What Will Globalization Do to Languages? A Freakonomics Quorum

The headline says it all, although the unspoken question is: will globalization indeed result in the hegemony of English, as has long been promised/threatened?

We gathered up some wise people who spend their time thinking about such things — Christian Rolling, Mark Liberman, Henry Hitchings, and John Hayden — and asked them to answer our question. Many thanks for their insights.

Christian Rolling, senior interpreter and next chief of the French interpretation section at the U.N. in New York.

“The Internet has helped curtail English language domination.”

As an interpreter, I tend to focus more on spoken words; and I suspect (being French) that you would love to read that English is (finally) going to be the universal language thanks to globalization.

But No! The Internet has helped curtail English language domination: Just over half the number of Web pages are in English.

Rudimentary English might still be the most convenient means of oral or written communication between strangers of different cultures on planet Earth, but globalization is giving a new (virtual) planetary presence to hundreds of languages and cultures through millions of Web sites, mixing text and videos.

The big loser? Grammar.

With the proliferation of text messages, e-mails, emoticons, strange abbreviations (The French love CUL, which means a**) why bother about style or form?

Web sites are more polished, but even there, spelling mistakes abound.

John Hayden, president of Versation, parent company of English, baby!, a social networking site for English language learners around the world.

“English is like a cell phone provider offering the best plan. But if the dollar continues to drop, the most viable option could shift.”

Globalization is synonymous with homogenization. What does this mean for languages?

We’ll be losing all but one of them, and guess which one.

Although ludicrous, this point of view is common. My friends and colleagues question me from time to time about whether a website like mine that helps people around the world learn English is necessarily a good thing.

But last I checked, learning one language doesn’t cause you to forget another. More than half the world plays soccer, but other sports continue to thrive. Why should languages be any different?

In fact, it seems widely agreed upon that a person who speaks more than one language is worthy of admiration. The fact that nearly two billion people are learning English means that there are more bilingual people than ever before.

Though shared languages between countries are necessary for globalization to thrive, the popularity of English is incidental and could change.

English is a tool, just like a piece of technology. Much of the world’s economy is tied up in English-speaking countries and for that reason, English is like a cell phone provider offering the best plan. But if the dollar continues to drop, the most viable option could shift. Mexico and Korea don’t need English to communicate if Korea begins to find it profitable to learn Spanish.

This flexibility exists because other languages aren’t going away. It’s important to understand that English is growing as a second or
third language.

I’ve yet to hear of a country changing its first language to English to better compete globally and I doubt that will happen.

A Bulgarian woman might fly to the U.S. for a meeting, but will still walk to the grocery store. She might send American partners news via e-mail, but will still gossip on her neighbor’s porch, read and sing in Bulgarian, and speak it with her family — and with you if you’re smart.

Don’t underestimate the value of knowing languages other than English in a globalized world. Nothing makes a trip to Japan better than knowing Japanese and if you’re bidding on a contract in India, the proposal written in Hindi is sure to stand out. A philosopher who can read German articles before they’re translated has an edge on his peers.

In fact, globalization means that we have more reason than ever to learn a language. While globalization has its benefits and drawbacks, learning a language, like almost any other skill, is at best useful and at least a bit of personal edification (like learning Ancient Greek or fly fishing).

But at the moment, English is about as valuable as a computer in terms of the amount of cultural exchange and access to information it affords. Of course, the two are most powerful together, which is why we started English, baby!. It was a reaction to a demand.

More often than not, a new member’s first blog is something to the effect of, “This is the first day of my life,” which demonstrates a mind-boggling enthusiasm for, and faith in this language and technology.

Mark Liberman , professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, blogs at Language Log.

“If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result.”

The obvious things to say about this are, well, obvious. But not everything that’s obvious is entirely true, and there are some surprises behind the “duh”s.

It’s obvious that English promotes American power in the global linguistic marketplace — but a slogan of Li Yang‘s Crazy English movement is “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”

It’s obvious that globalization will tend to wipe out smaller languages and cultures — but if you search the web for “soomaaliya” or “gabay ka,” you’ll find more text from the world-wide Somali diaspora than was ever produced in the horn of Africa. It’s obvious that globalized communications and popular culture will tend to homogenize local language varieties — but some varieties of English seem to be diverging more rapidly than ever.

Much of today’s linguistic politics are rooted in the residues of colonial rule, itself an earlier form of globalization — but paradoxically, the recent spread of former colonial languages is sometimes driven by local resistance to domination by outsiders.

In 1950, the Indian constitution established Hindi as the official language of the central government, and the use of English as a “subsidiary official language,” inherited from the days of British colonial rule, was supposed to end by 1965. However, less than a sixth of the Indian population speaks Hindi natively, and for elite speakers of India’s other 400-odd languages, especially in the south, the imposition of Hindi felt like a kind of conquest, whereas continued use of English was an ethnically neutral option. So today, the authoritative version of acts of parliament is still the English one, Supreme Court proceedings are still in English, and so on.

The rise of English as the language of global economic opportunity just reinforces this pattern, which also applies in Pakistan, in Nigeria, and in several other former British colonies.

A particularly intense version of this sort of thing is happening in Iraq.

Kurdish officials resist being forced to do business with the central government in Arabic, and sometimes insist on English, even if their command of Arabic is excellent. They recognize that they can’t force the central government to deal with them in Kurdish, but they see English, the language of the former colonial power, Britain — and of the current occupying power, the United States — as a symbol of resistance to the cultural and political hegemony of the Arabic-speaking majority.

The situation in former French colonies is more subtle. French is the ethnically-neutral lingua franca there, and the linguistic gateway to opportunity and migration. But many individuals in the Francophone world are starting to see English as a better opportunity — and the rulers of some Francophone countries have begun to feel the same way — to the immense chagrin of the French government, which works hard by various means to keep the former colonies in La Francophonie. In that context, promoting (for example) English-language schools can become a form of resistance to neocolonialism.

And at the same time that big languages like English, French, Chinese, and Arabic have been spreading among present or past imperial subject populations, local linguistic nationalism has been increasing in strength, and winning some victories.

In Belgium — which is number one in the 2007 KOF Index of Globalization — Flemish cultural nationalism, very much based on language, is threatening to split the country in two.

Less dire versions of the same process have been happening elsewhere in Europe. Anyone who’s been in Barcelona recently knows that the dominance of Catalan there has been officially acknowledged, and Spain’s ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages has also led to co-official status for Basque and Galician in their regions.

As a result of the same European Charter, two centuries of French official suppression of minority languages came to an end, at least officially, in 2001. (Actually, France rejected the charter as contrary to its constitution, but the Ministry of Education decided anyhow that education in Occitan, Corsican, Breton, Basque, and so on could at least in principle be allowed.)

Paradoxically, the force that freed “regional and minority” languages throughout Europe was exactly the economic and political unification created by that poster child of globalization, the European Union.

If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result. And once you admit a dozen or so national languages to official status in the resulting union, why not throw in a hundred more — even if the local nation-states have been busily trying to promote national unity by suppressing them for the past few centuries?

Henry Hitchings, author of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, and his most recent, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

“One of the intriguing consequences of globalization is that English’s center of gravity is moving.”

“It’s interesting that we think of nature conservation as something rather sexy, but language conservation on the whole gets dismissed as naïve and backward-looking. “

This isn’t a question that belongs in the future tense; it’s happening right now, and we’re seeing dramatic change in the whole global system of languages. So the succinct answer would be “a lot.” But I’d like to expand on this.

Today there are about 6,500 different natural languages. Eleven of them account for the speech of more than half the world’s population. Those eleven are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, French, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, German, Japanese, Arabic, and — of course — English.

English is distinguished from the others in this list by having very significant numbers of non-native speakers, and, for reasons I’ll come back to, I think it’s going to be the one most affected by globalization.

At the opposite end of the scale there are languages teetering on the brink of extinction. More than half the world’s languages have fewer than 5,000 speakers, and there are many hundreds that have as few as a dozen. Languages are disappearing all the time — it’s estimated that a language becomes extinct roughly every two weeks. Some of those under threat are American languages — the likes of Kashaya, spoken in a small part of northern California, and Menominee in Wisconsin.

I think we can say that almost everywhere is part of the “world system” now, and the thing about any system that integrates people is that it benefits its architects. Yes, you’re going to see cultural cross-pollination, but, fundamentally, imported cultures are going to push out indigenous ones. We can look at the example of Canada: when it was colonized, more than sixty languages were spoken there, but English and French wiped almost all of them out, and only one, Inuktitut, has really clung on at all.

In the future, things that don’t happen in the world’s major languages are likely to be marginalized in favor of very possibly less worthy things that do happen in them. We see this a good deal already. For instance, we know that by and large a book published in English is going to have a far wider reach than one published in Czech, regardless of their respective merits.

One of the consequences is that, as students and scholars look to enhance their credentials and the visibility of their work, universities, which used to be national institutions, have become an international marketplace.

It’s clear that globalization is making English especially important not just in universities, but in areas such as computing, diplomacy, medicine, shipping, and entertainment. No language is currently being learned by more people — there may soon be 2 billion actively doing so — and the desire to learn it reflects a desire to be plugged into a kind of “world brain.”

To many people, then, the spread of English seems a positive thing, symbolizing employment, education, modernity, and technology. But to plenty of others it seems ominous.

They hold it responsible for grinding down or homogenizing their identities and interests. It tends to equalize values and desires, without doing the same for opportunities.

While English-speakers may think the spread of their language is simply a force for good, opening up the world and helping to advance things like feminism and human rights awareness in places they might not otherwise reach, to many other people this spread is a symptom of things they don’t want: the Christian faith, for instance, and political paternalism.

So far, so unsurprising, you might say; but globalization may well have a kind of revenge effect. There’s a distinct chance, I think, that it will actually undermine the position of the very native speaker who, by virtue of having a mastery of this obviously valuable language, thinks he or she is in a strong position.

Why? Because one of the intriguing consequences of globalization is that English’s center of gravity is moving. Its future is going to be defined not in America or Britain, but by the new economies of places like Bangalore, Chongqing, and Bratislava.

Internationally, English is becoming the language of the urban middle classes, and as the ability to use English becomes a kind of basic skill for such people, the prestige that attaches to being able to speak it with native fluency is going to shrink. People who have a stripped-down, second-language knowledge of it may start to cut native speakers out of the equation. At the same time we’re going to see a proliferation of what are sometimes called ‘glocal’ Englishes — noticeably different forms of the global language that preserve their local roots. One of the ultimate effects may be that native speakers of English will be at a professional disadvantage, because they’re seen as obstructions to the easy flow of business talk and they’re competent in just this one “basic” language.

Branching out beyond English, I think it’s safe to say that one of the things we are seeing, as technology breaks down borders, is that it is no longer sensible to think of a precise association between particular languages and particular territories.

Nobody owns languages any more. And this is likely to be especially troubling for anyone whose language is widely used by people who aren’t native speakers.

As it advances, globalization seems to be whipping up its own backlash, and I’m sure we are soon going to see language learning and language conservation become more contentious political issues. It’s interesting that we think of nature conservation as something rather sexy, but language conservation on the whole gets dismissed as naïve and backward-looking. My hunch is that if there’s one language in the top eleven I mentioned earlier that is really going to get squeezed, it’s German.

Realistically, fifty years from now the world’s big languages may be as few as three: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and English. Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and Punjabi will also be pretty big — but chiefly because of massive population growth on their home turf. Arabic, too, will have grown — for religious reasons at least as much as economic ones.

At the other end of the scale, many languages will have disappeared, irrecoverably, and with them will have disappeared their cultures.

Thomas B.

#5 has a great point. McWhorter should be sought out and included in any future quorum on a similar subject.

I also think McWhorter provides a far superior view of the evolution of language than "The big loser? Grammar."

The idea that languages are some sort of fixed ideal is at best naive, and at worst, disparaging to those outsider groups using pidgins and creoles every day. Soon enough, Singlish and Manglish will be mutually unintelligible to the English spoken in Exeter or Idaho. It's silly to think that that will be a sad day for English, just as it would be silly to pine for the return of Middle or Old English.

Languages evolve, that evolution is driven by their "worst" speakers. In so doing, they better serve the needs of our descendents. (This is true even of French, mon frere.)


There are more people in China learning English than there are speak English in the US.

This fact will mean English being the dominant world language for a long time. So, for example, when Chinese do business with other countries they will communicate in English, the effect being that anyone wanting to do business with China will have to speak English. It will continue to spread in such a manner.


Eurovision was interesting because almost all the songs were in English, but the UK still came last!

One of the areas where more study would be interesting is the whole area of the former Soviet Union. In all of these countries, the language of the educated middle class is local plus Russian. This is historic in much the same way as it is in India and Algeria. Many are of course learning English, but Russian clings on because it is still taught in schools, and because it is where the money is - so many from Central Asia go up to Russia to work that they need the language.

raquel samper

to dub or not to dub.
that was the question.
dubbing into ones local language has 2 negative results-
1.it prevents people from really learning the other language..be it english or spanish,or whatever.Listening to the original language would help kids learn it quickly.
2.it makes buying foreign tv shows easier than creating local product. this causes cultural penetration.what kids see what adults see, they want..the hollywood shows clothes way of life.
By not dubbing, you get people to learn english more quickly which is good for everyone today,and at same time you create a need for national productwhich promotes national styles ideas.

we are inglesgarantizado.com in murcia

Mark Liberman

A correction: Matthew Stuckwisch has informed me that Basque and Galician were given co-official status by the Spanish constitution of 1978.

I think that my general point remains valid, which is that the "globalizing" development of the European Union has increased rather than decreased speakers' interest in many minority languages, and has also made national governments more tolerant of linguistic diversity.

Stephen Jones

A long post by Roger. Some good points and some tendentious ones. The increase in Hindi newspapers represents an increase in literacy amongst the lower classes rather than a decline in English. And the Times of India still sells many more copies than the New York Times.

It is interesting to look at the circulation figures for the world's top 100 papers. http://www.wan-press.org/article2825.html
It is interesting that the circulation of the top papers in Japanese dwarf those of any other country or that there is not a single English speaking newspaper in the top ten (though the Sun is just outside at eleven).

It is quite wrong to use Japan as an example of the penetration in Asia, as Roger does. Probably because of a long tradition of universal education in Japanese going back to the eighteen-sixties the standard of English amongst Japanese is considered low both by the Japanese themselves and the long-suffering gaijin that are there teaching them.

Where English does stand out is when there is a need to use it as a bridge language. Years ago for a short period of time I had to take a job that involved cold-calling most countries in the world. The non-English speaking country where you got the best English at the end of the phone was by a long shot Malaysia (better even than Denmark). The reason of course is that you have three language groups living cheek-by-jowl: Bahasa Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. English is necessary as the bridge language between them.

Roger is correct to say Hindi is becoming somewhat more accepted in non-Hindi speaking parts of India as a result of Bollywood. There is still not the remotest chance that it will be accepted as the lingua franca of colonial administration by the Dravidian language speaking South. Indeed even Bollywood stars have limited penetration there. One of the reasons for the immense amount of advertising revenue that cricket attracts is that cricketers, unlike film stars or television personalities, do not have their recognition limited by language.

History teaches us that language change occurs in varied and unpredictable ways. What we are likely to see as a result of 'globalization' is a combination of creoles, pidgins, language change, stable and unstable diglossia, and in countries with a large number of native speakers of another language, good old-fashioned monolingualism.



While the economic, military and technical dominance of the US in the second half of the twentieth century and the rise of the Internet from the US is what propelled English to its present position, I think it's adaptability is what will keep it dominant. English is both complicated (to, too, two|bark-dog, bark-tree, barque-ship) and incredibly adaptable taking words and grammar from all languages. Since even its native speakers barely understand it, there is not that much resistance to non-native speakers creative use of pronunciation, spelling and grammar. However, its dominance will not be US English. It will be an English with new words and new grammar (see the 2nd Amendment for the impact of grammar changes over time) contributed from all over the world. Not that the other major languages will be going bye-bye anytime soon, but I could see a world with Internet or business or technical English that is widely understood and a whole host of local dialects plus original native languages.



Christianity had this effect on runes and barbaric languages, didn't it?

The germanic survived but not without being latinized.

Personally. I see English turning into a different type of character language. Hey, it gives new work to typographers.


Nobody "owns" English any more, least of all the English. The fact is that English is the most convenient medium available, and easily the most flexible. The note about the Indian experience is telling indeed: most Indians recognize that the best way to get ahead includes mastering English. As a result, educated Indians speak several languages and usually think of both English and their "mother tongue" as their native languages. In addition, most educated Indians also speak Hindi, other Indian languages, and one or two European languages (French, Spanish, German, etc.). It's no big deal if you start early.

The mistake usually made in the U.S. is the nonsensical "bilingual education" model. What works is immersion, as the Canadians and others have proven. Globalization won't kill other languages, but perhaps it will make English the standard tool of communication--which won't be bad at all--a standard tool is always a good thing. Besides, it allows the English to feel as if they still rule the world in something!



I think we're underestimating technology's impact on language. I have seen demo's of devices that will translate from English to Mandarin and back again. When computers get fast enough, real-time translation will occur (where I can call up someone in China and they'll hear me in their local dialect). This kind of thing is probably much closer than we realize.

Shawn Russell

The person who makes the assessment about there being a lot of bilinguals seems to have misunderstood the original post by Hitchings. Half the people in the world (call that 3.5 billion) speak one of eleven langauges. Half the world's languages (approx. 3,000) are spoken by fewer than 5,000 people - so the total number of speakers of those 3,000 languages cannot exceed 15 million.


All that matters is what a kid speaks with his friends. A language that a kid speaks with his grandparents becomes at best half-understood; a language he speaks with his parents may survive a generation more.

Deb Morrissey

There are already quite a few books on the topic (several of which I'm planning to read).

in fits of print

one of the (numerous) successes of the show "Firefly" was that rather than following, say, "Star Trek"--which attempted to convey "progress" by having its characters speak english with exaggerated formality and exactitude--"Firefly"'s characters speak a far more probable amalgamation of bad english and mandarin chinese.

[/daily required gratuitous Firefly reference]


What ever language prevails, I hope a word sounds like it is spelled.


As an American, I know from personal experience that learning one or more foreign languages can be a huge boost to one's career in today's global economy.

I worked for three years as an English-language speech writer at the global headquarters of a European multinational where I put my German skills to good use.

That job would not have been possible if English weren't the global language of business. On the other hand, if I hadn't studied German in the first place, it's unlikely I would have ever gotten that job---so it can cut both ways.

Incidentally, I'm hoping my son will start learning foreign languages soon. Except this time, my hope is that he develops an interest in Mandarin. Times change.


As with the first expert, English will continue to be the global language - a creole because English itself is a creole, formed from the pidgin that developed between, first speakers of Anglo-Saxon, the original language, and Old Norse, and between the post-Norse English tongue and Norman French, after the Battle of Hastings.

This is why English is so easy to learn - and hard to master.


follow the money. right now more money made using english, when and if it will change, so is the language.


Over at the Kamusi Project there's a really interesting blog post from a few weeks ago, called "The End of English?", where the project editor lays out a pretty convincing argument that English may be reaching its global peak:



My comment submitted earlier (L.H.O.O.Q.) is too far off topic to merit inclusion, and should therefore be omitted from consideration.

One of the problems with the NYTimes blogs is that they do not give the poster the opportunity to remove blogs for any of a number of reasons, including precision of argument, grammar, spelling and topicality.