The common language of the future


In this month’s ‘Translation industry updates’ post, we’ll be looking at some lingua francas that existed in the past, and thinking about what the next one might be. 


A lingua franca is any language used as a means of communication by people who don’t speak one another’s language. Lingua francas have been used throughout time wherever there has been a need for people from different language groups to be able to speak together, whether this is due to trade, war, scientific development, or a whole host of other factors. 


English is currently one of the world’s dominant languages as a result of its widespread adoption by non-native speakers and its codification as the official language of fields as diverse as scientific research and aviation. But it’s not the only language that’s used as a bridge between native speakers of different languages. In Africa, which is one of the world’s most linguistically diverse regions, French is used as a lingua franca across much of West and Central Africa, as is Swahili throughout much of East Africa. We could even argue that in some ways, Modern Standard Arabic is a type of lingua franca across the many different dialects of Arabic that are used in the Middle East and North Africa.


Lingua francas have existed wherever populations of different languages have needed to interact together, and they continue to serve an important role. But what will the language landscape look like in the future? Could another lingua franca emerge to take the place of English?


It’s common to say that in the future we might all be speaking Mandarin, given the economic growth of China and the fact that it has overwhelmingly more native speakers than any other language in the world (just shy of one billion, according to Britannica). However, the pictogram-based writing system and the different tones used when the language is spoken orally both mean that it’s a difficult language for people to acquire.


Or how about another Asian language, like Korean? This continues to be one of the most widely-studied languages among young language learners, due to South Korea’s impressive cultural influence. After all, part of the reason that French has spread widely and loaned words to other languages is that it has been widely admired as representing culture and prestige, and these days South Korea is making waves in everything from fashion to films. And unlike some other languages of East Asia, Korean has a phonetic alphabet which was designed to be easy to use, so it’s feasible to see that large numbers of non-native speakers could acquire a command of the language.


Looking at the numbers of both native and non-native speakers, Spanish is a language which is hugely on the rise. As well as having a substantial population of speakers in the USA, Spanish is spoken as a native language across more than twenty countries, and it is probably the world’s most frequently studied language after English. It would be an easy language for native speakers of other Romance languages to learn, and it’s one of the six official languages of the United Nations. The idea of French making a resurgence also seems possible considering that demographic growth in sub-Saharan Africa means the language has an increasing number of speakers, and France already has considerable form in being used as an international language of diplomacy. 


Or what about adopting either an extinct language, or a constructed one? Although the idea of everybody suddenly speaking in Ancient Greek or Latin might sound fanciful, it’s not impossible to bring an ancient language back from the brink. Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language for many centuries but was revived and is now spoken by millions of people natively. If we returned to one of the languages of antiquity then at least we would not be favouring any modern population of speakers, and the same would be true if we tried using a constructed language, rather than one that emerged organically. 


And although people are quick to disregard Esperanto, the constructed language par excellence of the nineteenth century, the phenomenon of creating languages is actually quite strong at the moment, at least in sci-fi circles. Given how strongly language is tied to identity, it might be hard for a language to gain popular appeal if people don’t feel personally invested in it. But part of the reason that other languages spread so widely is that they were imposed on other populations, not necessarily always because they were willingly and enthusiastically adopted. Perhaps there’s something to be said for embracing a culturally-neutral, apolitical language that belongs to nobody and everybody. 


And then lastly, there’s the biggest question of all, which is whether lingua francas will continue to play a key role in an increasingly globalised economy and culturally mixed world, or whether technological developments will eventually make the idea redundant. Lingua francas spread as a practical necessity when speakers of other languages needed to conduct transactions or otherwise organise themselves in real time, but with a lot of international correspondence now being online rather than face-to-face, it’s possible to see UCL’s argument that there may come a time when we use machine translation for instant communication, meaning that the need to adopt a common language becomes obsolete. And while people could still continue to learn and speak foreign languages for other reasons, it may not be an immediate practical requirement in the way it was in centuries past, which would essentially mean that English is the last lingua franca.


Do you agree with our forecasts, or do you think another global language will emerge? Let us know your ideas in the comments. 




Britannica, Languages by number of native speakers



UCL, ‘English is often considered the de facto global language…’



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