English became the global language because of the power and influence of English speakers and English-speaking countries in modern times.
In a nutshell, Britain was the leading colonial power during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the originator of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, while the US was the world’s leading economic, political, military, scientific, and cultural power throughout the 20th century and into the early 21st century. English is therefore the language most associated with how the modern world operates or, in other words, the international system.
Some scholars have predicted this situation will last well into the future, like John Honey, who says, “English is the world language – at least for the next 500 years, or until the Martians arrive.”
He’s probably being facetious when he talks about a Martian landing, but his point is it would take a monumental event to dislodge English as the global language.
When we look around the world today, we do see events which could be described as monumental, not the least of which is China’s rise.
China’s future is by no means certain: it could become a superpower, a major power, a threat or even go into decline.
But whatever happens will have implications for the global linguistic order.
There are three possible scenarios.
The first scenario is continuation, in which English remains the global language.
China faces an array of political, economic, environmental and social problems which could overwhelm it. Because the attraction of Chinese is based primarily on China’s political importance and its economy, if its development were to stagnate or even go backwards, people will be less interested in learning Chinese.
If China is a threat to the current international system, or is perceived as such, it is likely to lead to resistance to learning Chinese and to the very idea of Chinese as a global language. When I talk with my students about the future of English, Southeast Asian students in particular seem not to want Chinese to become the global language. This is likely due to historical relations between China and Southeast Asia, and contemporary issues such as tensions over the South China Sea.
If people don’t accept Chinese they won’t learn it or use it for various purposes in their lives.
Chinese would still be learned by military and intelligence services personnel for security reasons, but to be a global language must have a much broader appeal.
In both cases, Chinese would not be as appealing and attractive as English, and English would remain the global language.
Co – Existence
The second scenario is co-existence, in which English and Chinese are both global languages.
China could be one of a number of powerful and important countries with none powerful enough to dominate the world. In such circumstances, English would not be the only language that’s seen as important and Chinese would likely increase its use and status. There are already signs this is happening.
African students are increasingly interested in learning Chinese because of job opportunities created by China’s Investment in African countries, the ease of getting study visas following restrictions put in place by the US and Europe, and cheaper tuition fees at Chinese Universities. In English speaking countries, more bilingual Chinese/English schools are opening in response to the growing perception that acquiring Chinese will be important in the future.
The third scenario is replacement, in which Chinese becomes the global language instead of English.
If China becomes the world’s most powerful country, or superpower, it would be able to use its power to shape the international system, much like the US did following World War II. This included establishing important international organisations like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, and sponsoring re-development through the Marshall Plan.
One notable Chinese phenomenon in this vein is the Belt & Road Initiative, which is about connecting China to the rest of the world through roads, railways and ports, and involves substantial amounts of investment across the world.
China is also attempting to position itself as a leader on global issues at the same time as the USA retreats from them. These include free trade and globalisation, climate change and space exploration. This is another similarity to English, which was helped in becoming the global language because of its association with the inventions of the Industrial Revolution and then later on by its association with developments in science and technology in the US.
If China’s initiatives are successful, Chinese will be the language associated with new developments, ideas, etc., and consequently, have great appeal and attraction to people.
Equally importantly, as its power grows, China is also likely to want to have Chinese used more on the global stage as a matter of national pride.
Alternatively, if there was a confrontation between China and the US and its allies, and China won, it would also mean China would be in a position to establish a new International system under its leadership, and Chinese would be the language most associated with that system. This would, however, likely be accompanied by at least some degree of resistance.
Any change to the global status of English might seem very unlikely at present. But, as David Crystal reminds us, in the Middle Ages the idea that Latin wouldn’t be the language of education and scholarship would have seemed ridiculous, and in the 18th century the idea that French would cease to be the language of culture and diplomacy would also have seemed ridiculous. Yet both of those things did indeed happen.
We shouldn’t be too hasty in dismissing the possibility of Chinese as the Future Global Language.