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AUTHOR "Paul Bruthiaux"

TITLE "Predicting challenges to English as a global language in the 21st century"

SUBJECT "LPLP, Volume 26:2"



WIDTH "150"


Predicting challenges to English

as a global language in the 21st century

Paul Bruthiaux
National University of Singapore

The worldwide dominance of English is such that only catastrophic upheaval

could seemingly threaten it in the near future. In the longer term, an emerg-
ing power (eg, China) may come to challenge American supremacy and with
it the dominant position of English. However, even in the event of such a
realignment, the language of that emerging power (eg, Chinese) may not
succeed in arresting the advantage English already derives from critical mass.
To have any chance of global spread, a challenger would need to possess
structural characteristics — namely, minimal inflectional morphology, non-
tonal phonology, and a non-logographic script — that would facilitate its
acquisition by individuals with largely utilitarian motivations. Alternatively,
to evolve these characteristics, a challenger would need to be subjected to
minimal standardization and be allowed the freedom to accommodate user-
driven change, including indigenization. Finally, it would need to be per-
ceived as a vehicle for modernizing values. While hypothetical challengers
(eg, Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, or Espe-
ranto) all exhibit some of these characteristics, only English exhibits all of
them at present and for the foreseeable future. For these reasons, the world-
wide dominance of English is likely to survive even a hypothetical passing of
the American Era.


The cluster of economic, military, political, and technological factors that led to
the worldwide dominance of English as a language of wider communication is
well documented. Over a decade ago, Grabe (1988) linked this process to the
role English plays in encoding technological information and permitting access
to that information. Grabe also argued that access to English was a prerequisite

Language Problems & Language Planning 26:2 (2002), 129–157.

issn 0272–2690 / e-issn 1569–9889!© John Benjamins Publishing Company
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130 Paul Bruthiaux

for any individuals or societies expecting to compete in the international

marketplace. During the following decade, additional contributing factors —
analyzed in detail in Crystal (1997) and Graddol (1997) — came to include the
demise of the centrally-controlled alternative to the capitalist socioeconomic
model and the geopolitical realignment that resulted from this shift, the
spectacular growth of Information Technology and especially of the Internet,
and a growing perception that trade and other international exchanges were
reaching hitherto unaffected regions of the globe. All of this — for better or
worse — reflected an American worldview and favored its main carrier, English.
For the small minority whose professional lives — and with them, their
continued access to prosperity and power — require that they be part of
international exchanges, English is key. In a rare and useful attempt at quantify-
ing perceptions of language dominance in terms of number of speakers,
geographic distribution, and ratio of speakers to per capita GNP, Navarro
(1997) shows that English leaves far behind other languages of wider communi-
cation (past and present) such as Dutch, German, Italian, Hindi, Japanese,
Portuguese, and Russian but also more often mentioned competitors such as
Arabic, Chinese, French, and Spanish. Clearly, perceptions of relative strength
can be highly unstable, and a week can be a long time in geopolitics, as the
events of September 2001 and the rapid rearrangement of alliances that
followed amply demonstrated. However, given the current privileged position
of English, it is reasonable to assume that it would take long-term socioeco-
nomic disruption on a scale far more catastrophic than that brought about by
those attacks on symbols of US supremacy for the cluster of factors that gave
rise to the dominance of English to unravel and for the role of English as a
global language to be seriously threatened in the near future.
In this paper, I examine the likelihood of the dominant position of English
coming under serious challenge. This is no easy task since, as Crystal (1997)
points out, no language has ever had so many speakers and played such a broad
range of roles, locally as well as internationally. Although some useful parallels
can be drawn between the diffusion of Latin through sizable areas of Europe as
a result of the geopolitical expansion of its Roman base, this phenomenon is
only of limited relevance to the current spread of English, in part because the
process went largely unrecorded and is therefore difficult to trace. More
importantly, the diffusion of Latin and the linguistic indigenization and split
that followed were not constrained by the standardizing forces operating
through modern language planning agencies, the print media, and, in an
increasingly literate world, public education. Only much later did Latin usage
Predicting challenges to English 131

come to feel the effect of standardization as a result of the stable nature of the
religious content it carried and the strongly centralizing tendencies of the
Catholic Church. Nor is the role until relatively recently of Latin as a lingua
franca in parts of the western world likely to be much of a guide because it
remained the preserve of small professional elites, far removed in nature from
the large numbers that today take part in interethnic and supranational
communication involving some variety of English or other.
Since no close precedent exists on which to base predictions, the linguistic
seer is left to divine future trends from a combination of geopolitical trends
and the sociolinguistic characteristics of languages with global potential. With
this in mind, I consider the possibility that change may occur gradually and
that a power may emerge later in this century to threaten American geo-
political supremacy and with it the dominance of English as a global language.
I argue that even in the event of such a shift in geopolitical circumstances, the
dominant language associated with that emerging power would first have to
arrest and then reverse the advantage English now derives from critical mass.
To do this, a global challenger would need to benefit from three key factors.
Firstly, it would need to possess a set of linguistic characteristics that would
facilitate its acquisition as a second language by individuals with largely
instrumental motivations. Among these characteristics are minimal inflection-
al morphology, non-tonal phonology, and a non-logographic script. Secondly,
to have a better chance of evolving such a set of favorable characteristics if it
did not possess them already, a language with worldwide ambition would need
to benefit from weak political and administrative control over form and usage
and enjoy the freedom to accommodate unplanned, user-driven change
leading to both structural simplification and a degree of creolization as the
language adapts to local conditions in a multiplicity of sociolinguistic settings.
Finally, a language competing for global prominence would have to be
perceived — rightly or wrongly — as carrying the kind of sociocultural content
and economic promise likely to fire the imagination of potential users and
motivate them to undertake the task of learning the language, a challenge of
some magnitude to most adult learners.
Because it focuses on hypothetical challengers, much of the argument
advanced in this paper is theoretical. In practice, regardless of their socio-
cultural or linguistic characteristics and despite large populations of native
speakers, most languages that might hypothetically compete with English for a
global role are likely to remain closely tied to a political or economic entity with
little chance of achieving significant socioeconomic prominence beyond their
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regional base or their ethnic diaspora in the foreseeable future. The list of
languages matching this description is a long one, and inclusion or omission is
to some extent subjective and potentially controversial. Certainly, the combina-
tion of sheer numbers of speakers and current socioeconomic conditions
suggests that the list might include — but by no means be limited to —
languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Kiswahili, Malay, and Portuguese. For the
purpose of this discussion, however, the precise list is largely immaterial since
the case made here is largely hypothetical and evidence is better drawn from
languages with a well-documented history of global reach or at least a widely
reported claim to such a status. Thus, I discuss Arabic and Spanish, two
languages for which, despite a large and rapidly growing base of speakers and a
long history of supranational reach, no predictions of likely global dominance
can be made on the basis of current geopolitical trends. Also discussed exten-
sively here are Japanese and German, each with a narrow local base associated
with relative economic superpower status. Russian also receives attention
because, despite the recent setbacks suffered by its geopolitical base, it long
symbolized the major competition to the ideology represented by (American)
English. A perennial candidate for a global role is Esperanto, a language
designed precisely to play a role in supranational communication, a vision
periodically restated by its promoters (for a recent restatement of the case for
Esperanto, see Tonkin 2000). Also discussed is French, because of its history as
the erstwhile language of supranational communication among western elites
and because many lessons can be drawn from well-documented efforts to
preserve that privileged position. Finally, Chinese receives special attention
because recent growth in the economic profile and military assertiveness of
China predicts that, despite the tumultuous events once again shaking parts of
the Muslim world, it is from that country rather than from any conceivable
alliance of Arabic-speaking nations that any significant challenge to American
geopolitical dominance is likely to emerge in the 21st century.

Global potential and critical mass

A proposition running through writings on the worldwide spread of English

(for example, Grabe 1988, Swales 1993) holds that languages of wider commu-
nication prosper or wither according to the amount of information they
contain. Thus Sanskrit, Chinese, Greek, Arabic, Latin, French, and German all
served — and in some cases, continue to serve — as depositories of privileged
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information — be it religious, legal, or technological — and as vehicles for the

transmission and expansion of that information. Today, for a growing number
of users, English functions as depository and transmitter of information related
not only to science and technology but also, like its predecessors, to broader
economic and cultural exchanges.
Clearly, English is not the only language currently fulfilling this kind of role.
Following de Swaan (1998), languages can be seen as forming part of a global
system consisting of several major constellations, each with its own set of local
languages related to one central language, namely, the one spoken by the most
multilinguals within the constellation. Some ten or twelve constellations can be
readily identified. Some map fairly closely onto national borders and those of
immediate neighbors (eg, Russian or German). Some, such as French or
Portuguese, link an erstwhile colonial power and its former dependencies
despite territorial separation, while others connect a dominant group in a large,
socially complex country with other linguistic groups within the country and
with a widely scattered diaspora (eg, Hindi or Chinese).
One of the less often mentioned languages operating in this fashion is Urdu,
a language for which Aziz (1996) makes a plea, arguing that it should be taught
in South Africa as a language of cross-cultural communication, to strengthen
links between that country and the Indian sub-continent, and to foster mutual
tolerance and understanding. Other languages of this type are Malay — in both
its Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia varieties — and Bengali, both spoken
by more speakers than German or Japanese, yet rarely mentioned in this
context, presumably because of the relatively minor geopolitical roles played by
the nations with which they are associated. Within each constellation, the
communicative potential of the dominant language is a factor of its prevalence
as a mother tongue and its spread among multilinguals. This is an advantageous
situation that the elites in charge of their respective sphere of influence are
unlikely to relinquish, especially since maintaining this advantage becomes
easier as nations grow wealthier.
The analysis proposed by de Swaan can be applied to the international reach
of English in that the language now undeniably occupies the central position
within this linguistic cosmology, increasingly connecting speakers of other
dominant languages whenever communication is required across rather than
within constellations. Thus, while English competes with Hindi in India and
with Spanish and French in North America, it is now essentially without
competitor at the global level, except perhaps in international organizations
such as the United Nations or the European Union that continue to reflect
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earlier geopolitical realities. By now, it is likely that the dominant position of

English has become a self-reinforcing process. English is growing in suprana-
tional reach not only in direct relation to the amount of information it contains
but also because the more people choose to learn it in one part of the world, the
more attractive it becomes in other communities, exponentially. Thus, as de
Swaan suggests, English may have entered the stage of a self-expanding global
lingua franca, connecting all supranational languages in the global constellation
in a network of communicative interdependence. At some point, de Swaan
suggests, English might become the only second language being learned.
As suggested above, a key ingredient in the process of self-expansion is
critical mass, the point at which sheer number of speakers, their wide geograph-
ic distribution, and their sociopolitical and economic power makes it too costly
for a competitor to enter the fray. As in all monopolistic situations, lack of
competition blunts incentives and inertia becomes a dominant characteristic of
participants in the monopoly, be they providers or consumers. These circum-
stances probably already apply to speakers of English as their first language, who
may see no benefit in making the effort to learn a second language. But it may
increasingly apply to potential users of languages of international communica-
tion, who may see no reason to challenge the dominant global language since
they typically have few emotional ties with that or any other supranational
language. In her study of attitudes toward English among international gradu-
ate students on a US campus, Munro (1996) found that her subjects saw English
as playing an essentially instrumental role in their plans. Subjects were some-
what passive in their acceptance of their future role as ambassadors for English
and lacked incentives to support competitors to a language that had served
them well and could be expected to underpin their career plans. To these
homebound graduate students — the future policy shapers and predictors of
cultural direction in increasingly outward-oriented nations — critical mass
appears to have already ruled out any serious thought that there could even be
a competitor for English as a global language.

Global potential and linguistic structure

While the critical mass increasingly favoring English alters the dynamics
obtaining across linguistic constellations and raises the bar for potential
challengers, a number of linguistic factors also allow predictions to be made
regarding their eventual success. In principle, all languages have the potential to
Predicting challenges to English 135

fulfill any communicative role. In practice, languages are shaped to some extent
by their context of use. Like all natural organisms, languages consist of a set of
characteristics evolving slowly over time, partly randomly and partly in re-
sponse to changes in the communicative needs of their speakers as these
rearrange themselves geographically and socially. For example, the inflectional
complexity of languages such as Icelandic or Finnish is clearly no impediment
to the learning of these languages by young children born among a stable
population, and thus is under no pressure from within to change in the
direction of greater morphological simplicity. However, in the (highly unlikely)
event of geopolitical circumstances turning such a language into a contender for
a global role, it would surely come under pressure from without to simplify or
see current and potential users favor better adapted — that is, easier to master
— competitors.
To be sure, modern languages do not evolve entirely as a result of uncon-
trollable environmental forces. Just as modern humans have gradually gained
a sufficient degree of control over their circumstances for reproductive success
to no longer be determined by adaptive reactions to raw environmental forces,
modern societies have devised institutional tools that allow them to generate
and steer change in both language form and language use, with some success as
regards writing conventions though generally far less in other areas. Moreover,
there is no denying that English owes its current dominant position in large part
to historical and geopolitical forces, not primarily linguistic ones. However, it
can be argued that the metamorphosis of English from a regional to global role
was facilitated by the fact that the language had already undergone a process of
linguistic change, leaving it with a set of linguistic characteristics that made
subsequent adaptive change less traumatic. By this token, a challenger for the
role of dominant global language would have to either possess a set of linguistic
characteristics that would make the transition to that role less structurally
disruptive or be allowed to evolve one thanks to minimal interference from
institutional standardizing forces.
The degree of complexity of this set of linguistic characteristics matters
because learners of both first and second languages are attentive to a number of
competing linguistic cues in their search for form-meaning connections and in
their attempt to discover patterns in the input. Among these cues are morpho-
logical inflection, tonality, and word order. While identifying and decoding
each of these cues presents a special kind of difficulty, facing all of them at once
in a hypothetical new language would present learners with an insurmountable
cognitive challenge and make that language unlearnable. In practice, unlike
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young children, most learners of languages of supranational communication

tend to be motivated by instrumental objectives. To be sure, there is evidence
that second languages — including one with relatively complex inflectional
morphology such as Spanish — can be learned to a high level of accuracy even
by older learners (Schultz and Elliott 2000). For the majority, however, a late
start militates against the learning of complex linguistic structure to anything
approaching nativelike standard (for recent evidence, see de Keyser 2000). It is
true that the complex inflectional morphology of French did not prevent
language learning success among pre-revolutionary Russian aristocrats, for
example. However, the majority of modern users of languages of supranational
communication do not share the social and educational privileges that made
this kind of proficiency possible among a small elite with ample time and leisure
to learn the finer details of a second language, just as earlier elites succeeded —
more or less — in mastering the finer points of Latin.
Thus, all other things being equal, it can be predicted that learners of
second languages — and especially adult learners — will favor a linguistic
compromise offering maximal communicative benefit in return for minimal
learning investment to the extent that any complexity beyond the scope of that
investment will be ignored if subsequently encountered. In this sense, the
structure of any potential language of supranational communication comes
under the same pressure that leads to the morphosyntactic minimalism
characteristic of pidgins. Indeed, McArthur (1996) predicts that the remaining
inflectional irregularities of English are likely to be ironed out as the language
grows in global significance. McArthur even recommends that the process be
hastened, especially in print, through deliberate language policy. In a similar
vein, Jenkins (2000) offers some guidelines on a pronunciation of English that
could be taught across cultures and first language backgrounds with broad
mutual intelligibility as the primary objective. In this, both McArthur and
Jenkins echo numerous earlier proposals for the rationalization of the language,
several of which are reviewed in Yano (2001).
How, then, does the competition — both hypothetical and probable —
stack up against English in this respect? In this sense at least, paucity of inflec-
tional markings gives Chinese an advantage for a future global role for the
language. Japanese, meanwhile, does encode tense and marks semantic relation-
ships with a range of affixes and, although there is no reliable means of calculat-
ing inflectional complexity, it is probably roughly in the same range of inflec-
tional complexity as English, whose residual inflectional morphology leads
many second language learners to comment favorably about its relative ease of
Predicting challenges to English 137

learning, at least initially. By contrast, the complex inflectional morphology of

Spanish and French presents learners with a substantial challenge. In Spanish,
a verb such as escríbir (write) has no fewer than 48 possible inflections in
various combinations of person, number, tense, and affect, whereas the
equivalent English verb has just five forms. Similarly, many learners of Spanish
or French adjectives have to contend with four possible forms that reflect
gender and number as well as an inherent (prenominal) versus non-inherent
(postnominal) distinction. In contrast, English adjectives come with no
inflectional markings and normally modify nouns in prenominal position only.
Arabic, German, and Russian, for their part, add a range of case markings to the
challenge of encoding meaning in nouns and adjectives (and in the case of
German, articles too). Admittedly, some of these markings — including several
of the 48 forms of a common Spanish verb — belong to literary registers and
are not likely to be of concern to most users of these languages for purposes of
supranational communication. Yet, for the learner aiming for a modicum of
accuracy, the difference in the magnitude of the learning task is striking.
In theory, this should leave Esperanto with little competition given the care
taken by its creators to regularize its form to an extent unattainable by natural
languages. However, two difficulties immediately arise. Firstly, were the
language to spread and indigenize in a variety of settings, the price of greater
diffusion would most likely be loss of uniformity and a gradual increase in
morphological variation. Secondly, the worldwide adoption of Esperanto is
made unlikely by its strongly European nature. To speakers of non-European
languages who constitute a substantial proportion of its potential customer
base, the language looks remarkably similar to the obvious and economically
more attractive alternative, namely English. To these potential users, not having
to master the mildly irritating inflectional irregularities of English would be
meager compensation for being shut out — at least initially — of existing global
networks. The likely outcome is that these potential users will prefer a European
language with which they are already familiar (English) over a quasi-European
language with which they are not (Esperanto).
A second linguistic factor likely to affect the supranational potential of
specific languages is phonology, and in particular the issue of tonality. Although
the acquisition of a tonal language obviously presents no insurmountable
problems for first language learners, it is reportedly very difficult when tackled
by learners in adulthood. This leaves all the hypothetical challengers to English
under consideration here evenly matched except for Chinese since it relies on
tonal differences to create semantic contrasts. Although auditory training can
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be effective in the identification and retention of Chinese tones by adult

learners (Wang et al. 1999), tone perception and production is especially
difficult for these learners (Liow and Poon 1998). As in all cases of language-in-
contact accommodation, the likely consequence is a degree of structural
simplification, namely, some tone loss in the international variety of Chinese
that would evolve as a result of the global spread of the language and its use by
an increasing number of non-native speakers, a scenario supported by evidence
from a range of African and Asian tonal languages (Salmons 1990). Since
coping with tonality would require additional training relative to non-tonal
competitors and strain the limited resources of potential learners, tonality
appears to constitute something of a handicap for Chinese as a potential
language of international communication.

Global potential and writing systems

An additional factor likely to influence the chances of hypothetical challengers

to English as a global language is the writing system favored by each language.
Clearly, a challenger would have to meet the needs of large numbers of literate
users under pressure to communicate at a distance and with relatively limited
resources to devote to learning the language. This raises the question of the
suitability of a primarily logographic writing system such as the one used by
Chinese and, with adaptations, Japanese.
Although the Chinese script can be said to be primarily logographic, it also
— and contrary to widespread misperceptions — incorporates a phonemic
element (DeFrancis 1989). It is primarily logographic in that key semantic
components (known as “radicals”) stand for meaning without the intermediary
step of representing the phonology encoding that meaning and despite the fact
that very few symbol-meaning relationships can be said to be iconic. However,
Chinese script also incorporates a phonemic element in that radicals are
typically combined with characters that stand for words with similar pronuncia-
tion but no semantic connection. Constraints apply to possible combinations
of radicals and phonemic components, their location in relation to each other,
and stroke direction for both. In addition, and also contrary to popular belief,
progress in acquiring the system is not achieved by rote but through a growing
understanding of the rules underlying the system. While children aged six are
normally competent at handling the key semantic radicals, three more years of
study are required for competence in the use of phonological components of
the script (Chan and Nunes 1998).
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All of these factors in addition to the number of combinations that need to

be mastered explain why the system is widely regarded as comparatively
difficult to learn — though relatively easy to decipher once learned — and why
learning and teaching a script of this type to a standard permitting communica-
tion across a wide range of subjects and registers constitutes an onerous task,
both cognitively and educationally (Chen 1994). Moreover, the fact that the
system is only partially phonemic largely rules out self-access through reading
as a major route to language learning — at least in the early stages — and makes
the acquisition of lexis heavily dependent on teachers and other native or
nativelike speakers. Although as Chen (1994) argues, computers are increasing-
ly accommodating of logographic writing, the future generalization of speech
recognition technologies is unlikely to facilitate the decoding of the logographic
component of the script even if it reduces encoding difficulties. Overall,
learning this type of script is not a task that instrumentally driven users of a
language of international communication are likely to take up readily if a less
resource-hungry alternative exists.
Most likely, that alternative will be a script based primarily on the represen-
tation of phonemic segments. Although this alternative could in principle be
either alphabetic or syllabic depending on the phonotactic structure of the
language in question, the range of hypothetical languages of supranational
communication under consideration here rules out the syllabic option unless
Japanese were to abandon the primarily logographic kanji script and rely
entirely on one of its two kana syllabaries. This would leave Esperanto with a
clear lead given its close match between pronunciation and script characteristic
of all artificial languages. Meanwhile, English, French, German, and Spanish
would be evenly matched, though German and Spanish do have the advantage
of a script that has remained closer to pronunciation over the centuries, at least
as regards the standard variety of these languages. Although a global role for
Russian and Arabic may be somewhat hampered by their association with
scripts shared by few other languages, the alphabetic nature of these scripts
would not in principle be a major obstacle. In contrast, the long history of
efforts to advocate the romanization of Chinese writing suggests that the
limitations of logographic writing are well understood by Chinese scholars and
policy-makers. Arguments in favor of such a switch have included a reduced
cognitive and educational burden for Chinese speaking children, the faster
generalization of literacy in poorer parts of China (Chen 1996), and the boost
that this would give to Chinese participation in worldwide communication and
exchanges (Feng and Yin 2000). Yet, change in the direction of romanizing
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Chinese writing is unlikely because of factors that are essentially sociopolitical

rather than linguistic. Among the factors listed by Chen (1994, 1996) are the
role played by the Chinese script as a cultural link among the Chinese diaspora
irrespective of dialect, the difficulty of imposing the Beijing standard on which
a romanized script would presumably be based in regions where that variety of
Chinese is poorly understood or even perceived as alien, and likely resistance in
some parts — and especially in Taiwan — to any kind of language reform
orchestrated from Beijing. As a result, continued reliance on a primarily
logographic script is likely to limit the chances of Chinese as currently written
acceding to a global role even in the likely event of a massive expansion of
China’s geopolitical clout in the coming decades.

Global potential and standardization

A related factor likely to affect the potential of hypothetical languages of

supranational communication is their degree of exposure to standardizing
forces. Ideologically unwelcome though the notion might seem to many, the
idea of promoting a standard across varieties of a language does have some
supporters. In theory at least, supranational standards guarantee a degree of
egalitarianism among all speakers of an international variety (Kibbee 1993). In
the context of English, Bamgbose (1998) argues, non-native communities of
speakers are at risk of even greater disadvantage in that the very absence of
standardization for new Englishes risks encouraging these varieties to continue
looking to established varieties for exonormative standards Yet, however
desirable a degree of standardization may be in some circumstances, it can be
argued that the internationalization of English has been facilitated by the
accidental combination of two favorable factors. Not only is English largely
free of the kinds of inflectional complexities that would strain the resources of
instrumentally motivated potential users and rapidly come under pressure for
spontaneous simplification in a supranational context. In addition, further
simplification of those inflectional quirks that did survive the transition from
Old through Middle to Modern English is unlikely to be resisted because of the
relative weakness of standardizing forces within as well as across varieties of
the language.
Today, the dominant view of English as a global language emphasizes the
range of its varieties operating as an interconnected system, each variety closely
related to a relatively stable core and infinitely adaptable in its own localized
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setting. In the words of Nadkarni (1992: 328), “the function of a world language
is to foster an international or global consciousness without suppressing
diversity in its manifestations.” Bex (1993) argues that the notion of Standard
English is more a social myth than a recognizable variety and that the English
teaching curriculum should incorporate elements of regional varieties as well as
supranational features of the language. Hyde (1998) makes the case for the
formal adoption of post-colonial models of English and for the incorporation
of the objective of intercultural competence in the language teaching curricu-
lum. Similarly, Pakir (1999) argues that as English becomes an increasingly
globalized resource, it must bend to the changing identities of its many users
and if necessary distance itself from Anglo-Saxon cultural assumptions,
especially in the context of language teaching. Chisanga and Kamwangamalu
(1997) and McArthur (1999), among others, put the issue in terms of the
ownership of the language by its current users as opposed to its originators,
regardless of geographic location. Bamgbose (1998) notes that, if an interna-
tional standard were to emerge, it would never be identical to any specific
variety because all the interconnected varieties would, in varying degrees, have
contributed to it.
This relativistic view of the nature and desirability of standards — reviewed
in some detail in Davies (1999) — flows directly from a long tradition of
English laissez-faire in matters of language and of a history of half-hearted
attempts at controlling the language from the center. Despite well-articulated
arguments, plans to set up a language academy on the Italian or French model
never succeeded in attracting much more than the attention of polemicists such
as Jonathan Swift. In mid-18th-century England, no less an authority than
Samuel Johnson willingly recognized in the preface to his dictionary that
“exuberance of signification” in language could never be fully chronicled, let
alone controlled, and conceded that he saw no point in supporting efforts by his
own social class to control — or, as they saw it, uplift — the linguistic practices
of the “laborious and mercantile part of the people.” In a sense, the more
successful attempts at standardization affected the outer reaches of the growing
English-speaking world. This is evident, for example, in the grammars and
dictionaries that set out to codify a Scottish standard for lexis and syntax based
on the speech of local clerics, academics, and lawyers (Jones 1993) and in
Webster’s largely successful crusade for spelling reform in America motivated
at least as much by nationalistic fervor as by purposes of linguistic rationalization.
Resistance to supranational standardization is also a factor of the peculiar
geographic distribution of English born of the growing geopolitical reach of
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speakers of the language. What started as limited maritime trade and the
westward migration of a few thousand people from a small island off Western
Europe resulted in a language now distributed among a number of power
centers, each with its own sociocultural characteristics and its own set of
regional and global interconnections. While the present-day dominance of the
North American variety is undeniable, history as well as a literary canon that
continues to command worldwide attention is likely to give the British variety
lasting influence. Despite its narrower range, the Australian variety is unlikely
to be challenged within its own regional sphere of influence. Much the same is
true of India because of its large population, the power it wields regionally, and
the fact that the variety serves to tie the component parts of India to each other
and the whole to neighbors that share a common colonial history. As a result,
it is now unimaginable that one of these varieties — even the American variety
— would come to command so much more sociolinguistic clout than any of the
others that it could — deliberately or accidentally — exert sufficient gravita-
tional force as to reduce related varieties to minor variants of itself. This
division into several relatively equal, or at least culturally autonomous and self-
confident poles, and the resulting multi-core distribution of modern English are
likely to continue making the language resistant to standardization.
Among the hypothetical challengers to English as a global language re-
viewed here, the picture is somewhat more complex. Considered independently
of other factors, the wide distribution of Arabic across national borders should
in principle make that language at least as impervious to standardization as
English. This should ensure that no single variety dominates and that the
language is permitted to adapt to local environments while maintaining
sufficient unity to function as a language of international communication.
However, this potential for adaptation is reduced by the close association of the
language with a religious message that does not lend itself readily to relativistic
interpretations. As a result, the potential for Arabic to adapt to local settings,
especially in its written — hence most easily standardized — form and to take
on a global role must be regarded as limited, even if other geopolitical factors
were favorable.
For its part, Spanish has a long and well-documented history of attempts at
standardization through the publication of grammars and dictionaries that
often aimed to resist the alleged superiority of French norms (Cuevas 1999).
Today, attitudes to the international role of Spanish and to internal variation
are said by Lombraña (2000) to be more utilitarian and relaxed than French
ones, no doubt owing to the early weakening of Spanish imperial power and the
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Predicting challenges to English 143

resulting independence from Spain of relatively isolated nations, as well as to

contact within many of these nations with a range of indigenous languages.
Although the Spanish Academy has a fearsome history of watching over
language standards as far as its reach will allow, the huge demographic imbal-
ance between Spain and the Spanish-speaking Americas means that any
standardization in Spanish today is more likely to come semi-haphazardly from
US-based TV networks broadcasting to the entire continent than from an
ancient European planning agency. Indeed, according to Sánchez (1992), only
Spain currently appears active in the area of the officially sanctioned, top-down
standardization of Spanish. Thus, geopolitical and economic considerations
apart, a combination of the multi-core distribution of modern Spanish, the
relative ineffectiveness of centrally-directed standardization, and weak resis-
tance to indigenization give Spanish an advantage in these hypothetical global
language stakes.
Several of the other potential competitors under consideration here are tied
to a single culture that is massively dominant within a single nation with only an
increasingly detached diaspora to support it internationally. Two languages of
this type are Japanese and German, both closely associated with countries that
for historical reasons remain reluctant to assert themselves culturally or political-
ly. Certainly, unlike English, neither has experienced the kind of linguistic or
cultural schism triggered by a former dependency going its own way while
retaining the language of the former colonial power. Although Japanese func-
tioned as a supranational language for only a brief period in Taiwan and to some
extent in Korea and China, no new nation has risen or looks likely to rise from
within the Japanese-speaking fold to threaten the unquestioned standardizing
tendencies of the center. This puts Japanese at a disadvantage as regards its
suitability as a potential language of wider communication.
As for German, a degree of ambivalence toward standardization can be seen
in the failure of recent attempts by the German authorities to enact spelling
reform. From the start, this effort ran into fierce debate and even legal action,
reflecting the fact that 75% of the population opposed the reform, which was
eventually abandoned unilaterally by leading newspapers (Hutchinson 1999).
In the sense that institutional standardizing forces thus appear relatively weak,
the language seems relatively well adapted to the unavoidable pressure for
morphological simplification that would inevitably follow its hypothetical
international spread. Whether the same newspaper editors that successfully
resisted spelling reform would be wiling to sanction such simplification is
debatable. Somewhat more internationalized is Russian, with its history of pre-
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144 Paul Bruthiaux

revolutionary and Soviet-era imperialism and of close control — including

linguistic control — over the affairs of its immediate neighbors (Russia’s “near-
abroad”). Yet, Russia has an unremarkable record of linguistic spread despite
having recently wielded considerable geopolitical power as far afield as in
Angola, Cuba, or Vietnam. Moreover, no Russian-speaking nation has ever
emerged or looks likely to emerge to challenge the standardizing power of the
Russian heartland.
For its part, China has so far managed to keep its core domain territorially
intact thanks in part to a pragmatic approach to regional variation. This is
illustrated in the relative tolerance of substantially different sociopolitical norms
in recently repossessed Hong Kong and Macau, a model that would likely be
followed in the event of Taiwan somehow coming under mainland control. To
be sure, sizable portions of the country speak versions of Chinese that by many
measures could be described as distinct languages were it not for the demands
of political expediency. This factor, along with the role played by primarily
logographic writing among an increasingly literate population, leads to the
convenient fiction that Chinese constitutes a single language and that all
teaching in China — except that of indigenous languages — takes place in the
preferred Mandarin standard. Meanwhile, issues of standardization affect
mainly the treatment of linguistic imports — especially in the field of tech-
nology — and continuing discussions of the issue of romanization (Chen 1994,
1996). Clearly, despite major variation within China as well as across China and
a widely dispersed Chinese diaspora, and despite increasingly overt Taiwanese
attempts at establishing a degree of communal identity and linguistic autonomy
(Tse 2000), no threat is currently visible to the official dominance of standard
Mandarin. On the surface, there is no doubt where authority in matters of the
Chinese language is meant to reside. However, given the fact that standardiza-
tion is in part cosmetic, Chinese does have the potential to adapt to multiple
settings successfully were China to accede to global power status.
French, meanwhile, has a long history of deliberate standardization that
parallels the centralizing policies of successive regimes and governments and the
promotion of a linguistic standard on the basis of its allegedly superior nature
in terms of clarity and rationality (Lodge 1991). Over the past two centuries
especially, the imposition of standard French constituted a key strategy for the
elimination of social, political, and religious ideologies regarded as reactionary
and for the promotion of revolutionary concepts such as egalitarianism (Kibbee
1993). This long-standing concern with implementing political ideals and
objectives through language policy explains modern French concerns about
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Predicting challenges to English 145

perceived threats to national unity and a preoccupation with linguistic purity

(Ager 1999, Heller 1999, Safran 1999). Today, this acceptance of a key role for
the institutions of the state in defining and safeguarding cultural values along
with their linguistic embodiment leads many influential French commentators
to regard the ability of English to absorb input from many sources as commer-
cially motivated and therefore suspect (see, for example, Gambier 1993 and
Pêcheur 1998). In addition, French has long been inextricably tied to a histori-
cally, politically, economically, and culturally dominant territorial core. With
other French-speaking or partially French-speaking communities either located
in economically or politically dependent countries (mostly in Africa) or
constituting linguistic minorities within larger countries (Canada, Belgium,
Switzerland), this unbalanced geographic distribution serves the centralizing
tendencies of the core and makes it less likely that the language will be allowed
the freedom to develop organically into an ever-adaptable tool of global
Nor is Esperanto likely to fare any better, on this measure at least. On the
one hand, its lack of formal association with any national base should give it an
advantage. However, this quintessentially planned and maximally simplified
language would require constant intervention on the part of its promoters and
guardians because, as its communicative and geographical range expands, the
forces that shape all languages in use are bound to take its current structural
configuration in unpredictable directions to the point where variation will
begin to develop in parts of the system. In addition, the predicted increase in
communicative and geographical range of the language would lead to unavoid-
able diversification of its lexical inventory, a process that must either threaten
the much-vaunted regularity of the language if unplanned or hinder adaptation
to local conditions if planned. From this standpoint at least, Esperanto seems
ill-suited to the supranational role which its creators envisaged.

Global potential and modernization

Except in cases where a language of wider communication is imposed on

subjugated peoples in a manner involving active repression of local alternatives,
a major factor in the globalization of a language is its appeal as a modernizing
and liberating force. First-time users and especially those making the switch
from an existing language of wider communication to a competitor (eg, Russian
to English in Central and Eastern Europe) need to regard — for whatever
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146 Paul Bruthiaux

reasons, rightly or wrongly — their current options as in some way deficient. In

addition to calculations of numbers of potential speakers with whom to interact
in each potential language, this choice is to some extent determined by relative-
ly intangible, perhaps even emotional factors. As Petzold and Berns (2000)
show in the case of Hungary, along with the rapid political and economic
change that accompanied the waning of Russian influence in the country in the
1990s came a sudden rush of interest in English as an international language
and an abrupt switch from Russian to English as the dominant second language
in the country’s schools. Yet, more than mere commercial relations must have
been involved in this process as German was — at least in principle — a viable
alternative since an older German-speaking population survived and Germany
quickly replaced the former Soviet Union as Hungary’s dominant trading
partner and soon established itself as the country’s principal source of tourism
In post-Soviet Hungary as in many other societies, an additional factor was
the fact that English was seen as both symbolizing and making available
liberating values. Prabhu (1994) argues that English has come to embody the
dominant knowledge paradigm of the time. In a rapidly changing world, access
to knowledge is no longer a luxury enjoyed by a tiny leisured class sitting at the
apex of a feudal society. Today, it is a major predictor of which members of a
society are likely to see tangible improvement in their standard of living and
which are likely to stay poor. Admittedly, knowledge comes in many forms and
is carried by many linguistic vehicles. However, if knowledge is likely to lead to
beneficial change, it must be — as Prabhu puts it — of the “learning” and
“thinking” as opposed to the “doing” type. In developing societies especially,
such thinking and learning is likely to lead to an interest in what might be
termed “big ideas” such as democratic participation and civil rights and to a
turn of mind favoring inquiry, criticism, and skepticism.
Much as Latin linked the intellectual community of medieval Europe,
English now connects policy-makers, business leaders, academics, and other
professionals who share a set of values and practices largely congruent with that
identified by Prabhu. To some, this value transplant is to be welcome because
it is relatively neutral. That is, it allows users — especially in former colonial
settings such as India, South Africa, or Nigeria, for example — to bypass
traditional structures and emotionally charged ethnic attachments, indigenizing
in the process both values and the language that carries them (for an example
from an East African setting, see Kanyoro 1991). Critics such as Pennycook
(1998) and Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas (1999) warn that, unless chal-
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Predicting challenges to English 147

lenged, this process of linguistic and cultural import will mislead the poorer
importing nations into relying on a value system with little local relevance and
serving only the covert interests of the wealthier exporting nations.
In practice, however, it is important to recall that the import of values and
of the languages that encode them can just as often be the consequence — as
opposed to the root cause — of major changes in local mindsets and develop-
mental objectives. For example, when the Chinese leadership decided in 1986
that the market route to economic development was likely to yield greater
rewards than the earlier centrally-planned experiment, it committed itself —
unwittingly, no doubt — to importing notions that had not been part of earlier
arrangements governing business or public administration. Among these are
corporate governance, conflict of interest, transparency, and disclosure, all of
which are essential to the successful conduct of large-scale business, especially
in a globalized context. Similarly, change in the political mindset undergone by
societies such as Taiwan or South Korea in the 1990s brought with it a discourse
of public debate and notions of challenge to a hierarchical order that could only
be described initially as foreign. Especially after translation into the local
vernacular and much conceptual tweaking to suit local conditions, the language
that now encodes these notions is clearly not value-free. The test of English or
any other international conveyor of modernizing and liberating notions is not
that it introduces values regarded as foreign and therefore either good or bad in
some abstract sense. It is whether these values help to bring about beneficial
change in the form of generalized wealth creation benefiting most in a less
hierarchical society. Interest in these values is no pro-western fad. They appeal
because they are seen as helping to understand the relative economic success of
western societies, where they were first given a chance. For as long as these
values are regarded as preferable to traditional, home-grown ones and for as
long as they are strongly associated with English-speaking cultures, any chal-
lenge to English as a vehicle for these values is unlikely to succeed.
What, then, of the possible competitors to this dominant position for
English with regard to modernizing and liberating values? According to
promoters of Esperanto such as Tonkin (2000), one of its principal virtues is
precisely that it is a powerful symbol of the human linguistic heritage and hence
of universal human values. In this sense, it is argued, Esperanto can become a
key vehicle for the promotion of ideologies and practices that unite rather than
divide humans in ways that languages associated with nation states cannot hope
to do because of the baggage of confrontational relations that they all carry in
varying degrees. In the long term, however, it is inconceivable that a spreading
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148 Paul Bruthiaux

Esperanto could long remain free of cultural associations as these would

inevitably be grafted onto the language by the various locations and communi-
ties in which it gained in influence. In the shorter term, moreover, its very lack
of cultural baggage is likely to reduce its appeal among those potential users
who may be looking to acquire a degree of cultural inspiration from another
language, not simply a solution to their immediate communicative needs.
Though undeniably a much-respected language of wider communication
in fields that include the creative arts, Arabic remains strongly associated with
Islam, a religion that structures the existence of its followers in clear-cut terms
through an especially inelastic set of tenets. In addition, the transmission of this
time-honored religious and societal knowledge tends to take place through
rote-learning encoded in Arabic, a foreign language for large numbers of
followers of Islam in Central Asia, Iran, the Indian sub-continent, sub-Saharan
Africa, or Indonesia. There, reliance on repetition of a poorly-understood
language may have the effect of associating that language with knowledge that
is remote and therefore not amenable to questioning. Intentionally or other-
wise, this may discourage the development of a culture of exegesis, criticism,
and skepticism, the very values singled out by Prabhu as most likely to recom-
mend a language as a vehicle for modernization and liberation.
In principle, the potential of Japanese as a international language suffers
from few if any of the cultural restrictions described above. In fact, throughout
the 1980s, Japan was regarded as the primary source of all things new and
beautiful in three areas: electronic technology, business practices, and consumer
fads. In the more prosperous parts of the world at least, few lives have been
untouched by some Japanese invention or concept, from the fax or the walk-
man on the consumer side to Just-In-Time Delivery or Zero-Defect Manufac-
turing in the business world and manga strip cartoons or Pokémon on the
cultural side. Yet, despite deliberate governmental policy to promote the
teaching of Japanese as a second language (Hirataka 1992), the language does
not appear to have progressed far beyond the level of a school subject or to have
made significant inroads as a tool for regional, let alone worldwide communica-
tion. To be sure, history helps to explain the long-lasting reluctance of Japanese
authorities to promote their culture and that of Asian neighbors to welcome it.
More recently, Japan’s anemic economic performance and looming problems
over a rapidly aging population makes the country an unlikely role model for
societies in search of a vibrant paradigm. For Japanese to become a serious
contender for a role as world language, Japanese influence would have to touch
minds with a “big idea,” not just incentives to add gadgetry to living rooms and
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Predicting challenges to English 149

dashboards or to swap overpriced cards on school playgrounds. There are

precious few signs that this may be happen in the foreseeable future.
Given the recent catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian
would appear to be an even more unlikely candidate for the role of global
language. In particular, the ideology that sustained the communist experiment
and inspired many post-colonial minds in the developing world appears to be
beyond redemption. With vanishing interest in that ideology went any chance
Russian may have had of uniting nations around a “big idea” perceived as
liberating. Yet, closer to home, Russian continues to wield influence through
enduring economic ties with its immediate neighbors and the presence in these
nations of substantial Russian-speaking minorities. In the Baltic states, for
example, the role of Russian as a language of wider communication is likely to
survive a gradual pull toward English as these nations gradually side with the
European Union and especially Scandinavia. Despite signs reported by Laitin
(1996) that English is beginning to play a role as a lingua franca between
Estonian and Russian speakers within Estonia, Russian is also likely to continue
linking the Baltic states among themselves and to Russia itself (Ozolins 1994).
In some Central Asian former Soviet Republics such as Uzbekistan, a switch
from the Cyrillic to the Latin script may well succeed in increasing intercultural
distance (Schlyter 1998). In others, such as Kyrgyzstan, post-independence
language laws favoring local languages have been softened to accommodate the
fact that Russian continues to denote the relative liberalism of urban communi-
ties and to offer a readily available route to wider communication and advance-
ment beyond the traditional Islamic structures and values of rural communities
(Wright 1999). For the foreseeable future, however, any role for Russian in
influencing lives and minds will be restricted by territorial proximity to parts of
Eastern Europe and Central Asia. While post-Soviet Russia itself is busy
grappling with novel societal practices and values, Russian can be expected to
have little hold over minds further afield because it remains associated with a
discredited ideological and social experiment.
Despite obvious advantages noted by Lombraña (2000) — such as a huge,
relatively homogeneous, and expanding market in North and South America —
and the growing respect and influence earned in Europe by a modernized
Spain, there is little reason to expect Spanish to extend its range far beyond the
Americas. In large part, this is due to the lack of a clear association between the
language and a distinct ideology of the type that would inspire individuals and
nations in search of an alternative route to modernization, perhaps even a
counterweight to US cultural leverage. For as long as Latin American societies
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150 Paul Bruthiaux

are busy trying to catch up economically within the dominant North American
paradigm, Spanish is not likely — on grounds of ideological appeal at least —
to confirm Lombraña’s claim that it is poised to gain in worldwide influence.
Much like Spanish, albeit operating over a smaller area, German is a largely
localized language of wider communication. Like Spanish-speaking countries
also, Germany operates within the western ideological paradigm and its
language does not appear to offer significant intellectual alternatives to seekers
of new approaches to intellectual or societal problems. Moreover, and unlike
that of Spanish, the German linguistic hinterland is small and does not appear
to be growing. As Coulmas (1990) shows, the prestige of German rose sharply
in the eighteenth century as the language became associated with the moderniz-
ing values of the Enlightenment before going into a steady decline throughout
the 20th century, owing in large part to the negative connotations of the
country’s expansionist adventures. A decade ago, Coulmas noted that even
German businesses and scientists were disloyal to their native language and
more likely to abandon it if an alternative presented itself, usually in the form
of English. Ammon (1995) also concedes that German has now lost its intellec-
tual status as the international language of science. Hilgendorf (1996) confirms
that the German scientific community is increasingly publishing first or solely
in English, if necessary coining any required new terminology in English, not
German. Hilgendorf also lists a number of motivations for the growing appeal
of English to German speakers, including perceptions of precision and brevity
as well as modernization. Recent years have witnessed growing economic and
political ties between Germany and Central and Eastern Europe, a sharp boost
given to German self-confidence by reunification, and a new willingness among
German politicians to exhibit greater assertiveness. Yet, any supranational role
for German will be limited geographically, and ideological appeal is not likely to
be a significant contributor to that role.
Turning to Chinese, Goh (1999) is surely right when he asserts that the
likely emergence of China as an economic and military superpower will lead to
the growth of Chinese as a language of international communication in the
coming decades. Already a lingua franca among the educated and business-
oriented Chinese diaspora, Chinese can only expand as more individuals,
businesses, and governmental organizations come into contact with China
through increased trade. However, it is difficult at present to see what the
ideological appeal of Chinese might be. It is conceivable that in the distant
future, a newly wealthy and self-confident China might be in a position to
appropriate the modernizing values it is currently learning to its advantage and
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Predicting challenges to English 151

to offer them to less fortunate nations repackaged through Chinese. However,

this scenario is speculative in the extreme. No “big idea” originating in Chinese
culture and transmitted through Chinese appears ready to take hold of imagina-
tions worldwide, and any growth in the global reach of Chinese will for the time
being remain largely utilitarian in motivation, and therefore limited.
Big ideas are cultural artifacts that France, of all nations, does not like to be
seen without. As Kibbee (1993) argues, France has traditionally defined itself on
a shared culture, with the French language as the depository and collective
memory of what unites the nation. As 18th century France came to be seen as
a source of exciting ideas about novel relationships between deity and human-
kind as well as between government and the governed, French became a major
vehicle for these stirring concepts. This factor must have contributed greatly to
its dominance as a language of international communication in Europe and
beyond, albeit among the leisured rather than the trading classes. Today,
straight-faced reference continues to be made in France to the country’s
“civilizing mission,” a concept that recalls perceptions of a British “white man’s
burden” or an American “manifest destiny” but without any of the overtones of
post-imperial embarrassment both now carry. To many French intellectuals and
policy-makers, French continues to be a vehicle for the promotion of universal
values and for marginalized nations, especially in Africa, a chance to find a voice
(Gambier 1993). To be sure, the earlier sense that these alleged benefits could
only be enjoyed if speakers were willing to merge into the French cultural
monolith is showing signs of weakening (Heller 1999, Safran 1999). Specifically,
Pêcheur (1998) argues that French can only fulfill its role as international
promoter of economic, social, cultural, and educational values if speakers and
policy-makers are willing to accommodate a changed world, renounce their
earlier opposition to cultural pluralism, embrace decentralization, and adopt a
more relativist view of culture.
Yet, there is in writings on French perceptions of itself and of English as
global languages (see, for example, Gambier 1993 and Pêcheur 1998) an anti-
American undercurrent that is essentially defensive, as seen in its frequent
reliance on the military metaphors of “siege” and “resistance.” One weakness in
this position is that given the expenditure of time, energy, and funds involved
in learning an additional language, potential users of French as a second
language would need to be convinced that they stand to be richly compensated
for partially or totally shutting themselves out of English-speaking networks.
Moreover, the set of values conveyed by French is essentially western and thus
not sufficiently different from the American version without benefit of
152 Paul Bruthiaux

substantial spin. Even more problematic is the fact that it is not clear why
French-led cultural universalism should be preferable to the American-led
alternative or why resistance to cultural and linguistic imperialism should be
conducted in French rather than in the many local vernaculars under alleged
threat. Given this ambiguity, the promotion of French as the language of an
“anti-destiny” is unlikely to win the hearts of many recruits, on ideological
grounds at least.

Conclusion: A prediction for English as a global language

I have argued that geopolitical factors such as economic or military power are
not sufficient to explain, let alone predict, the relative strength of languages of
supranational communication. Clearly, critical mass is crucial and goes a long
way toward making the current position of English as a language of global
communication seemingly unassailable. It is also true that if this position is to
be challenged in the twenty-first century, the most likely source of that chal-
lenge is likely to result — despite periodic bursts of Islamic assertiveness —
from the rise of China as a world power in economic, military, and political
terms. However, any challenge to the dominance of English as a global language
will need to be based on more than a favorable set of geopolitical circumstances.
In particular, I have suggested that complex inflectional morphology, tonal
phonology, and a primarily logographic script would limit the chances of a
challenging language to expand its global role. A global language is bound
sooner or later to be used in large part by speakers who know it as a second
language only and use it for a variety of purposes in a range of settings. As it is
pulled in different directions depending on degree of exposure to local languag-
es and cultures in each setting, its linguistic characteristics are likely to be
steered in the direction of greater inflectional simplification under pressure
from instrumentally motivated users. This implies that to assume a global role,
a language must be amenable to unplanned, user-driven adaptation, a process
unlikely to succeed in settings with a strong tradition of centralized language
planning and control, especially if power over language form and language use
is concentrated in a single dominant culture.
To sum up, while increased geopolitical power is a factor that may well
favor China — and hence Chinese — in the not too distant future, the critical
mass accrued to English may well prevent radical change in current power
relations between world languages. In addition, any hypothetical challenge to
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Predicting challenges to English 153

English as a global language would need to be facilitated by a cluster of linguis-

tic factors including minimal inflectional morphology, non-tonal phonology,
and a non-logographic script. Were these key linguistic features not to be found
in a language with nascent global ambition, adaptation in that direction under
spontaneous pressure in a supranational context would have to meet with weak
institutional resistance, a process that would be facilitated by a preference for
skepticism toward the benefits of central language planning, which in turn
would be aided by a multi-core geographic distribution among several self-
confident cultural centers. Finally, a hypothetical challenger would have to be
perceived as carrying a sociocultural message capable of firing the imaginations
of potential users and of motivating them throughout the learning effort.
Taking a number of well-documented languages as examples, I have
presented a review of some of the key characteristics that a hypothetical
challenger to English as a global language would have to possess — or evolve —
to have any chance of success. From this hypothetical perspective, all of the
potential challengers discussed here — Arabic, Chinese, Esperanto, German,
Japanese, Russian, and Spanish — exhibit several of these characteristics while
only English exhibits them all, at present and for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, current trends suggest that American power may undergo a degree
of relative adjustment as a result of the growing importance of China as a world
power. On the basis of the arguments presented in this discussion, it is predict-
ed that even geopolitical realignment on this scale will not be sufficient to
displace English as the dominant global language in the 21st century.


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Prédire les défis à l’anglais comme langue universelle au 21ème siècle

La dominance globale de l’anglais est telle que seuls des changements catastrophiques
pourraient la menacer à court terme. A long terme, il est possible qu’une puissance émer-
gente (par exemple, la Chine) arrive à défier la suprémacie Américaine et avec elle la position
dominante de l’anglais. Cependant, même dans le cas d’un tel réalignement, la langue de
cette puissance émergente (par exemple, le chinois) n’est pas certaine de mettre fin aux
avantages que la masse critique donne à l’anglais. Pour avoir une chance de succès global,
une langue concurrente devrait posséder des caractéristiques structurelles — morphologie
inflectionelle minimale, phonologie non-tonale, et une écriture non-logographique — qui
faciliterait son acquisition par des individus motivés par des preoccupations surtout
utilitariennes. Alternativement, afin de permettre à ces caractéristiques d’évoluer, une langue
concurrente aurait besoin de bénéficier d’une standardisation minimale et avoir la liberté
d’incorporer les changements causés par les utilisateurs, y compris l’indigénisation.
Finalement, cette langue concurrente aurait besoin d’être perçue comme un véhicule pour
des valeurs de modernisation. Bien que des concurrents possibles (par exemple, le chinois,
le français, l’allemand, l’espagnol, le japonais, le russe, l’arabe, ou l’espéranto) contiennent
tous certaines de ces caractéristiques, seul l’anglais les contient toutes à present et pour
l’avenir prévisible. Pour ces raisons, la dominance globale de l’anglais devrait survivre même
une fin hypothétique de l’ère Américaine.
</TARGET "bru">

Predicting challenges to English 157


Antaŭvidi defiojn al la angla kiel universala lingvo en la 21-a jarcento

La tutmonda dominado de la angla estas tia, ke ŝajne nur katastrofa renverso povus minaci
ĝin en la tuja estonteco. Laŭ pli longa perspektivo, kreskanta potenco (ekz. Ĉinio) eble aperos
por defii la usonan superecon kaj sekve la pozicion de la angla. Tamen, eĉ se okazus tia
reorientiĝo, la lingvo de tiu kreskanta potenco (ekz. la ĉina) ne nepre sukcesus haltigi la
avantaĝon, kiun la angla jam ĉerpas el sia decida maso. Por entute havi ŝancon je tut-
mondiĝo, defianto devus posedi strukturajn karakterizojn — nome minimuman fleksian
morfologion, netonan fonologion, kaj nelogografan skribon — kiuj faciligus la akiron al
individuoj kun plejparte pure praktikaj motivoj. Alternative, por evoluigi tiajn karakterizojn,
defianto devus submetiĝi al minimuma normigo kaj havi sufiĉan liberon por akcepti ŝanĝojn
truditajn de la uzantoj, inkluzive de indiĝeniĝo. Fine, oni devus rigardi ĝin kiel perilon de
modernigo de valoroj. Kvankam hipotezaj defiantoj (ekz. la ĉina, franca, germana, hispana,
japana, rusa, araba, aŭ Esperanto) ĉiuj montras kelkajn tiujn karakterizojn, nur la angla
montras ĉiujn en la nuna tempo kaj la antaŭvidebla estonteco. Pro ĉiuj tiuj kaŭzoj, la
tutmonda dominado de la angla antaŭvideble transvivos eĉ la hipotezan forpason de la
Usona Erao.

Author’s address
Department of English Language & Literature
National University of Singapore
Singapore 117570

About the author

Paul Bruthiaux (PhD, Linguistics, University of Southern California) teaches sociolinguistics,
discourse analysis, and language acquisition at the National University of Singapore. He has
written on language policy and language education in TESOL Quarterly, Journal of Multilin-
gual & Multicultural Development, Journal of Asian-Pacific Communication, and Language
Problems & Language Planning. His other work in applied linguistics has appeared in
Language & Communication, English Today, and Applied Linguistics.