Why the world is going to be stuck with English for a very long time

Today there are far more non-native English speakers than native speakers.
Today there are far more non-native English speakers than native speakers.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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This post was originally published on Quora as an answer to the question “Is it possible that one day English will no longer be the world’s lingua franca?”

No, I don’t think so. English is the first global lingua franca, which puts it in a very useful position, not because it is better than other languages, but simply because it got there first, and there is no major expansion of globalization to shift the balance to another language. Today there are far more non-native English speakers than native speakers, and this means that English isn’t about the USA or the UK, but instead about its international use across cultures. Every day, people who don’t share a language but also who are not native speakers of English, from countries where English is not an official language, communicate to each other in English—for business, for government, for tourism, etc.

Now, to directly answer the question: I don’t see any practical reason why English will be replaced any time soon. Not because I particularly like English (as a native speaker, I actually find many other languages more interesting, or even more aesthetically pleasing). But because it’s already in place. Even if China does take over as the new world superpower in 100 years, it would be a literal global effort to spread Chinese to the point where it surpasses English, and once English is separated from its cultural and political origins (really, this has already happened to a great extent), there’s no need to do that. Could this eventually happen? Yes, sure! Especially if the world changes dramatically. But for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely that another language will spread like a growing wave that eventually topples English, simply because English is already widely in use, with no new major geography to cover. Trying to fill the world’s oceans with even a very large wave wouldn’t get very far, and that’s basically the situation of English today.

But another way to look at this is: what is English anyway? Well, it’s a language from England, even if it’s no longer centered there (or not even really centered anywhere: it’s global). But languages change. And given enough time, several thousand years, they become new languages. Not overnight. Not in any way we can immediately detect, but just slowly, over time, to whether after a while it’s no longer the same thing. So, my personal prediction is that by the time English is replaced as the global language it won’t be English anymore anyway: so “English” will never stop being the global lingua franca, because it will first cease to be English. That means I’m predicting about 1,000+ years more of English as the lingua franca, and that’s obviously uncertain (again, major worldwide shifts like war could change that), so I could be wrong, but that’s what I think.

Remember, the fall of Latin as a major lingua franca happened only after globalization out of Europe. To some extent that timing might be coincidental, but I don’t think entirely. And even then, French was probably the most important lingua franca afterwards, which is just modern Latin, really. Both were replaced during expansion via globalization. English is in place throughout the world, nowhere left to expand, except of course filling in the limited areas where there is no global lingua franca yet, and that’s already happening. So, until our geography expands (alien invasion or galactic exploration?) or major shifts (global war followed by repopulation?), there’s nowhere left to cause shifts during expansion. English is in place, for better or worse.