Caroline Halton a member of the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) Scanning team at Stellenbosch Business School
South Africa has twelve official languages but English has long been regarded as the door opener to opportunity. The youth of 1976 staked a lot on the issue of language and a future assured by receiving tuition in English. But times are changing, and language preferences along with it. What does the future of the world’s languages look like and will English still retain its status as the lingua franca?
The English language played a crucial role in the liberation struggle against apartheid. The Soweto riots of June 1976 were triggered by the Nationalist Party government’s decision that Afrikaans should be a compulsory medium of instruction when most township learners wanted to be taught in English or local African dialects.
Decades later, 64% of South African school goers still wanted to be taught in English despite isiZulu remaining the country’s most spoken language. This reflects a long-standing global trend: a preference for English as the lingua franca and the language of business, science, technology, and politics. But for how much longer? Geopolitical power shifts, new growth economies and questioning of the Western rules-based order could see the dominance of the English language starting to wane.
It will not happen overnight according to new UK government research. Findings from discussions with 92 policymakers and influencers from 49 countries show that English will likely retain its position as the world’s most widely spoken language, currently 1 452 million, for at least the next decade. This will be driven by parents and learners continuing to see English-language education as a necessity for employment, technological advancement, and global mobility. And with multilingual and multicultural workforces becoming more common, whether working remotely as dispersed teams or in the same location, employers may favour the commonality of English as the official business language.
In the short term, Artificial Intelligence (AI) could also reinforce the primacy of the English language. Chatbots have been trained on data that is English based and that represents a US-centric point of view. They are proving to be significantly less fluent in other languages – amplifying the existing bias for English and English speakers in global commerce and innovation. This could change over the longer term as developers introduce new data sets of non-English text and as more multilingual models become available.
English may stay the course – for a while at least – but it is unlikely to remain unchanged. A small portion of English speakers – 373 million – is native to the language. More than a billion are non-native speakers and this proportion could grow over time. A cultural melting pot of English speakers will contribute novel words and their own grammar, making the continued metamorphosis of this ‘shared language’ an inevitability. By way of example, amakhosi, bunny chow and deurmekaar – among other South African words – officially made their way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2019. But the landscape of global power and business is undergoing dramatic change in a multipolar world.
While English may continue to play a significant role, it could do so alongside the ascendancy of other languages with the possible emergence of a new lingua franca. Driving forces include the ongoing economic, technological, and ideological rivalry between the US and China; the potential of India as the next economic powerhouse – with a population now bigger than that of China; BRICS being set to grow in numbers and influence; the burgeoning youth populations of Africa and the Middle East; and the influence of Spanish and Asian artists on popular culture.
Views are varied as to which language could surpass English as the new lingua franca. According to the Engco model of language forecasting, the top five languages in the world by 2050 will be Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi-Urdu and Arabic. The Washington Post is backing Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Indonesian to dominate the business world by 2050, followed by Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian. The United Nations suggests that knowing at least one South or Southeast Asian language would be an advantage for students.
There is a leaning towards the Asian languages being the languages of the future. Many are still placing their bets on China’s impact and Mandarin becoming the world’s most widely spoken language. This is despite the slow-down of China’s economy, its ageing population, and the cooling of international relations. Saudi Arabia has become the latest state to sign an agreement to teach the language in public educational institutions. But Mandarin, currently the world’s second most spoken language at 1 118 million due to its vast number of native speakers, is a difficult language to learn. Outside of China and the region, it is unlikely to gain widespread adoption.
Hindi, the third most spoken language globally at 602 million, could experience a surge in popularity. While English has long been the language of the elite and of governance in India, the country’s growing economy and influence on the world stage might facilitate a greater uptake of Hindi – or Urdu. The global community wishing to do business in India could see increasing benefits in being able to communicate in local languages.
In the West, the biggest change may be among Spanish speakers. The language is currently the world’s fourth most spoken language at 548 million. By 2050 the US could be the biggest Spanish-speaking country in the world, spurred not just by immigration but by popular culture. An increasing number of people are signing up to learn what is currently seen as a ‘cool’ language – with all four of the most streamed songs on Spotify recently being Spanish. Since America sets many trends in Europe, this could mean a growing appreciation for all things Spanish across the Atlantic.
The future of French, currently the world’s fifth most spoken language with 280 million, may lie in Africa. Predictions are that French speakers could balloon to an estimated 750 million by 2050, and because Africa’s total population is set to reach nearly 2,5 billion by mid-century, 85% of these could be in Africa. France’s President Emmanuel Macron is championing the relaunch of French as a historically significant but forward-looking global language that has a new role to play in a post-Brexit Europe, but even more so in Africa.
Maybe there will not be a lingua franca after English. It is possible that we will see a splintering of the world in which we live – driven by a trend away from globalisation, towards greater regionalisation, protectionism, and nearshoring. Perhaps the threats of geopolitical conflict, economic slow-down and environmental disaster will result in the formation of smaller, linguistically localised worlds.
While the top five languages jostle for position on the world stage, little is being said about lesser-known languages. But if recent developments in India are anything to go by, their time might still come. In a drive to widen internet access beyond India’s urban English-speaking minority, Google has been developing an artificial intelligence model that would enable more users in the country to access its services in a multiplicity of local languages. At the same time, native language advertising is becoming critical to reaching Indian consumers in a media consumption environment that is highly digitised, fragmented, and personalised. In recent years, industry insiders say there has been a 20% to 30% increase in vernacular campaigns by national brands.
Whatever scenario plays out in the next few decades, a more multilingual world is emerging, and the future looks a whole lot less English. If South Africa’s new generation is to be afforded better education and opportunity, then investment in wider language learning and the breaking down of language barriers across countries and cultures will become an imperative.