak English is unknown, and how well many of them speak and understand it is questionable. No one is arguing that English is not widely spoken and taught. But the vast numbers that are often repeated -- a billion English-speakers, a billion and a half -- have only tenuous grounding in reality.

I have never seen any tables or charts that rank languages according to the proportions of the world's population expected to be using them as second or foreign languages ten or fifty years from now. The subject is just too hypothetical, the range of variables too great. Consider, for instance, the side effects that the breakup of the Soviet Union has had on the use of the Russian language. Now that no central authority seeks to impose Russian on schoolchildren throughout the Soviet bloc, few countries besides Russia itself require students to learn it, and for the most part the language is less and less used. However, in places including the Caucasus, Russian continues to be valued as a lingua franca, and fluency in it remains a hallmark of an educated person.

Consider, too, the slender thread by which Canada's linguistic fate hung not long ago. In November of 1995 Quebec held a referendum to determine whether most of its citizens were in favor of independence. If 27,000 of the 4.65 million Quebeckers who voted had cast their ballots for secession rather than against, by now Canada's entire population of some 30 million people, all of them in theory bilingual, might conceivably be on the way to being largely monolingual -- the nation of Quebec in French and what remained of Canada in English.

In the United States, discounting the claims that antagonists make about the other side's position, it's hard to find anyone who doesn't think it would be nice if everyone in the United States spoke English. Virtually all the impassioned debate is about whose resources should be devoted to making this happen and whether people should be encouraged to speak or discouraged from speaking other languages, too. All kinds of things have the potential to change the rate at which English as a second language is learned in the United States. Suppose that nationwide, English lessons were available free (as they already are in some parts of the country) and that employers offered workers, and schools offered parents, incentives to take them. Who can say what effect this would have?

Patterns of learning foreign languages are more volatile still. When I visited David Graddol, last fall, The English Company was reviewing materials the Chinese government had created to be used by 400,000 Chinese instructors in teaching English to millions of their compatriots. Maybe this was a step in an inexorable process of globalization -- or maybe it wasn't. Plans to teach English widely in China might change if relations between our two countries took a disastrous turn. Or the tipping point could be something completely undramatic, such as the emergence of an array of Chinese-language Web sites. The information-technology expert Michael Dertouzos told me not long ago that at a conference he had attended in Taipei, the Chinese were grumbling about having to use English to take advantage of the Internet's riches.

Several Languages Called English

MUCH of what will happen to English we can only speculate about. But let's pursue an idea that language researchers regard as fairly well grounded: native speakers of English are already outnumbered by second-language and foreign-language speakers, and will be more heavily outnumbered as time goes on.

One obvious implication is that some proportion of the people using English for business or professional purposes around the world aren't and needn't be fluent in it. Recently I talked with Michael Henry Heim, a professor of Slavic literatures at the University of California at Los Angeles and a professional translator who has rendered into English major works by Milan Kundera and GŁnter Grass. By his count, he speaks "ten or so" languages. He told me flatly, "English is much easier to learn poorly and to communicate in poorly than any other language. I'm sure that if Hungary were the leader of the world, Hungarian would not be the world language. To communicate on a day-to-day basis -- to order a meal, to book a room -- there's no language as simple as English."

Research, though, suggests that people are likely to find a language easier or harder to learn according to how similar it is to their native tongue, in terms of things like word order, grammatical structure, and cognate words. As the researcher Terence Odlin noted in his book Language Transfer (1989), the duration of full-time intensive courses given to English-speaking U.S. foreign-service personnel amounts to a rough measurement of how different, in these ways, other languages are from English. Today the courses for foreign-service employees who need to learn German, Italian, French, Spanish, or Portuguese last twenty-four weeks. Those for employees learning Swahili, Indonesian, or Malay last thirty-six weeks, and for people learning languages including Hindi, Urdu, Russian, and Hungarian, forty-four weeks. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean take eighty-eight weeks. Note that all the world's other commonest native languages except Spanish are in the groups most demanding of English-speakers. It might be reasonable to suppose that the reverse is also true -- that Arabic- and Chinese-speakers find fluency in English to be more of a challenge than Spanish-speakers do.

A variety of restricted subsets of English have been developed to meet the needs of nonfluent speakers. Among these is Special English, which the Voice of America began using in its broadcasts experimentally some forty years ago and has employed part-time ever since. Special English has a basic vocabulary of just 1,500 words (The American Heritage Dictionary contains some 200,000 words, and the Oxford English Dictionary nearly 750,000), though sometimes these words are used to define non-Special English words that VOA writers deem essential to a given story. Currently VOA uses Special English for news and features that are broadcast a half hour at a time, six times a day, seven days a week, to millions of listeners worldwide.

But restricted forms of English are usually intended for professional communities. Among the best known of these is Seaspeak, which ships' pilots around the world have used for the past dozen years or so; this is now being supplanted by SMCP, or "Standard Marine Communication Phrases," which is also derived from English but was developed by native speakers of a variety of languages. Airplane pilots and air-traffic controllers use a restricted form of English called Airspeak.

Certainly, the world's ships and airplanes are safer if those who guide them have some language in common, and restricted forms of English have no modern-day rivals for this role. The greatest danger language now seems to pose to navigation and aviation is that some pilots learn only enough English to describe routine situations, and find themselves at a loss when anything out of the ordinary happens.

Something else obviously implied by the ascendance of English as a second and a foreign language is that more and more people who speak English speak another language at least as well, and probably better. India may have the third or fourth largest number of English-speakers in the world, but English is thought to be the mother tongue of much less than one percent of the population. This is bound to affect the way the language is used locally. Browsing some English-language Web sites from India recently, I seldom had trouble understanding what was meant. I did, however, time and again come across unfamiliar words borrowed from Hindi or another indigenous Indian language. On the site called India World the buttons that a user could click on to call up various types of information were labeled "samachar: Personalised News," "dhan: Investing in India," "khoj: Search India," "khel: Indian Cricket," and so forth. When I turned to the Afternoon Despatch & Courier of Bombay (some of whose residents call it Mumbai) and called up a gossipy piece about the romantic prospects of the son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, I read, "Sources disclose that before Rahul Gandhi left for London, some kind of a 'swayamvar' was enacted at 10, Janpath with family friend Captain Satish Sharma drawing up a short list of suitable brides from affluent, well-known connected families of Uttar Pradesh."

Of course, English is renowned for its ability to absorb elements from other languages. As ever more local and national communities use English, though, they will pull language in ever more directions. Few in the world will care to look as far afield as the United States or Britain for their standards of proper English. After all, we long ago gave up looking to England -- as did Indians and also Canadians, South Africans, Australians, and New Zealanders, among others. Today each of these national groups is proud to have its own idioms, and dictionaries to define them.

Most of the world's English-speaking communities can still understand one another well -- though not, perhaps, perfectly. As Anne Soukhanov, a word columnist for this magazine and the American editor of the Encarta World English Dictionary, explained in an article titled "The King's English It Ain't," published on the Internet last year, "Some English words mean very different things, depending on your country. In South Asia, a hotel is a restaurant, but in Australia, a hotel is an establishment selling alcoholic beverages. In South Africa, a robot is a traffic light."

David Graddol told me about visiting China to consult on another English-curriculum project (one that had to do with teaching engineers in the steel industry) and finding a university that had chosen a Belgian company to develop lessons for it. When Graddol asked those in charge why they'd selected Belgians, of all people, to teach them English, they explained they saw it as an advantage that the Belgians, like the Chinese, are not native speakers. The Belgians, they reasoned, would be likely to have a feel both for the intricacies of learning the language in adulthood and for using it to communicate with other non-native speakers.

But by now we have strayed far beyond the relationship between demographics and the use of English. Technology has much to teach us too.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of the book Word Court (2000), which grew out of her bimonthly Atlantic column of the same name.

Illustrations by Christoph Niemann.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; What Global Language? - 00.11 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 5; page 52-66.