Posted by: patenttranslator | November 8, 2011

Will English Remain The Lingua Franca of Our World in the 21st Century?

Unlike for example Chinese with its extremely complicated writing system and four “pitched tones” and a “toneless tone”, I think that English is a suitable candidate for a new lingua franca because basic English is much easier to learn than for example basic Chinese, basic Russian, or even basic German or French. Unlike in German, all nouns and adjectives have only one case, you don’t have to learn a great number of conjugation classes for verbs as you would have to in Russian, etc. According to some linguists, the simplicity of basic English is probably due to the fact that after the Viking raids on England, complicated features in the grammar of Old English were replaced by simpler forms by the Vikings who stayed in England. The Vikings were good at many things, but not really very good at languages, says John McWhorter in his book What Language Is, which makes perfect sense to me.

By necessity, a lingua franca becomes simplified and modified by people who use it for communication with other people whose first language is also different from the lingua franca. Chinese characters were written in a slightly different manner in classical Vietnamese and classical Japanese (文語, bungo), and thanks to Mao, there is a big difference now even between the simplified Chinese characters in Mandarin and traditional Chinese characters. People whose first language is not English often understand better other people who speak English but also are not native speakers of the language. As a former European, I think that either of the major European languages, by which I mean English, French or German, would be a suitable candidate for a vehicle for communication among people who speak different languages.
I don’t think that Chinese or other complicated languages have a shot at replacing a much simpler language such as English in this role, no matter how much the US is in debt to China. As a Czech friend of mine who himself speaks fairly fluently 4 languages told me once, “Bad English is the most useful language in the world. Everybody speaks it”.

Although the American Empire is probably in its final period of unstoppable decline, just as the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Empire, etc., were quickly sinking in their time when the greed and stupidity of the ruling class in those empires finally just about ruined everything, the English language is in my opinion one cultural characteristic of the Anglo-American culture that is worth preserving.

Eventually, the lingua franca that English has become will be replaced by another language, and it will not take eight hundred years, which is for how long Latin was used in this role.

But I have absolutely no idea which language it will be. Possibly some bastardized version of English mixed with Chinese or German or another language, or vice versa, that is if people are still living on this planet a few centuries from now, which seems unlikely at this point.

It is also quite possible that historians and linguists in a scientific expedition of visitors from space who study alien civilizations will write in their history books describing the fate of our civilization that at the end of a civilization on a planet called Earth in English, the last lingua franca on that particular planet was a simplified version of a language called English.


  1. I think “some bastardized version of English” is nonsensical, given the fact that English is already, to use a favorite expression of my mother’s, a “duke’s mixture.” At what point would you say English was “pure” and then began to get “bastardized”? It’s not as if Shakepeare’s English is our lingua franca today, which is why high school students resist Shakespeare so consistently, despite the overarching abstract notions therein (and let’s not even discuss the competence of English teachers).

    An incredible commentary.


  2. Nonsensical, huh?

    I think that like beauty and ugliness, bastardization is in in the eye of the beholder.

    When I saw for the first time my son’s dog, a pitbull, I thought she was really scary and ugly.

    Now that he moved to California and left the dog here (traitor), I think that Lucy is an absolutely gorgeous dog.

    Which pure language would you prefer for a lingua franca if you had a choice?


  3. Interesting arguments. I think that two things may serve to make the next lingua franca transition somewhat less predictable compared to previous occasions.

    The first is the shear degree of globalisation; some of the most powerful forces in our world now are not nation-state powers as they were when English superseded French; they are multinational corporations, faith-groups etc, which don’t have their own language, although they do both adopt and influence the practice of language in the areas where they operate.

    The second issue is technology and the internet; I don’t think anyone can understand how this will affect language-transitions; at the same time it is a powerful vehicle for change (how much easier to adopt a language with the wealth of material on the internet, forums, chat-rooms etc) but also potentially a tool which could transcend language barriers (do I need to learn the lingua franca if I can just go online, spit things through babel-fish and get a messy, but more-or-less functional, translation into a whole slew of languages?)

    It may be that this combination of factors is enough to ‘cement’ English as the lingua franca of the global community for the foreseeable future (short of some apocalyptic upheaval), or it may equally be that technology advances render the entire concept of a lingua franca (or indeed the concept of language barriers) as obsolete as the original Latin within the next century.

    Just my $0.02

    Mike S


  4. No language has the capacity to remain the lingua franca of the world forever. One reason why Latin was used for this purpose for 8 centuries was probably the fact that since it was a dead language, nationalism was not an issue.

    If US loses its leading position as an economic superpower, which seems inevitable given our political system, English may become less useful to people who speak another language and it may be replaced by some other language the way German was replaced by English as the lingua franca in Western, Central and Eastern Europe.

    But it is all just speculation, of course.


  5. Heya! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the excellent work!


  6. Very good website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics talked about here?
    I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get comments from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Bless you!


  7. Yeah, Spanish-speakers inflate the importance of the Spanish language. For every one person learning Spanish in the world, ten are learning English. I know, because I am an international teacher.


  8. […] When I was vacationing on the beautiful Adriatic coast in what is now Croatia and was then Yugoslavia in 1981, I overheard an elderly …  […]


  9. Chinese has no tenses, cases, gender, plurals, conjugation, or participles. Change the system to an alphabet as the vietnamese have and you are set. Afrikaans is simpler than English so why shouldn’t that be used? English isn’t simplified, you still need word order, determiners, and auxillaries to make sense. Latin was the lingua franca of Europe yet it was highly inflected. Learn history buddy.


    • “Change the system to an alphabet as the vietnamese have and you are set.”

      Hahaha …

      Latin is inflected, but not nearly as highly inflected as many other languages, for example Russian.

      Basic English is much easier to learn than most European languages, for example, let alone Chinese. Everybody probably understands that fixed word order is not terribly difficult to learn.

      And the Vietnamese did not change the writing system to the alphabet, French missionaries did it for them. Who is going to make China to get rid of characters. You?

      Why do I think that you don’t know any of these languages? Because arrogance is a close relative of ignorance.


      • A writing system though is not a static and set aspect of a language. Afrikaans has even less inflection than English yet it is never considered. Chinese too, has a fixed word order (with topic prominence though.) Russian uses more analytical constructions for things such as the passive, while Latin would have synthetic passive and active tenses. Latin was a lingua franca, it’s grammatical aspects did not change anything. Did they use French for diplomacy for years simply because they had not discovered how simple the English alternative would be?


  10. Latin America and Spain combined are a VERY large chunk of the world…and in those countries pretty much the entire population speaks Spanish natively. (Except pockets of Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia)

    Compare that to Francophone Africa where a tiny elite minority of the population speaks French while the ordinary citizens speak a myriad of local tongues.


  11. @Johnathan

    What is the best response to a series of non-sequiturs?



  12. I don’t know if Spanish language is important, but we are 528 million people worldwide. Besides, we understand Portuguese speakers if we speak slowly (230 million people). In a lesser degree, we understand Italian speakers (70 million people). So, I can understand in different degrees of intelligibility some 828 million people… and growing very fast.

    PD. It is amazing but I was in several European countries (not only in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Andorra) and I could use Spanish a lot of times.


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