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A Global Shift to Bilingualism

A Global Shift to Bilingualism

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03/18/2014

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A Global Shift to Bilingualism?

Indo-European languages dominate Europe, the Americas, Australia and New
Zealand, South Asia and much of Northern Asia, the southern tip of Africa and
numerous islands and other specks of land around the world. Economic and
military forces have combined with simple accidents of history to enable those
languages to capture most of the planet's land mass.

Let\u2019s begin with the European Union, which has more official languages \u2013 twenty-
three \u2013 than any other jurisdiction. English, French and German have been the
main working languages of the European Commission since the mid-1980s.
However, according to The Economist, a news magazine, \u201cat that time half of all
EU documents were drafted in English. Now it is around two-thirds, as enlargement
to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe has created a bigger group of people with
English as their first choice of second language. This points to an unsettling
conclusion for advocates of multilingualism: in a union of many languages,
increasingly there is but one language.\u201d

Who Rules? This conclusion may apply to the European Union, which is staggering
under translation and interpretation costs of $1.4 billion per year. However, it
probably does not apply to the world.

Not surprisingly, they also dominate the global economy. If you make a table of
how much economic activity the people in various native-language groups
generate, the European language speakers as a group are, again, clearly in a
league of their own. Here is a summary of the percentages of world GDP (Gross
Domestic Product) based on the languages of the countries that created that
economic output.

Table #1: Language and GDP

1. English 28.2%
2. Chinese 22.8%
3. Japanese 5.6%
4. Spanish 5.2%
5. German 4.9%

6. French 4.2%
7. Portuguese 3.4%
8. Italian 2.9%
9. Russian 2.1%

10. Arabic 2.0%

11. Hindi 2.1%
12. Korean 1.4%
13. Indonesian 1.1%
14. Other 14.1%

Clearly, it seems, the world\u2019s economically important languages are European. And
English is the economic top dog in the pack of world languages.

The picture changes significantly, however, when you look at the numbers who
speak world languages as their first or second tongue. The following list, which
combines both native and second-language speakers, indicates the world\u2019s ten top
languages in terms of total users. Here we list numbers of speakers, in millions.

Table #2: Total Language Users

1. Mandarin 1,052
2. English 508
3. Hindi 487
4. Spanish 417
5. Russian 277
6. Bengali 211
7. Portuguese 191
8. German 128
8. French 128
9. Japanese 126

By the measure of native speakers plus second-language speakers, English is in
second place among the world\u2019s languages. This is not too surprising, since China is
huge, rather homogeneous, and controlled by a focused central government.

But when you look at the native-speaker rankings, the numbers are sparser yet.
Only 50 years ago English was clearly in second place, after Mandarin. Today, it
seems likely that Spanish, Hindi-Urdu and English have broadly similar numbers of
native-language speakers. According to David Graddol, English may actually have

slipped to fourth place in the ranks, and it may drop another point in the world
language leagues (after Arabic) in the next 50 years.
Straws in the Wind: You can slice and dice these numbers many ways. But taken

together, they suggest shifts that roughly parallel many highly visible economic and
geopolitical changes in the world\u2019s power structure. Many kinds of power are
shifting in the direction of the rapidly growing economies of China, India and Latin
America, where the 800-pound economic gorilla is Portuguese-speaking Brazil.

Many observers have noted that these economic and geopolitical shifts are
restoring balance to the world\u2019s power structure. Fewer have observed that these
changes are fundamentally altering the balance of power in the world language
scene. World languages are jostling for place, and this is having a huge impact on
educational policy and second language learning.

Which second languages are the world\u2019s people learning?

Outside China English is still overwhelmingly number one, but the picture is
changing. For example, the outside world is voting with its collective feet on
Mandarin as a language with a future. Prospective learners from Sophia to Seoul
are lining up for Mandarin language classes. And Brazil, surrounded by a Spanish-
speaking market, now offers Spanish as an alternative to English in its educational
system. This means English is one of two options there. In the past, it was
required.

Here are some other straws in the wind. More than 25 years ago, Canada\u2019s Qu\u00e9bec
province abolished English as an official language, becoming unilingually French as
the rest of the country embraced French/English bilingualism. Then there is the
case of the tiny Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Presently English-
speaking, Trinidadians have made it a matter of policy to turn their country into a
Spanish-speaking jurisdiction by the year 2020.

And so the story goes. Around the world, different languages are angling for
competitive position.
Building Bilingualism: Another important part of the story is the growth of

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