Are translation programs and economic developments breaking the power of English??
Hoarding English may appeal to the cultural pessimist as much as the cultural optimist. For, to begin with the positive, the dominance of Oxford English and its correct pronunciation, which was taught to us in school as the only good English, has long since been broken.
English has become our world language in the last two decades, enriched by all possible accents and idiosyncrasies of formulation from other countries. In BBC broadcasts, Indian, Arabic or Asian-colored English appears one after the other; differences can be recognized not only in the accent, but also in the wording and sentence structure. It is noticeable in everything, even in private dealings, that the dogma of the only correct English has fallen. That is quite a liberation.
And yet the English lingua franca, as heard in the center of Berlin, at conferences, at dinners with guests from other countries, or in business conversations on the telephone, is actually impoverished. Most Germans, for example, now speak it with an American accent, which does not necessarily make it sound better. Cultural pessimism, however, is not yet correct, but rather the – perhaps related – takeover of business and News English, including gangly full-flavoured phrases. Everything sounds somehow the same, as if the language had again sought a new, bland corset for itself in traffic.
Nicholas Ostler, a British linguist and as such proficient in 26 languages "proficient", educated at Oxford and a doctoral student of Noam Chomsky at MIT in the early 1970s, has written a book on the history of world languages and in particular on the most successful world language in history: English. "The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel" is the title of the book, and the title already hints at what reviewers have picked out as the book’s interesting thesis: The end of English as a world language and the return of "national" languages.
English will disappear as a lingua franca, Ostler said, because its future is not in the hands of the 330 million who learn English as a first language – a population that is not growing – but depends much more on countries outside the Anglophone heartlands. And they could come to the conclusion that learning English was not necessary for a long time.
Ostler bases this idea, which runs counter to everything that parents, kindergartners, teachers and education officials proclaim as imperative, also on the (real?) prospect that translation and language-recognition programs will work so quickly and well in the future that people will be able to concentrate entirely on their native language.
In the past, governments have repeatedly abandoned an established lingua franca with the "stroke of a pen" for ideological reasons. English did not necessarily have to survive the end of the economic and political dominance of the English-speaking powers.
Technological progress, according to the linguist, does not necessarily have to work in favor of the dominant world language. The broad outline of the Internet shows a move toward linguistic diversity, not concentration. Just as the book culture did not further confirm Latin as a lingua franca, as it seemed at the beginning, but the printing press made room for other, also unofficial, written languages, the development could now go in a completely different direction than that which is predicted everywhere for English.
However plausible this development may sound and however much credence may be given to the thesis that English could lose its dominance as a world language in the future, there are grave doubts, especially in view of the gross insecurities in conversation at the slightest misunderstanding of words, as to whether it will really be the translation and language software that could replace a cross-border lingua franca.