Will English forever be the world’s lingua franca?
In short, no. Many global languages have come before, and it is likely that a new lingua franca will come after. But let’s delve a little deeper…
A history of a ‘Lingua Franca’
The term ‘Lingua Franca’ derives from Italian, meaning Frankish (French) tongue/language. It is thought that the term was borne by Italian merchants and seafarers, who traded in the Ottoman empire’s coastal cities between the late 11th century medieval period, until around the 16th century. The merchants utilised many loan words from Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Turkish and Arabic to facilitate commerce and diplomacy among a wide breadth of nationalities. However, this Italian amalgam was far from being the first or last global language.
In Europe, a large number of languages have assumed the role of global facilitator. From Ancient history, we have the Hellenistic civilisation (Greek) and the Roman Empire (Latin), from which our modern linguistic world has been greatly influenced, especially when considering the vocabulary of Maths, Science and Religion.
As previously stated, Italian was regarded as a global language most notably during the Renaissance as standard Italian, alongside Latin, was marked as the language of intellectuals and scholars. Italian was also a symbol of aristocracy and nobility by many European kingdoms. This was subsequently followed by French, which became the language of diplomacy and royalty from the 17th century, until the rise of English in the 20th century. Many international institutions, most notably that of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee still rely on French as their lingua franca. French also had a large impact on the African continent, including former French colonies in the Maghreb and Central Africa.
English is the current lingua franca for fields of international business, technology, diplomacy, entertainment, aviation and seafaring.The English language’s rise is frequently attributed to both the former British Empire and the rise of America as the world’s cultural capital. Today, more than 70% of all scientific journals are published in English. This statistic is only able to be fully appreciated when it is realised that only around 4.7% of the world’s population speak English as a native language. (Approx. 350 million out of 7.442 billion)
From speaking to many people in different countries and languages, there is a belief that English has become a ‘must learn’ to better their job prospects and general opportunities. An ever-increasing importance has been placed on the school systems of many countries. For instance, in Scandinavian countries children begin learning English from the age of 7-8, and English is regarded with same importance as Literacy and Maths. As such, as an example, around 90% of Swedes have good, functional English skills, according to a European Commission report.
Will the English ‘rule’ last forever?
While increased importance is currently being placed onto English and its study, it is highly likely that English will not last as the prevailing language for the rest of human history. Even today, many countries place more distinction on other languages. Notably, in the former Eastern Bloc, USSR and many central Asian countries – Russian is used as the common lingua franca for technical, cultural and travel language.
Many outlets and experts point to Chinese as the next potential lingua franca, not being limited to just research and business.
So how long will English remain as the linguistic ‘ruler’? Nobody really knows. If previous lingua francas are a gauge of longevity, it could range from centuries to millennia. However, it must also be noted that due to increased globalisation and multilateral discussion and trade, it could be said that today, the English lingua franca’s importance is emphasised even more.