John H. McWhorter published an article earlier this month with lots of food for thought, especially for ELTs. It’s being shared through different sites at this point, but it was originally posted on The Wall Street Journal under the title “What Will the World Speak in 2115?”
I’d encourage you to read the entire post. It’s packed with points to reflect on. Here are some of my thoughts and reactions.
- Is English truly easy to learn? McWhorter observes that English is being given preference as a global language because of its relative simplicity. He prompts us to ask, “Why use an invented language like Esperanto when we already have a real one being used for universal communication?” I agree that English spares language learners from having to master additional forms because we don’t have gender or cases. Nevertheless, if one’s native language has such features, then learning to communicate with their absence can be a challenge in itself, right? Also, the English alphabet has fewer letters compared to the Cyrillic alphabet, for example, but at least Russian is phonetic. English makes speakers grapple with multiple spellings for the same sound.
- Will English threaten the existence of other languages? I certainly hope not. McWhorter also seems to appreciate the richness of linguistic diversity, but he predicts that English will become more widespread, and while it won’t be the sole language on the planet, thousands of other languages will die out. This trend is not entirely connected to the rise of English. It’s a matter of numbers, too. There are increasingly smaller populations of people speaking certain tongues.
- If everyone is speaking English, what will happen to cultural identity? McWhorter didn’t explore this question, but it’s one that came to my mind as I read his post. The use of English will continue to strengthen, but I don’t believe cultural identity will follow suit in becoming streamlined. McWhorter wrote: “The spread of English just means that earthlings will tend to use a local language in their own orbit and English for communication beyond.” He assured us that the Japanese will still speak Japanese. So, we’ll still hear Russian in Russia and Italian in Italy. Furthermore, those cultures will continue with their customs and lifestyles. However, I suppose there will be more borrowing and adapting among cultures. The optimist in me predicts more common ground and increased tolerance on the global scene without the need to chip away at a particular country’s cultural core.
- Could there ever be only one universal language? We already have variations and dialects of English. That won’t change. In fact, we will likely see more. Just as we now have American English and it’s distinct from British English, there will probably be more Englishes…and more deviations from so-called standards. McWhorter predicts continued simplification of all languages, but I see the lines of adaptations diverging according to geography. Our job as teachers will be to promote acceptance of variations, but adherence to enough standards so that we don’t live out the confusion that surrounded the Tower of Babel, a story McWhorter alludes to when he advocates universal comprehension.
- If everyone is speaking English, will we be out of a job? First of all, McWhorter is talking about 2115, so you and I won’t be around to deal with job market demands at that time. Second, there will always be work for English language teachers; we just have to continue to adapt. In 2115, ELTs will be teaching mostly young beginners, while intermediate and advanced students will largely be adults. Perhaps as the changes continue to unfold around us, we’ll be focusing more pragmatics to facilitate the universality of English words and structures. If that’s the case, we might be doing more collaborative teaching to help bridge gaps, like the online class I co-taught last fall with my UK colleague. We touched upon differences in form, but also spent a good amount of time discussing similarities and differences in perception.
What are you predictions for the future of ESL?
McWhorter, J. H. (2011, January 2). What will the world speak in 2115? Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-the-world-will-speak-in-2115-1420234648