I’ve just discovered a new word: “Globish”. This is the simplified form of English used today as a means of global communication, often learnt as a third or fourth language.
Does the rise and rise of Globish mean that English will continue to be the lingua franca of the technological age?
Perhaps it’s not true to say that English is dying out, but it may have a much shorter shelf life than many expect. This is what Nicolas Ostler argues in an interview with Robert McCrum, talking about his latest book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.
English is on an up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now. So the essential idea is to see what happened to them and see if this could possibly be relevant to the situation of English, which is the world’s lingua franca today.
The main point is simply that linguistic empires rise and fall. But two other arguments are made. The first is about technology:
It’s been the received wisdom in language technology that machine translation isn’t good enough. But all that’s preventing it from being good enough is just a problem of scale. The way that machine translation is now being pushed forward simply involves being able to process more and more data in order to find the significant patterns. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There’s no way that the little problem of incompatibility between languages is going to stand in the way of it for long.
And because it’s being done in a data-based way, the techniques which will solve the problem will solve it for all languages, not just the big important ones. So even remote Aboriginal groups will benefit – maybe a generation later, maybe sooner. And when that happens, people will be able to fulfil themselves through their own language, which is what they always wanted to do anyway.
The second argument is that however widely spoken English may be as a lingua franca today, for many people it doesn’t go very deep as a living language:
I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can’t help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish – a simplified version of English that’s used around the world – will be there as long as it is needed, but since it’s not being picked up as a mother tongue, it’s not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language.
Ostler is the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. You can see the website here.