How English’s Global Prevalence Falls Short

Back in 2012, in an article for the New York Times, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers questioned whether the “substantial investment” to learn another language was “universally worthwhile” given rapidly changing machine translation and the “fragmentation of languages” worldwide. Over time, he said, mastering a language would become “less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa, or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.”

The subsequent years of turmoil, uncertainty, and geopolitical conflicts have proven Summers wrong. Although AI generated translation has become increasingly accurate, it lacks the essential human element and the cultural sensitivity that comes with learning a language. And while English has continued to be the favored lingua franca in many parts of the world, other languages like Chinese and Spanish are increasingly chipping away at its dominance. English, long considered the primary language for business, has never been as universal or sufficient as conventionally believed.

As the world’s economy has become increasingly globalized, employers across sectors, from multinationals to small businesses and government agencies, now look for workers with multiple language skills. That leaves much of the monolingual Anglosphere at a major disadvantage.

The indifference, or resistance, among native English speakers to learning other languages is a recurring topic of discussion and concern among globally aware policymakers. Across the English-speaking world, commentators criticize the “complacency” and the failure of countries to prepare young people for the global economy. Data from the U.S. is especially revealing. Though U.S. students are enrolling in foreign languages in record numbers, most of them opt to take classes and even entire degree programs offered in English, a growing possibility especially in European universities.

With the decline in part due to budget cuts, enrollment in language courses, from primary through higher education, is steadily declining. Some higher education institutions have made foreign languages a condition for admission or permit students to “test out” of coursework if they can demonstrate proficiency. Some have nearly eviscerated their foreign language programs. Most recently, West Virginia University’s decision to eliminate all foreign language degrees made national headlines. The irony is that many universities are embracing an international mission, opening campuses abroad, recruiting students from other countries, and claiming to prepare citizens of the world. The apparent assumption is that the world speaks English.

That assumption rings hollow on the facts. Only one quarter of the world’s population has some degree of competence in English. Even those who claim conversational skills often don’t operate at a high level of proficiency. And so monolingual English speakers cannot communicate with three-quarters of the world, nor can they tap into knowledge created in those languages. Beyond the limits this may place on their career and business opportunities, it can also make English-speakers more politically and culturally isolated, by leaving them unable to access how the world digests their politics or fully understand newsworthy developments abroad. Print and broadcast media—and increasingly social media too—speak in many voices and worldviews.

Unlike the Anglosphere, most of the world is at least bilingual, with English often in the mix. That is true within E.U. countries, partly the result of migration and partly encouraged by education policies, as well as the vast store of intersecting languages in postcolonial countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Many people in these countries continue to choose adding English to their diverse linguistic repertoire. That’s why English today has 1.35 billion speakers worldwide, compared to around 1.1 billion for Mandarin Chinese, 600 million for Hindi, and 550 million for Spanish. That’s despite English trailing Mandarin Chinese and Spanish in the number of speakers for whom the language is the first one learned.

To what degree the decision to learn English is a matter of choice, chance, or expediency varies widely within and between countries. The same can be said for English speaking countries, where the study of languages as well as study abroad opportunities are unequally available depending on race and socioeconomic factors. A form of “elite multilingualism” with English as a key component is spreading worldwide and leaving many native English speakers on the sidelines.

It is not unreasonable to foresee another lingua franca pushing English aside someday. Spanish, spoken on five major continents, might prove to be the most viable successor. In the meantime, rather than reveling in English’s dominance or tolerating it as a necessary evil, key decision makers should accept English as a core component of multilingualism and decisively move toward educating informed citizens who can transcend linguistic and cultural borders. It’s a message the Anglosphere most needs to hear.