English Today, Mandarin by 2020?

    by Mark Glaser
    September 25, 2006

    i-7017459e9b2fb9b2ad3de99e2bda4802-Imagining the Internet.jpg
    Because the Internet and computers were home-grown in America, it’s no surprise that the Internet naming convention (.com, .net, .org) and computer keyboards and software interfaces are based on the English language. That has helped to push English into the dominant second language worldwide for people doing business across borders.

    In a fascinating survey done by Pew Internet & American Life and Elon University, various experts weighed in on possible future scenarios for 2020, including the following:

    In 2020, networked communications have leveled the world into one big political, social, and economic space in which people everywhere can meet and have verbal and visual exchanges regularly, face-to-face, over the Internet. English will be so indispensable in communicating that it displaces some languages.

    It’s a controversial contention — that English will actually displace other languages — and most respondents (57%) disagreed with that statement. Many people thought that automated translation technologies will improve to the point where language differences might evaporate in instant messaging or email conversations. Perhaps that could make a difference, too, in the amount and diversity of media we can consume online. If we could understand the vast array of Mandarin-language blogs, could we learn more about what’s going on in China?


    Internet architecture pioneer and Microsoft wireless networking guru Christian Huitema responded to the survey scenario by noting how technology had actually enabled communication across language divides — rather than forcing people to learn English in every instance.

    “Computer technology increases the frequency of communication, which creates a desire to communicate across boundaries,” Huitema wrote. “But the technology also enables communication in multiple languages, using various alphabets. In fact by 2020 we might see automatic translation systems.”

    Others pointed out that the Internet and technology has actually helped to preserve dying languages by allowing people to communicate with other people who may have been dispersed around the world.


    Steve Cisler, who is working on satellite-based public-access Internet projects, answered the survey question like this: “Indigenous languages will have a hard time changing to accommodate the impact of popular media languages, though more people will use ICT [information and communication technology] to try to revitalize some languages or spread the use of them outside of local places.”

    There was also a thesis that the English language itself would be transformed by 2020, absorbing words and slang from other languages, and even taking on some of the abbreviations that proliferate in electronic communication (e.g. IMHO = in my humble opinion). One respondent felt that English would break into many sublanguages, while another considered the possibility that there would be more English dialects created by the mixing of so many cultures in the online realm.

    The Rise of Mandarin

    Many experts who answered the survey noted that as millions more Chinese started to go online, Mandarin might challenge the dominance of English as the lingua franca. One structural change that could help other languages prosper online is coming from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The group is finally testing foreign-language domain names so that people around the world could enjoy a web-surfing experience completely in their own language. That might well speed the rise of other languages such as Mandarin online.

    Bret Fausett, who runs the ICANN blog, and U.S. Internet policy analyst Alan Inouye both predicted a decline in English dominance online.

    “We’re at the peak of the English language on the Internet,” Fausett wrote. “As internationalized domain names are introduced over the next few years, allowing users to conduct their entire online experience in their native language, English will decline as the central language of the Internet.”

    Inouye didn’t like the idea of English “displacing” other languages. He said English would continue to be the de facto international language, but saw hope for the rise in Mandarin online.

    “There are countervailing forces against English language dominance on networks,” Inouye wrote. “Networks such as the Internet facilitate the development of communities of common interests and languages among people who may be widely dispersed geographically. Also, we will see a dramatic increase in Chinese-language content.”

    One of the great features of the Pew/Elon survey is that they allow people to submit their own takes on the questions posed to experts on a special website. For this particular scenario on the English language displacing other languages, Pew/Elon has a full page of quotes from people who remained anonymous. On that page, many people spoke up about the rise of Mandarin online, and against the notion that English would dominate in 2020. Their consensus was that English is a bridging language, and will continue to be one, but it will not largely displace or invalidate other languages.

    Here’s a smattering of anonymous quotes on the subject:

    “Hindi or Chinese might be the dominant internet language by [2020].”

    “The role of English has only gone down over the past decade. Maybe it’s time for us all to learn Mandarin. That would make sense.”

    “Local languages and cultures will continue to show resilience. There will be a backlash. English at a low level will spread wider, but indigenous languages will be just as indispensable.”

    “It has often been said that a language is a dialect that has its own army. Just as languages often spread through conquest, English will continue to spread through economic conquest. Not that English-speaking countries will necessarily rule, but the need for ever-bigger markets will force consolidation into those languages which already have the most speakers. English will be one of those languages, but not the only one.”

    “English currently dominates the Internet; that will continue to decrease irrespective of the fact that English will continue to grow as language of science and education. The Internet will become much more language diverse!”

    What do you think? Will English continue to be the lingua franca online and in global business and tourism? Can Mandarin gain a foothold online or will its pictorial characters hinder wider growth? What advantages and disadvantages do you see in having a global common language?

    UPDATE: A lot of you made persuasive arguments in the comments, doubting that Mandarin could gain on English as an international language. My gut feeling is that you’re right, English will remain as the dominant second language around the world, and Mandarin will gain in importance but perhaps not surpassing English. Perhaps the problem with my blog post is the overly simplistic headline. A more accurate headline would be: “The Global Language: Mandarin Will Gain But Not Overtake English by 2020.” Perhaps a bit clunky but more accurate.

    Tagged: language
    • In my opinion, Mandarin may evolve into the secondary language of business and/or academia, but the likelihood that it will replace English as the primary language is quite low. Currently, there are more people learning English in China than there are in the United States, which is probably indicative of things to come. Other reasons that Mandarin may be hindered are its complicated written form (which requires thousands of characters), and the vast array of regional languages in China, which dilutes the cultural strength of Mandarin within its home environment.

    • With more and more big companies outsourcing works to China, Mandarin will become more and more important.

    • Traveling to China is very popular now, knowing a little bit Mandarin should be very helpful.

    • Learning Mandarin is a tendency, but it is really hard to grasp.

    • Mandarin already is a lingua franca in parts of Asia and it is certainly on the rise.
      Chinese used to be much more difficult to learn than it now is. These days technology, the internet, ‘predicitive’ software, and other thigns are all making it easier to learn. However, I doubt very much that it will pose a serious global challenge English by 2020. It will take a bit longer thant that.

    • You will have to have a look at history before passing any judgments regarding Mandarin becoming the possible international language. English’s strength stems from the fact that the British had lorded over a vast part of the world where their language flourished due to obvious reasons. In such countries, the British legacy created large groups of populations that were not only comfortable in English language but had faith in its strengths as a modern and progressive language. Since British dominance in countries like India continued for a very large span of time, the language had ample time to grow and be adopted in the local conditions. The language further flourished for being the dominant language of international business, politics, education and technology. Its position was also strengthened by the major role United States played (and is playing) in the shaping the state of world affairs.

      No other language of the world would ever get such suitable atmosphere to grow and spread that English got. While Hindi and Mandarin would continue to be empowered and popularized, it would be unrealistic to believe they could replace English as the international language. Yes, having a very strong cultural, historical and demographical roots and being continuously growing languages, they will become very powerful and rich, and will get their due by becoming major world languages. However, they will mostly remain languages of the Chinese and the Indians. Number of people speaking and working in a language does matter, but to become a truly International language, it also needs to spread its wings universally. Size of international populations learning Mandarin and Hindi is not going to be as large as needed to replace English from dominating the International scene.

    • Dave B

      Pienso que el ingls es la nica lengua para el Internet

    • English, Spanish, Spanglish, Engrish, Cantonese and Mandarin. My guess is the middle two are the languages to watch. What language do they speak on the streets of LA and Singapore? Mandarin will have a tough time given that the place where it is most often spoken has so much censorship. In a hundred years we will all do business in Spangrish anyway.

    • fd


    • juan

      spanglish is the language of the future

    • Too many people vastly overstate the difficulty of the Chinese characters as a “barrier” to Mandarin as a lingua franca. First of all, for languages that “go global,” they always adapt and simplify themselves in ways to become manageable for large pools of non-native speakers. Written Mandarin is already accomplishing this via the evolution of “digraphia” or “digraphic representation”– with the Chinese characters naturally the most important written standard, but pinyin Romanization being employed for much basic and informal written communication in Chinese between non-native speakers. The Chinese characters themselves are a remarkably concise tool for communication as I and many other Westerners have found, but in many cases we simply rely on the pinyin for quick message dispatches. So there’s no “technical barrier” whatsoever to Mandarin becoming the new global standard.

      In any case, the determination of a global tongue is made, more than anything else, by the economic power of the countries where a language has spoken. Balendu, you attribute the current strength to English to the British Empire, but there’s a major problem with this assumption– even at the height of the British Empire in the early 20th century, French was still the closest to a world lingua franca as it had been for centuries. Only after WWII did English emerge in such a way. Moreover, although former British colonies still use English to some degree, English is a small minority language in all but the White settler colonies. Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh, Iraq, India, Pakistan, and a variety of African nations use utilize English in varying ways. But in none of these countries does English enjoy more than a tiny fraction of native speakers, and even as a second and third language for culture and government, English often falls behind. The language of India’s internationally popular domestic Bollywood film industry is Hindi, after all. Moreover, recent media growth in India– in television, newspapers, radio, *and* the Internet– has been in native Indian languages at the expense of English, at all levels of education. Hindi newspapers have approximately 7 crore readers, dwarfing the numbers for English, while other languages such as Tamil and Marathi continue to gain readers instead of English. Rupert Murdoch’s news channels are predominantly in Hindi, MTV in India is in the local tongues, even book companies such as Penguin and computer companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo, are now providing their content and their tools in the indigenous Indian languages, not in English.

      This is in large part because the British Empire, while vast in size, was relatively short-lived in duration (compared to, say, the Roman and Spanish Empires, which persisted for 3-4 centuries compared to the British, which in most of its domains had ruled for barely 100-150 years before its collapse after WWII). Had the British avoided World War I, for example, and the devastation of the World Wars and nationalist movements, then this might be different, and English might have indeed crushed the indigenous languages of the Subcontinent, Africa and Malaya, the way that Portuguese, for example, became the dominant language of what is now Brazil. But the British Empire fell apart too early for this, and so indigenous languages dominate in the vast majority of the lands once within the British Empire.

      In fact, as a principal language, English really isn’t widely used outside of Britain itself and Britain’s former White settler colonies– such as Australia, New Zealand, and Anglophone Canada– which have modest population sizes. In fact, the current stronghold of English is paradoxically the United States, the one former British settler colony that was most aggressive and successful in casting off the British rule in the first place! (Moreover, most of the current USA was never within the British Empire– the US Midwest, Southwest, and Alaska were acquired by the US after Britain’s defeat in the American Revolution, via purchases or wars against the French, Mexicans and Russians. The US, in fact, was competing against Britain in these acquisitions!)

      The practical upshot of this? The extent of the British Empire has helped English in some fashion to remain a factor in many of its domains, but only as a small minority language spoken proficiently by a tiny percentage of its members, as is the case in countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, for example– which is why savvy media companies choose to provide their content in Hindi, Tamil or Urdu rather than in English. The real driving force for English as a global language is, quite simply, the economic power and political prestige of the United States. So long as the US remains the world’s economic leader and technological bellwether– with useful products and a sort of economic hegemony over the rest of the world– English will remain as the world’s main global language, since it would be the principal medium for business to be transacted. However, if other countries such as China become more economcally potent, then other languages acquire far more importance and English declines– not suddenly, but gradually, just as English very slowly displaced French in the 20th century. In much of East Asia, Mandarin Chinese already *has* displaced English as the chief second language of study– you’ll get more mileage with Mandarin in countries like Korea and Thailand, for example.

      So I suspect that by 2020, English will still be an important global language, but it won’t be the only one and may well not be the most important one. You’d be surprised at how rapidly Chinese has gone global, with Hindi slowly gaining some international adherents as well, and even Spanish looms as a contender. French and German will likely remain very important on the European Continent, while Arabic will have a very special transnational and cross-cultural dominance of its own. IOW, in 15 years– let’s just say that we all might be having this discussion in different languages, though I agree, automatic translation may ease these issues in general.

    • In China, 60% of children in primary schools learn English.

      That speaks for itself about Mandarin supposedly replacing English

      • yik ken

        Actually with more Chinese speaking English does not signify that English would not be replaced by Mandarin. The reason why English is used internationally is because-many businesses use US dollar. While China’s economy booms, there is a sign that Mandarin would co-exist or replace English

    • DEEPA

      I want to participate to promote INDIAN ethics internationally as the way of peaceful living.

    • Mark

      Great comments and great article!

      My two sense-
      Mandarin is to difficult to leave China on a large scale. I asked a good friend of mine from Taiwan the other day if he thought English was more difficult than Mandarin and he said to basically forget about studying Mandarin (I study Spanish as my 2nd language).

      I think that speaks volumes, along with what others have said about even the Chinese learning English at a faster pace than Americans.

      I carefully considered all world languages before I chose classes at the university to study. And rattled it down to Portugese, Spanish and Mandarin. All of these being a distant 2nd place to English but since I’m a native English speaker that was handy.

      Mandarin is important, but my friend from Taiwan even doubts it will truley leave Asia as English has.

      I asked him the difficulty of the language, because as a native English speaker I find this language difficult to perform properly.

      I chose Spanish because I believe Portugese is more important than Spanish due to Brazils possible uprise. Spanish is the closest language to Portugese and I can actually learn Spanish in the USA due to being immersed due to our close proximity with Mexico.
      It also makes me mutually intelligible with Italian language speakers.
      So there are a lot of benefits to Spanish.

      English speaking countries (and countries who have a full understanding of the language like most of Europe) and Mandarin will probably dominate economically though.

      As my Taiwanese friend said, most of South America is concerned with having beach parties and a good time rather than fervishly working away their lives like Americans, Indians, the Japanese and the Chinese. He did not intend it to be insulting, its Latin culture.

      I tend to put value on the languages of those peoples as my money is on them for future economic powers.
      I want to survive as well as possible in the global economy, so its Spanish or Mandarin for me and I predict massive difficulty learning that. Spanish is easy for an English speaker due to 70% of the English vocabulary being from Latin and its an extremely logical language (what you say is exactly how you write most words).
      Its quite possibly the easiest and best laid out language in the world (Spanish), in my opinion.

      English and Mandarin while more important, don’t hold a candle in that regard.

    • We should remember that Mandarin’s function in China itself is as a lingua franca. Historically, each provice in China has its own “dialect” which in many cases really was an entirely seperate language, and still is today. So, in order for people from different provinces to speak to one another they had to use Mandarin – a language which over time became as simple and as standardized as possible, because most of the people using it did not speak it as their first language.

      In fact, that is why it is called “Mandarin” – it was the language the bureaucratic class, the Mandarins, used in their official capacity of managing the empire. Arguably, the language is easier to learn than English, the verbs don’t decline, the pronouns remain constant, and the syntax is very simple.

    • learn mandarin free

      Mandarin and English appear to becoming the world’s two top languages. It seems prudent to learn both languages.

    • 你好, Mark. A great post and highly relevant topic! I speak Mandarin as a second language and have used it as a lingua franca with Japanese, Thais, and Koreans in Asia. Global? Perhaps one day – anyway, its use outside traditional national borders between non-native speakers means something interesting is happening.

    • Mandarin Chinese is spoken in 16 countries. More people speak Mandarin Chinese than any other language. The current number of native speakers is approximately 937, 132, 000.

      English, on the other hand, is the most dominant of languages, spoken by roughly 322, 000, 000 in 104 countries. This probably has to do with English being shaped from a multitude of other tongues, including German, Hindi, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish.

      English is likely to remain one of the world’s most important languages for the foreseeable future.

    • We have 25 free grammar lessons.

    • Josh Regal

      as much as La Raza and other Spanish-language Hate groups in the US would like you to think that “we’ll all be speaking Spanish by 2020”, their dead wrong.
      when the spanish-speaking nations have a military like ours,..maybe. til then? haahah…..not gonna happen

    • I have learned English for 8 years, now, I feel happy when i can read almost everything on Internet by English. I can travel to everywhere on the world, read many attractive travel articles.

      In our country – Vietnam, English has been popular for some recent years!

    • In Vietnam, children are taught English when they are 7 years old. So that, tourists do not hesitate to ask with any one when travling in Vietnam.

      Applying Visa to Vietnam Online
      fast and reliable but cheapest way, Just Click!

    • In Vietnam, children are taught English when 7 years old. So that, when tourists
      come into Vietnam, do not hesitate to ask any person.

    • Studing Mandarin is not impossible.
      It just takes dedication and a lot of time. Usually foreigners from Canada and the US need about 9 years to speak Mandarin. And thats if they really study hard. People from korea or Japan usually only need 2-4 years because they already know half the characters.

    • Learning Mandarin is not impossible it is just very difficult. Usually foreingers from the US and Canada need 9 years to speak Mandarin, and thats if they study really hard. Those from korea or Japan only need 2-4 years to speak mandarin because they already know half of the characters.

    • yik ken

      Actually, I have been learning both English and Mandarin since kindergarten. Mandarin is my mother tongue and I admit that it is more difficult than English. Any small changes to a word, or any small changes to the tone of the word would result in different meaning and a word may have several different pronunciation, each with different tones. So a word may have many meaning. In Mandarin, they are many four-word idioms, and other idioms (may be 7-word, and so on), and many other poems(there are many types of poem) and so on. Hence, people would not waste time to drop English and adopt Mandarin which is more difficult than English so much…

    • Chris

      As an international teacher of English, I can safely say that Mandarin has no future as a global language. Even in Southeast Asia, few people are enthusiastic about learning Mandarin. Indians (1 billion people) have little interest in Mandarin. The Japanese dislike the Chinese and refuse to learn Mandarin. So who actually wants to learn Mandarin?

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