World languages are as old as the world itself. As far as history can remember, certain languages were used by different nations to communicate. In the past some notable auxiliary languages have been Latin, Greek, French, Persian and Arabic, which were each spoken across the vast empires that spread them. Nowadays the main world language is considered to be English. While there may be some linguistic factors that make this the case, this is also largely because of the colonial and economic influence of the English speaking world. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that nothing lasts forever. If and when English one day loses the top spot on the global language charts, which might take its place?
Spanish rivals English in terms of native speakers. Due to Spain’s colonial past, it also has a wide spread of speakers across the globe. It is the main language of Central and South America (minus Brazil), and is by far the second language of economic supergiant the United States, with a projected 40 million native speakers of Spanish expected there by the year 2020. But outside the western hemisphere, Spanish also enjoys official status as a language of the African Union, and has had official status in the Philippines as well.
Spanish’s chances depend largely on its status in the United States, which means its fate is closely aligned to that of English as well. With Hollywood and the US film industry featuring more and more both native and non-native Spanish speaking characters, Spanish-English bilingualism is becoming increasingly normalised in the country. But is this a trend that will catch on?
Mandarin Chinese is the most commonly spoken language in the world, with nearly a billion native speakers. Studying it is also becoming more popular as well, with it being offered in more and more schools, universities, and language schools across the world. This trend is largely fuelled by China’s booming economy, and the prospect of opening up an enormous and largely untapped market that is otherwise fairly inaccessible for non-Chinese speakers.
Many people have speculated that Chinese will inevitably replace English. It looks possible that in time China’s economy might even leapfrog that of the United States. Just as it was once probably completely unthinkable that people in China and Japan would one day use English to communicate with each other, it might seem completely unimaginable to think that people from Germany and Spain might conduct business meetings in Chinese now. But is that idea really so far-fetched?
Russian was the official language of the Soviet Union. Since then, some might argue that it’s had its day. But nearly 25 years later, it is still spoken across many of the countries that were once a part of it as an auxiliary language, often instead of English.
Russian’s main asset is its enormous geographical spread. It’s a language that sits between Europe, Asia, and North America, and the huge economic and trading centres in each of those. Recently there have been a few signs that it might be making a comeback. Plans to build a tunnel between Russia and Alaska and connect freight trains from China to the US would give Russia (and Russian) a very important strategic position. And a number of countries have recently announced that they will be increasing the amount of schools offering Russian alongside English, such as Cyprus and Egypt. As one of the official languages of the UN, Russian can’t quite be written off yet!
German is the most commonly spoken language in the European Union, with nearly 100 million native speakers. Germany’s economy is the fourth largest in the world, and its location right in the middle of Europe makes it an important language strategically. Germany is also the second most popular destination for immigrants in the world, after the United States.
It may seem like German’s chances are slim, though. It used to be taught much more widely than it is now, but has been replaced by English in many cases. With the current economic situation, though, things are starting to change. As more people see moving to Germany as a real possibility in their lives, more people are taking an interest in the language, and numbers are up. But can German take advantage of its new strategic importance and maintain the momentum?
Perhaps a bit of an outsider, but Turkish actually has more of a chance than you might think. Turkish is huge, with nearly 70 million native speakers living mainly in Turkey, which is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Due to the history of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish has also influenced a large number of other languages as well and left loan words all over the Balkans, as well as significant Turkish speaking minorities in many of those countries.
But Turkish’s real break lies slightly further afield. As the largest of the Turkic languages, it is closely related to most of the languages across Central Asia, such as Azeri, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tatar and Kazakh. Speakers of these languages can often understand lots of Turkish without studying it. Now that Russian influence in the region is receding, Turkey is also investing heavily in its chain of language schools and culture centres around the world, the Yunus Emre Institute, to encourage people to study the language. This, along with Turkey’s relaxed visa policy and an increasing number of flights to Istanbul, is helping to establish Turkey’s influence in the region and rival that of Moscow. It’s hard to predict, but is Turkish about to gain renewed influence on the world stage?
In 2012 Alex Rawlings was named Britain’s most multilingual student after being tested for fluency in 11 different languages. He now lives in Budapest where he is learning Hungarian, and works as a teacher of English, German, Russian and Greek. He is heavily involved in the online language learning community, and helps organise annual International Polyglot Conferences worldwide. He blogs at www.rawlangs.com, and tweets at @RawLangs_Blog.