Is English still the world’s lingua franca?

striped globe cropAs the ever-expanding translation industry brings people more content in their native language, and on the eve of talks aiming to set out Britain’s exit from the European Union, it has been suggested that English is starting to diminish as the world’s lingua franca.

This blog post seeks to establish if there’s any truth to this idea.

It all starts with school

Once Britain leaves the EU, English will be the official language of just two member states: the Republic of Ireland and Malta. So will its use decrease in Europe?

The working languages of the EU are French, German and English. In day-to-day operations, officials usually choose a language to work in; this largely depends on the preferences of those present. Non-native speakers of the three working languages would probably prefer to work in the language they are most confident in, and for those from countries where English is the primary foreign language on the school curriculum, the choice will be clear. As such, rumours of a Brexit-lead demise of English seem to be grossly exaggerated at this stage.

Thinking globally; it’s not all about the 2%

Did you know that only 2% of all the world’s Anglophones speak Oxford English? As well as being the majority language for 6 countries, English is spoken widely in many others. As such, English is not only a language for international media and diplomacy, but also used in many places at a domestic level. The implications for lingua-franca status thus become more vast.

Translation budgets

It is now the case that translations are starting to make foreign-made products more readily available in the consumer’s target language – be that film, literature or commerce items. However, a translation budget only stretches so far, and we all know that machine translation still leaves a lot to be desired. Until a time when simultaneous interpreting equipment becomes totally reliable and freely accessible to all (unlikely), we will continue to need a lingua franca.

If not English, then what?

If English is to be replaced by another language as a lingua franca, then which are the main contenders? A popular suggestion is Mandarin-Chinese, which has the highest number of speakers in the world. However, a lack of geographical diversity and the difficulty of the language for learners accustomed to the Latin alphabet make this less likely. Arabic is also cited as contender, being much more geographically diverse. However, spoken Arabic can vary a lot from country-to-country, making it difficult for a learner to decide which version to study. If we were to bet on one language, it would be Spanish; a truly global language, quite easy to pick up and the native tongue for many emerging economies. That being said, Spanish is not currently dominant within diplomacy at the global level.

Our verdict

In spite of the growth of technology and Britain’s changing role in Europe, we are confident that English will remain the global lingua franca within our lifetime. An increased use of translated content for native-speakers is a great thing, but unless we all one day use Babel Fish as seen in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we will nevertheless continue to need a lingua franca alongside this. Across a broad range of considerations, English remains the top choice for now.