English Losing Global Leadership

By Ennio Vita-Finzi

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark. A thousand years ago, it was living in the shadow of French-speaking overlords on what is the UK today. No one then could have dreamed that English would eventually be spoken by 320 million native English-speakers, and 20% more of the world’s population who speak some English as a second language.

Despite the rise of non-Western nations in today’s global economy, English is still the language most commonly used as the lingua franca of business, science, research, and politics. Today, unilingual native-English-speakers bask in the knowledge that their language is currently the world’s voice of commerce. It is the world’s 3rd most popular language and the best-liked second language.

Unfortunately many Anglos are blissfully unaware that their prestigious ranking may soon come to an end. French is becoming the language of the future, competing with Spanish and Mandarin.

French leads

By the year 2050, French will be spoken by 750 million people, double of today’s numbers, and will become the world’s most-spoken language, ahead of English, Spanish and even Mandarin all competing for top spot.

An example of the English language losing its leadership role in major parts of the world is the fact that there are 24 different languages in the European Union. In spite of this Brussels (as well as leading organizations and many companies on the Continent) still use French as the governing method of official communication. Many Europeans see English as a threat to national cultures and identities and strenuously object to making English the EU’s official language.

Other competing languages

Other languages that will eventually edge English out of the top spot include Spanish with 495 million speakers and 18 million students around the world studying Spanish as a foreign language. While French is the official language of 29 countries in North and South America and Europe, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world today after Mandarin Chinese, and is an official language in 21 countries.

While North Americans generally have difficulty accepting the need to speak a language other than English, Europeans take language learning seriously.

Based on the responses of almost 27,000 people in 27 countries, the results showed that in accordance with the EU population, the most widely spoken mother tongue on the Continent is German (16%), followed by Italian and English (13% each), French (12%), then Spanish and Polish (8% each). However, the five most widely spoken foreign languages today are English (38%), French (12%), German (11%), Spanish (7%) and Russian (5%) … but for now, two thirds of Europeans (67%) consider English as one of the two most useful languages for themselves.

Interestingly, just over half of the 500 million people in Europe (54%) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language, 25% are able to speak two additional languages and 10% are conversant in at least three.

A multilingual North America

Unilingual Anglo-Canadians grudgingly admit that their country is bilingual but most Americans insist that they live in a unilingual, English-speaking country… this in spite of the fact that most of the U.S. now has more Spanish speakers than Spain. By 2050 the US will be the country with the largest number of Spanish speakers in the world: “Between now and 2050, 2.5 Hispano-Americans will be born every minute in the USA, 3.700 per day and more than 100.000 per month”.

Based on these facts, if North Americans hope to retain their role as the world’s “voice of commerce” they will have to have at least another language under their belt … and even let English become their second language.

Take your pick: French? Spanish? Mandarin? It’s time to choose.

Ennio Vita-Finzi was appointed as Ontario’s Trade Commissioner in Europe, Latin America and the U.S., was President of the Canadian Council for the Americas during NAFTA negotiations and then qualified as a Certified International Trade Professional (CITP). He is now a College lecturer and keynote speaker in Montreal. e.vita-finzi@sympatico.ca