The language of empire

Why English will keep America's influence from waning.

By Ali Wyne

It's easy to be pessimistic about the United States' standing in the world these days. The financial crisis shamed Wall Street for reckless behavior at a time when China's economic clout is fast rising. Leaders at the G-20 called for a multi-polar world, even as their prescriptions looked to be self-fulfilling. Even the U.S. National Intelligence Council concluded that the United States "will be less dominant" a quarter of the way into the new century in last year's Global Trends 2025 report.

But for those who claim that the post-American world is a fait accompli, there is one big problem: The English language is winning hearts and minds faster than politics ever can. With the June 10 addition of "noob" (a pejorative description of a newcomer to a particular task or group) to its lexicon, English will boast one million words - twice as many as Cantonese, four times as many as Spanish, and 10 times as many as French. Half the world's people are projected to be speaking English by 2015. And so long as English is on track to become the world's unofficial language, the United States will likely be center stage.

The stats say it all. In mid-2007, the International Herald Tribune stated that "English is spoken in some form by three times as many nonnative speakers as native speakers." English is a first language for 400 million people, and a fluent second for between 300 and 500 million more, the IHT wrote. Add on top of that the 750 million who have studied English as a foreign language and you have well over 1 billion members of the English-speaking world. Every globally influential newspaper is either written in English or has an English-language version. The same is nearly true for science, where more than 90 percent of the world's major journals are printed in English. With all this at stake, it's no surprise that the global market for English-as-a-second-language training products and services is worth $50 billion (that's more than Lithuania's 2008 GDP).

Why the English explosion? It's all about upward mobility. In China, America's putative superpower replacement, learning English is considered a gateway to middle-class security; 300 million people speak it there, and another 350 million people speak it in India. According to a recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, between 96 and 100 percent of people in China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam believe children should learn English. Their goal is reflected in the more than 90 percent of Japanese elementary schools that offer English programs. Children in China start learning the language in third grade and more than 50,000 English-training centers there offer further instruction. Chris Gibson, the British Council's director for South India, aims to have every South Indian speaking it by 2010, at which point he believes that English will be a codified world language (Penguin Books' operations in India, meanwhile, are salivating at what they see as the world's fastest-growing English-language market).

Asian countries aren't alone in their anglophilia. Since 1998, Argentinean students have been required to take two hours of English per week from fourth grade through high school. That same year, Chile mandated that government-run schools begin offering English instruction starting in fifth rather than seventh grade. English is the language of choice in the classrooms of many African countries. And even continental Europe has placed growing emphasis on learning English. The Dean of MBA programs at France's ESSEC Business School, Laurent Bibard, told The New York Times that the school is adopting English because "it's the language for international teaching." English, he continued, "allows students to be able to come from anyplace in the world and for our students -- the French ones -- to go everywhere."

The trends suggest that English's influence is primed to increase in the decades ahead. Consider this forecast by the Director of Asia for the McKinsey Global Institute: "By 2100, the world will go from a 7,000-language planet to a couple of hundred languages at the most...English will be the major medium of communication in many countries and the second-most prevalent in China, Japan, Korea, and much of Africa and Latin America - as it already is in most of Europe."

Language quite literally anchors human progress - it allows children to learn, authors to write, consumers to buy, companies to produce, leaders to negotiate, people to travel, and enables just about anything else that you can imagine. Whether it's Latin during the first century or French in the 18th, great powers and global lingua francas tend to go together. So while the unipolar moment may be over, the growing influence of English will ensure that the United States doesn't fade into the sunset anytime soon.

Ali Wyne is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Photo: GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images