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The Great Debate 2: Artificial primacy of English is being forgotten.

ostlerblog
Nicholas Ostler responds to Lane Greene's article that defended the idea that MT cannot win the race against English to become the new lingua franca. The growth in populism that has been evident all over the world in the last few years suggests that, if there is a change in demand it has not been towards international, often multilingual, communication, but for a retreat to emphasis on local – monolingual – communication.

I thank Lane for his kind remarks about our 2014 debate (see Lane Greene's blog), and in particular about what I had said. I don’t dispute the factual claims he makes for now: the greater spread of early instruction in English to young people across Europe, leading to greater fluency and ease of use. (He may even be right about the changing linguistic attitude of the typical French waiter!) But he also accepted the increasing power of machine translation in its neural version. Rather, he suggested there was something like race between these two independent flows of linguistic improvement, a race he contended could only be won by the improvement in English language learning.

This is an empirical question, however, and the outcome is not a foregone conclusion, not least because the increasing facility of machine translation is available universally across the globe, while provision of early instruction in English is dependent on local provision, which happens to be most evident in our continental vicinity, viz the countries of Europe.

2018-09-10However, considering the different forces gathering pace in the environment in which we communicate as between languages, it is important to separate supply from demand. All that Lane has asserted is a growth in supply of language instruction in early childhood, as well as a growth in the correctness of the conversion offered by machine translation: but is there also a corresponding growth in demand, which would ensure take-up of these new capacities? If not, then each improvement might be relatively useless, like pushing on a string.

A priori, the growth in populism that has been evident all over the world in the last few years suggests that, if there is a change in demand it has not been towards international, often multilingual, communication, but for a retreat to emphasis on local – monolingual – communication. And even if it is true that multilingual, especially English-language, competence is being grown in many junior school communities (or audiences for children’s media), this is unlikely to be matched by a growing demand for such services in our societies. Small children, more than anyone else, live in small local communities.

At the same time, the intrinsic attractiveness of using English (to those for whom it is foreign) is not evidently growing; and “founder effects”, which used to favour English in the context of digital information gathering (since the original inventors and developers used English more than any other language) are now quite passé: such media can now be applied in any language (and any script known to Unicode), and indeed – in some cases – even if the language lacks a written script. English may once have been seen as “the language of science” or “the language of business”; not any more, or no more than any other language that any user wants to employ. There may once have been an “inherited prejudice” in favour of using English for high-level studies, but increasingly, the crucial property a language should have is accessibility to the people doing the study.

As the convertibility of information in different languages becomes better and better known, the artificial primacy of English – which certainly did grow up in the 20th century – is being forgotten. There is no longer “a race” between the spread of English and the opening up of other languages to be used in any way their users please. Instead, we see the genuinely new uses of languages (as in Social Media) being available immediately in all the languages that can be processed digitally (which is essentially just “all languages”). And inter-conversion between languages – partial or systematic – also becoming a reality that will dissipate the one remaining reason to work in an established global language (such as, most recently, English).

But by the irony of fate, this is taking place in a period of world history where – if anything – locally based populism, and marks of political domesticity, are (for no good business or scientific reason) coming to be preferred, at least for the time being.

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Nicholas Ostler

Nicholas Ostler is author of three books on language history, Empires of the Word (2005), Ad Infinitum (on Latin - 2007), and The Last Lingua Franca (2010). He is also Chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, a global charitable organization registered in England and Wales. A research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, he has also been a visiting professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, and L.N. Gumilev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. He holds an M.A. from Oxford University in Latin, Greek, philosophy and economics, and a 1979 Ph.D. in linguistics from M.I.T. He is an academician in the Russian Academy of Linguistics.
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