Many people talk about “The Language of the Future” as though they’re trying to predict the stock market. Some of the languages that are commonly tossed about for this title are: Chinese, English and Spanish. There are good reasons to suspect each. Since I’m from the U.S., you might think that I believe English will ultimately be “The Language of the Future” but you’d only be half-right. Languages change over time, and one of the things, in this case, that causes significant changes, in English, is the number of new learners. (This is a topic that deserves its own discussion, so look for our article on why and how languages change.)
In this regard, English is in a very unique position. Of the 890 million speakers of English around the world, only 43% are native speakers. I actually believe that “The Language of the Future” will resemble English, but in 100 years it will not be the same as it is today. (Some of you may have noticed that some changes to ‘modern’ English have already taken place in certain industries. For example, if you call an IT help line, it is likely that your call will be routed to India. Where they do speak English, but perhaps not in the exact same way that Americans speak English.) Until the day comes when we all speak one language, there is always some benefit to be gained from learning another language and culture.
Let’s take a logical look at how the language of the future might actually be arrived at.
In my opinion, there are three main criteria for “The Language of the Future”
- It must already be widely spoken.
- It should belong to a country/culture that has a large international presence.
- It should be the language of innovation.
Now that we have some clearly laid-out criteria, let’s run the numbers.
Criterion 1 – Widely Spoken
We can see from the numbers that Mandarin Chinese comes in first place here (with 850 million native speakers) followed by English (with 380 million native speakers), then Spanish (with 330 million native speakers) and Hindi coming in fourth (with 260 million native speakers). However, this isn’t the end of the story. We also need to account for speakers of a language who are not native speakers, but learners of a language. After including these numbers the standings are as follows:
- Mandarin Chinese – 1 billion speakers
- English – 890 million speakers
- Spanish – 420 million speakers
- Hindi – 380 million speakers
Criterion 2 – Large international presence
This can be measured in a variety of ways, and depending on whose ranking you look at, the positions will be different. For my purposes, here, I’m using a list of National GDP, as well as a couple different rankings of international businesses (Forbes list of The World’s Most Competitive Countries and Top Countries for International Business).
Of the top four languages we identified in Criterion 1, only Chinese and English appear near the top. (I think English has a bit more of an advantage, since several countries use English as an official language.) So, for Criterion 2, I think we can narrow our selection to Chinese and English. Now, let’s look at the third criterion.
Criterion 3 – Language of Innovation
I feel that this is an important qualifier because, as we move into the future and as new technology is developed, we will need to discuss that technology (and not only to call for repairs when it breaks down). I believe that the language that is used with innovation will tend to stick with the products that were invented. So far, that language has been English. That’s not to say that people couldn’t come up with a word for, say, Virtual Reality in their own language (I’m sure many languages have that) but we also see new English words creeping into other languages for the sake of convenience. A classic example is the term “Wi-Fi” which is a word that was invented (by the Interbrand Corporation) to describe a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) that meets certain standards. I suppose that people could try to come up with a translation, but since it’s the trademarked name of a product, every country I’ve been in seems to use the term “Wi-Fi” exclusively (though sometimes with slightly different pronunciation, which might make it more difficult to recognize).
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 These numbers can be different depending on where you look. It’s hard to measure because there are disputes about counting separate languages vs. dialects.
 This number can also vary depending on when you count a “learner” as a speaker. Do they need to be able to say only one word, or should they be able to hold a conversation?