The Rise of English as a Second Language

February 11th, 2013
the rise of english 2nd lang

Have you ever considered the proportion of native English speakers to people who speak English as a second language?

Non-native English speakers outnumber native English speakers by a ratio of 3-to-1, and it’s predicted that within a few years half the world – about 3 billion people – will speak English as a second language, far outnumbering native speakers. In Asia alone there are an estimated 350 million English speakers, which is more than the combined populations of the US, UK, and Canada.

If you think about it, that’s amazing! English is becoming the first true lingua franca in a practical sense. Not just the language of diplomacy, of commerce or of technology, but truly a language everyday people speak and understand all over the world. There are, of course, some concerns, especially from my point of view as a document translation pro.

Globish

One of the striking phenomena associated with the rise of English around the world is the combination languages that are forming. Spanglish, Engrish – over and over again we’re seeing strange combinations of native languages and English, forming wholly new and strange dialects. Additionally, we’re seeing the rise of what some have termed ‘Globish’  – a highly simplified version of English that is not exactly incorrect so much as it is pared down to its very basics – almost an Esperanto-like version of English that uses combinations of simple words in place of fuller vocabularies. For example, in Globish you might say ‘son of my brother’ instead of ‘nephew’ simply because you don’t bother learning the latter word.

Translation

Some worry that the Rise of English will reduce the need for translation services, but not me. The fact is, English as a second language is generally viewed as a necessary tool or skill by people, not as something learned for fun. People around the world still prefer to do business in their native tongues, and as a result any company trying to market or sell around the world still needs to employ human-performed high quality translation. If they rely on Globish or ESL, they’re going to find a very cold reception in most foreign markets.

I also doubt this is the beginning of a ‘grey language’ or universal language. Some have theorised that eventually languages will begin to merge, much like something like Spanglish, and we’ll have a single language spoken and understood everywhere even if regional languages survive on a secondary basis. While this may yet happen, I don’t think this is the beginning. English is enjoying a strong showing right now – but it could recede again, just as French did before it.