Categories: Global View

English Today, Mandarin by 2020?

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.

Mark Glaser :Mark Glaser is founder and executive director of MediaShift. He contributes regularly to Digital Content Next’s InContext site and newsletter. Glaser is a longtime freelance journalist whose career includes columns on hip-hop, reviews of videogames, travel stories, and humor columns that poked fun at the titans of technology. From 2001 to 2005, he wrote a weekly column for USC Annenberg School of Communication's Online Journalism Review. Glaser has written essays for Harvard's Nieman Reports and the website for the Yale Center for Globalization. Glaser has written columns on the Internet and technology for the Los Angeles Times, CNET and HotWired, and has written features for the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Entertainment Weekly, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications. He was the lead writer for the Industry Standard's award-winning "Media Grok" daily email newsletter during the dot-com heyday, and was named a finalist for a 2004 Online Journalism Award in the Online Commentary category for his OJR column. Glaser won the Innovation Journalism Award in 2010 from the Stanford Center for Innovation and Communication. Glaser received a Bachelor of Journalism and Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and currently lives in San Francisco with his wife Renee and his two sons, Julian and Everett. Glaser has been a guest on PBS' "Newshour," NPR's "Talk of the Nation," KALW's "Media Roundtable" and TechTV's "Silicon Spin." He has given keynote speeches at Independent Television Service's (ITVS) Diversity Retreat and the College Media Assocation's national convention. He has been part of the lecture/concert series at Yale Law School and Arkansas State University, and has moderated many industry panels. He spoke in May 2013 to the Maui Business Brainstormers about the "Digital Media Revolution." To inquire about speaking opportunities, please use the site's Contact Form.